What if someone said you could de-stress, improve your sleep and have a deeply personal experience – and you could do it without getting out of bed? Enter Limerick man Ronan O’Brien of Breathwave Ireland
It’s Wednesday night and I’m in bed with Ronan O’Brien. There’s a lot of heavy breathing and that’s OK — there’s about 100 other people there too. This is where Zoom comes into its own. We are pulmonauts, deep diving into a guided breathwork session with O’Brien and Breathwave Ireland.
Breathwork is the new black; some might say it’s the new sea swimming except you don’t have to get wet. It’s the thing that’s being talked about in wellness circles the way yoga was being talked about maybe 20 years ago.
Of course, yoga is breathwork too. Running is breathwork, so is swimming, working out — but a breathwork practice can also be done in the comfort of your own bed, eyes closed, room cosy and the ‘do not disturb’ setting on your phone.
In this time of great uncertainty, social division and fear, coming back to our breathing is one good thing we can do for ourselves, no gym membership required. We all breathe, there’s no special training or fitness needed, just a curiosity to explore something that makes you feel relaxed, sleep better and who knows what else.
Breathwork has been making waves in recent years via the vivacious Dutchman Wim Hof. Hof, also known as the Ice Man for his record-breaking staying power in sub-zero temperatures, has gathered a huge following that subscribes to his combination therapies of deep, rapid breathing, breath holds, stretching and warm-up exercises, and, of course, cold water therapy and ice baths.
Hof tells how he found breathwork and cold therapy from his love of Tibetan tummo breathing, coupled with a need to distract and heal from the pain of his wife’s death by suicide. His followers are tribal in their devotion and many claim to have cured symptoms of chronic illness, as well as severe anxiety and depression. Folks curious about Hof can find him all over social media and try his practices at home — the short sessions are accessible and effective.
Amidst the global trauma of Covid-19, there have also been awakenings. We’ve had to face ourselves — sometimes the most uncomfortable thing required of a human being is to sit with ourselves in a room. Coming back to the breath was both alluring and scary. Getting to know myself? It would be much easier to say pass the wine and the remote please.
As a Hof devotee and ice-bath practitioner (under professional guidance only), I was intrigued when, during the first lockdown in 2020, Limerick health and fitness coach Ronan O’Brien invited people to gather on Zoom for guided breathwork. It’s a different approach — not as fast and hypnotic as Hof’s — and O’Brien accompanies his sessions with dedicated playlists, spoken word and tailored sounds like crystal bowls that all enhance the experience.
Guided meditation is a long way from the rugby scrums where he spent his teenage years. A talented player, O’Brien was severely injured at age 18 when two of his vertebrae were broken. Being in a cast for nine months might provide some time for reflection, but not O’Brien. “I was 18; I was just mad to get back to it,” he says. “But when I did, three years later, everything had changed. I had this injury, my place in the running was gone.”
He was unsure of his direction, working in the meantime as a doorman in Limerick’s rugby hangout, Nancy Blake’s. “It was tough seeing the lads coming in in their rugby blazers and me at the other end of it.”
O’Brien is adaptable, and soon found a new outlet as a singer and performer in the musical society scene. The pull of physical fitness was still strong, however. It led him to set up a gym focused on weight-loss and physical wellness, as well as corporate fitness. Breathwork wasn’t in his plan.
“It all started for me when I met a guy at a retreat who was working under licence with some plant medicines. I was very sceptical about all this until I had a transcendental experience, which really opened me up to the dimensions and possibilities within myself. It also showed me how language fails to represent even a fraction of what is it to be human. We are trying to put words on the spiritual plain, and that’s just not possible.”
After building up his business in corporate and personal fitness training over many years, O’Brien, like so many, saw his livelihood evaporate overnight when Covid-19 hit. With one young child and a second on the way, he could not go down with his ship. For his own self-care, he began a regular meditative breathwork practice.
He then reached out through social media: would anybody else be up for trying this on Zoom? Would it work? It was certainly worth a try.
On the first night, 12 people tuned in from locked-down homes, fumbling with the new technology, getting comfortable and going with it. Strange things happened: feet got tingly, memories came up and went away again, tears flowed, old stuff got released.
Over the weeks, as we all got comfortable with the practice and the numbers tuning in every Wednesday started to creep up. Today, upwards of 100 people tune in and zone out together. Participants pay for the sessions with a donation of their choice.
A music lover, O’Brien compiles a new, eclectic playlist for each session. His own deeply sonorous and melodic voice guides you through a process of circular breathing, leading to some short breath holds. It’s punctuated by words and insights that seem to land exactly where they are meant to. Issues can be resolved and cleared away, unpacking happens. The worst case scenario is you sleep better.
“Breathwork like this tunes you out of our fight or flight response,” he says. “This can simply be traffic — our families and everyday stuff that has us stuck on loops of repetitive, stressful thinking. You want to come out of your sympathetic nervous system — so called because it has your immediate survival as its core concern — and into your parasympathic nervous system. Most of us don’t have the self-care tools to know how to do this.
“The parasympathetic nervous system is our rest and recover state, our happy state that’s engaged when we are walking in nature or in deep, restful sleeping. Many of us spend only a couple of hours in this state, even in a week. Not taking the time to tend to these needs can result in chronic stress that may lead to illness.
Soothing and adapting our breathing into a calm and relaxed state stimulates our vagus nerve (a cranial nerve that carries signals from the heart, lungs and digestive system to the brain) and regulates our nervous system.
“You’re just breathing, but many of us aren’t used to being with ourselves,” O’Brien says. “We’re used to being with Netflix, not going into a place that might ruffle feathers and figure things out. If the breathwork gets too much, you can adjust it and easily calm yourself. There’s no drugs, it’s totally safe. The breathwork I use for the session is mid-strength wine, not poitín.”
Participants are encouraged to leave their cameras on so their breathing can be guided if it becomes too much for them. “It’s been almost two very stressful years and we are looking to the Government to tell us how we can live. Breathwork is bringing your life back to you,” O’Brien says. “I’d like people to turn up for four weeks and try it out; sometimes it’s hard for us to get out of our own way. Your ego will tell you it’s not for you, you’re wasting your time. The ego wants to be in the driver’s seat, but you want it to be in the passenger seat. Ideally, the ego ends up in the trunk.
“The new year is a great time to start a self-care practice and this one means all you have to do is get into your own bed and commit, what could be easier?”
You know the expression ‘I didn’t have time to catch my breath’? Well, here’s a chance to do just that. Wednesday nights, see you there.
To try a small sample of a practice for calming the mind:
Allow your eyes to be closed. Breathe in through the nose, and out through the nose. You may have a hand on your tummy as you direct your breath into the belly, but unforced.
When you have felt the breathing move into your tummy, inhale slowly for the count of five seconds. Pause for two seconds. Exhale through the nose for six seconds (always have the exhale longer than the inhale). Repeat this for five breaths.
Take a pause and continue with a similar rhythm, this time breathing in for six seconds, holding for three seconds, and exhaling slowly through your nose or mouth for eight seconds. Repeat five more times.