Fit in my 40s: ‘If you breathe properly, it will improve skin, sleep, digestion, mood’

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First, you must concentrate…

Mistletoe shaped like lungs




Photograph: Kellie French for the Guardian

Fit in my 40s: ‘If you breathe properly, it will improve skin, sleep, digestion, mood’

First, you must concentrate…

Esther Nagle is teaching me to breathe by Skype. If you breathe properly, filling your lungs from the belly to the throat, it will improve everything: skin, sleep, digestion, even impending Christmas stress. First, you must concentrate. “It’s not meditation – that has a precise meaning. We call it quiet sitting.” Right. I should be able to sit quietly.

Sit up straight. Clasp your hands, right hand dominant, thumbs touching, put them in your lap. “Don’t change the way you’re breathing, just focus on it. Is it through your mouth or nose? Deep or shallow? Really think about what’s happening.” I can breathe, but I can’t think about breathing. I am thinking about revenge. “When your mind wanders, bring it back gently.” How could she see my mind wandering, over Skype, with my eyes closed? “No recriminations. Don’t judge yourself.”

In fact, I’m judging the man who cycled into my dog, not an hour ago, then floated his intent to call the police. “You hurt a dog, playing in a park, and you want to call the police?”

“It is ze English law – ze dog must be under control.” Pollution mask. Cycling 20 miles an hour through a park. Hates dogs. Obsessed with authority. Plainly, I had slipped into a Ukip anxiety dream.

“We’ll start with sukha pranayama, easy breathing.” Yup, sorry, right, I can breathe, I can do this. Start with three long breaths, taking four seconds to inhale, four to exhale. “If you can manage it, we’ll move to six seconds. But don’t do it if it’s too hard. I’ve hurt my lungs before trying too hard.” How do you hurt a lung? “I was experimenting with different ratios of breath.” We go to six seconds. It is no longer easy.

We move on to vibhagha pranayama, lobular breathing, where you segment your lungs into upper breathing, mid-chest breathing and abdominal breathing, then work one at a time. To breathe into your abdomen, place your hands flat, just below your ribcage, with your middle fingers touching. Do a six-second breath to separate those fingers, then exhale to bring them back together. Then place your hands on your side – aim for the feeling of your ribcage opening like an accordion – then flat against your spine. Repeat this for mid-chest – hands on your boobs and upper chest, hands just below the hollow of your throat, then at corresponding heights at the side and the back. By the end, you’ve had 54 seconds of quality breath.

“How are you feeling about the cyclist?”

“Much better. I no longer want vengeance. I merely want the world to know that a bad man exists and he has a bike.”

“How do you usually cope with stress?”

“I sublimate, then drink through.”

“Breathing is brilliant for addiction recovery.”

“Wait, what? I don’t want to recover!”

She smiles. “And breathe.”

This week I learned

If you’re breathing deeply, don’t hold your breath.

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