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The air we breathe

Discovering the science behind breathwork and how, combined with cold water immersion, it can raise our resilience in the modern world.

Words by Hannah Tapping

I’m no stranger to breathing. I’ve done it since the day I was born, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I’ve had 50 glorious years of gas exchange that has brought oxygen to every cell in my body, ridding it of deadly carbon dioxide. It is essential to life and an involuntary skill that we are all equipped with. So, when I found out that there are workshops you can attend that will teach you to breathe, I have to say I was a little sceptical – surely, it’s just a simple case of breathing in and breathing out? I was even more sceptical when I was introduced to Anthony Mullally, an ex-international professional rugby league prop who stands 6’5” in his socks; not the kind of person I would have placed to be taking a Resilience Breathwork workshop in a yoga studio, in one of Cornwall’s most prestigious hotels. It is this very stereotyping that is at the heart of Anthony’s philosophy and my pile of preconceptions was to be swiftly toppled as wide-eyed and open-mouthed (something I would learn was not good for me!) I began a journey of discovery into the breath.

Our base for the morning is the Scarlet hotel and, while sipping hot mugs of herbal tea, we look out across the natural reed pool to the breakers of Mawgan Porth beach beyond. The classes are an intimate gathering of just eight people, both men and women. We are from all walks of life and our ages span some 40 years. Stories are shared as we introduce ourselves. Not surprisingly, the common thread from the mats and our reasons for being there is one of stress and anxiety. Work-life balance is mentioned frequently; some have suffered traumatic events that have left them with PTSD; others are present in search of renewed focus as they have lost their way. The process of sharing is cathartic and, as we settle once more, Anthony introduces himself.

Softly, spoken with a gentle northern lilt, Anthony explains more of his own journey from elite athlete to breathwork coach. He explains that after years of playing professional rugby for many yeras, he found himself no longer identifying with the sport. Turning his focus inward he began introspective practices and realised that his new passion was to work with people to help them rebuild a lost connection to the natural world, their purpose, and one another. Having trained in breathwork himself towards the end of his rugby career, he realised how much it could improve performance. He also found the practice had myriad wellbeing benefits and so, using his experience in elite sport, combined with training as an advanced Oxygen Advantage breathwork coach, Anthony now shares his knowledge through a series of workshops and retreats, focusing on meditation, addressing toxic traits associated with masculinity and the power of vulnerability. We begin by gaining a deeper understanding of why nose breathing is so important. The nose is one of the most important organs in the human body, not least because it filters out germs, toxins and bacteria from the air we breathe in; mouths are designed for eating, noses for breathing. Our ancient ancestors would only have breathed their mouths in times of stress, when the fight-or-flight response was activated and they were in need of greater volumes of air. Once the stressor was gone, they would revert to nose breathing. Today we have the same reflex but the reversion to nose breathing is no longer inherent, especially in busy modern lives.

Left by John Hersey: Anthony Mullally

Our practice starts with some gentle nose breaths, bringing our attention to the sensation of the air passing in and out, focusing on how it feels. Not unlike the yoga breathing of Pranayama, we are encouraged to breathe into our bellies before drawing the breath up into the chest. Next comes some breath hold work and as the morning continues, we become more adept at the practice with Anthony guiding us through some exercises that increase our confidence and help us to better manage the sensation of air hunger. The workshop is designed to prepare us for the cold-water immersion to follow. I’m a cold-water convert and love the feeling of being surrounded by icy water but not all of the group share my passion. Some are clearly apprehensive, but Anthony assures the group that what we have learned during our morning workshop will give us the resilience to be able to deal with the cold. The setting is nothing short of spectacular as we step out from Scarlet’s spa to the terrace. The freshwater reed pool is glassy in its stillness; steam gently rises from the cliff top hot tubs and barrel sauna; the winter sun burns bright against a cloudless sky; and the sound and smell of the sea surges up from the beach below. Our senses are overloaded.

It has been a cold night and the reed pool is 8°C, some 5°C colder than the sea below. Our select group is swathed in fluffy robes as we await our immersion, some with eager anticipation, others with nervous trepidation. Anthony leads the group into the pool, reminding us that the cold-water shock will make us want to gasp involuntarily and that as soon as we are able, we should bring our focus to our breath, breathing gently in and out through the nose. The group follows and the cold is intense as we walk down the steps into the water. The urge to gasp and mouth breathe is strong and it takes all my will to inhale and exhale through my nose, but as I manage to regulate my breathing and fully immerse my shoulders, I feel a wave of calm. I turn my face to the sun and Anthony counts us down from two minutes, all the while encouraging a lightness of breath. As we raise our faces to the sun, it feels as if we have entered an alternative icy nirvana.

Top Left / Bottom Right by John Hersey

The beauty of holding these workshops at Scarlet, and sister hotel Bedruthan, is that hot tubs and saunas await to warm our souls. Covered in goosebumps, but invigorated by the cold, we welcome the warm cocoon. Here we talk of our experience and Anthony explains: “Your goal going forward should be to regularly check in with your breath, building functional breathing habits and using the breath as an anchor to bring you into the moment. Whether it be the stressor of the cold or the stresses of a situation, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. Your breath gives you the best chance to respond to life’s uncertainty with an element of calm and control.” We repeat the cold immersion once more, followed by the dry heat of the sauna. At each repetition my mind becomes clearer and my senses alert, something akin to a natural high.

The day ends with more hot mugs of herbal tea and a time for reflection. It is clear that it has had a profound effect on each of us. As a group we are visibly more relaxed and at ease with both ourselves and each other. We have discovered the benefits of breathwork, now equipped with the ability to ‘down regulate’ and activate our body’s relaxation response, bringing the nervous system back to a state of balance. We finish with a restorative lunch, thankful for what we have learned and the food laid before us.

Anthony Mullally will be running mixed gender Resilience Workshops throughout 2023, both at the Scarlet and Bedruthan hotels, with additional plans for an exclusive series of Men’s Mental Health Retreats.


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