As a young man, Matthew Donnachie thought he was heading for prison or an early grave. Years of bottled-up trauma from an emotionally abusive childhood had left him with no self-esteem, problematic relationships, depression and huge anger.
Diagnosed with behavioral problems as a child—Matthew realized later he was just trying to get attention—his life spun out of control as the internalized negative script of his abuser played out. The put-downs and phrases he had heard daily as he grew up, like, "You're not good enough, you will never succeed," and "No one will ever love you," echoed through his mind, driving him into a frustrating cycle of toxic relationships and dead-end jobs.
"I thought nobody cared, and then because of that I didn't care about myself," says Matthew, 39.
"Some days I was so depressed I could hardly get out of bed. My anger was so great I used to punch doors and walls. I was a walking time-bomb."
Matthew tried counseling and anger management, but, "talking about the past and why I was angry just made me angrier." In his twenties, he turned to recreational drugs to block out the mental pain. "I was heavily into cocaine, I smoked marijuana and I was drinking way too much alcohol sometimes.
"At first it was fun, I was going out with friends, going to wild parties, but when I was in the same groove seven years later I realized I was in trouble. I got to 28 or 29, and something clicked—'I have got to change.'"
Matthew's pivotal moment came while working on a rooftop as a builder. His mind, as usual, was elsewhere, and he hit his thumb three times in quick succession with a hammer. In pain and desperation, he cried out, "I can't live like this anymore. I've had enough."
Fortunately, Matthew's colleague saw how deadly serious he was and called someone he knew could help: Pennie Quaile-Pearce, creator of the transformative breathwork modality Breath4LifeTM. Two hours later, Matthew was lying on the floor in her office.
What happened next was the start of an extraordinary transformational journey. "I was skeptical, but in that moment I would have done anything," says Matthew. "I didn't do too much talking, I went straight into the breathwork. I dealt with some anger and fear, and I came out with a feeling of ecstasy."
He felt that life changed instantly."Afterwards, I couldn't grasp how I could lie on the floor for two hours and be different, but within three to four days, I noticed that something was missing. I thought about it, and after 24 hours I realized it was the abusive voice in my head. I used to hear 'You can't do that, you're an idiot,' and 'If I can't love you, who can?' But it was gone!"
Matthew continued to see Pennie once a month, the breathwork sessions being complemented by life coaching and cognitive techniques such as neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to anchor the internal shifts and support change in his external life.
"As well as dealing with my childhood traumas, I needed to look at my own behaviors to see what I was putting out and what I was getting back," he says.
A year later, he had transformed so much he decided to become a Breath4Life practitioner and started a three-year training with Pennie at the Acorn to Oak International School of Energy Medicine in the south of England.
"If I had not found breathwork, I would be dead or in prison," he says. "My life flipped around, and I wanted to help others."
What is Breath4Life?
Breath4Life is one of a number of breathing techniques that have emerged in the West since the 1960s to transform and heal body, mind and spirit. They use a method of connected breathing that practitioners claim catalyzes a change in consciousness.
In Breath4Life subconscious connected breathing, the technique is to employ an energetic in-breath followed by a sighing out-breath, with no pauses between in- and out-breath. The theory is that the simple act of connected breathing in a safe space, allowing suppressed emotions to be felt rather than pushed away, is sufficient for them to surface and release, no matter how long they have been blocked.
What makes Breath4Life breathwork unique in terms of emotional healing is that the practitioner leads the client down into the subconscious at the beginning of a session through a simple visualization and relaxation process, purportedly so the emotional clutter that has been stored there—limiting beliefs, core conflicts and blocked feelings—can be accessed more easily.
It's not just negative emotions that are held there— we can also suppress joy, love and laughter.
"The purpose of conscious breathing is not primarily the movement of air but the movement of energy," says Leonard Orr, a pioneer of transformational breathwork. "If you do a relaxed, connected breathing cycle for a few minutes, you will begin to experience dynamic energy flows within your body. These energy flows are the merging of spirit and matter."
Given permission to feel, Breath4Life practitioners claim that the body knows what to do, and emotional energy is automatically released with the breath. People can feel incredibly expanded and light as a result—as with Matthew's first blissful experience—although some can feel tired at the end of a session. It can be a scary process when intense emotions surface, so a supportive guide is very helpful.
"We are not taught that emotions are our friend. People think it will be scary and that they won't handle it," says Matthew. "But the coaching and statements I use allow people to let go. They only have to feel it—for example, grief around a death—for a moment.
"There is no need to talk about what comes up. People can pour their heart out or say nothing, but it will work anyway. In breathwork, if you are feeling it, you are dealing with it."
Breathwork is generally considered safe and well tolerated by all. The exceptions are those with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, retinal detachment, or people taking certain antipsychotic medications.
If you are under medical treatment, it is essential to check with your doctor before initiating treatment. But connected breathing has been able to address a number of issues on the physical or psychological level, particularly stress-related ailments.
"The worse the emotional state, the bigger the change you see," says Matthew. "The issue can be anxiety, depression, stress, trauma, ADHD, autism, bereavement, relationship issues. It will help with any negative experience you have suppressed."
Danielle, 34, a healthcare worker, turned to Matthew to overcome severe anxiety and depression as a result of growing up with an alcoholic mother, sexual abuse at 14, and the death of her fiancé and mother within a few months when she was 19. Years of unresolved trauma led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a prescription for antipsychotic drugs for life.
"I did not want to accept the diagnosis," says Danielle. "I knew it was not me, and the behaviors were not me. My instability was triggered by unresolved emotions, especially anger," she said. "I also had so much fear, and it affected many areas of my life: I had a good job, but I was afraid to go for promotion, and I was in and out of toxic relationships."
After a year of twice-monthly breathwork sessions, she is completely different: "I was a severe insomniac, and now I sleep well at night. I came off my medication after about six months. I have been promoted at work, and currently I have really good relationships with my friends and family.
"I also used to suffer with bulimia and had huge body insecurities, which I am still working my way through, but I am not making myself sick, and I am not worrying about my weight so much. I used to wear hair extensions, artificial eyelashes, lots of makeup and inject filler in my lips.
"I had so little confidence in how I looked. Matthew has taught me to embrace the real me. For the first time in my life, I can stand tall and proud and happy because I know who I am, my flaws and good points."
Emma Meredith, 38, from Surrey, UK, has similarly been amazed at how much Breath4Life has helped her achieve. Dyslexic and on the autism spectrum, she had no self-confidence and had been taking the antidepressant drug Prozac since she was 16. She also suffered from chronic fatigue. "I spent about 10 years in bed, out of work, or I could only work part time about five hours a day, and then my parents had to pick me up because I was so exhausted.
"I have been doing breathwork for just over a year, once a month, and my whole life has changed dramatically. After only three sessions, I came off my medication. I haven't had any chronic fatigue since I started. In fact, I now have my own doggy daycare business. I look after three dogs, five days a week, and I take them on 5k walks every day!"
As an added bonus, Emma's early-onset menopause, which started at age 35, has now also completely reversed. "When I went to Matthew, I thought it might help with the depression. I did not know how big the scale of the work is when you get into the unconscious mind. I am happier now than I ever have been, and I'm full of vitality."
Matthew works with a huge variety of conditions and issues from rape victims to children with ADHD and autism from his clinic in West Byfleet, Surrey. "One autistic child I worked with, I asked, 'What is it like to have autism?'
"He said, 'It is like having 100 windows open on a computer at once, and they are all asking you things.' After one session he said it was like someone had closed 20 windows."
Matthew is particularly keen to get the word about this technique out to men, who typically suppress their emotions more than women. "Clients who are soldiers and have had PTSD could not believe the difference it made. If I was to ask soldiers to think about emotions, the first word that might come up would be 'vulnerability.'
"In a session, they can have what is almost a two-hour panic attack because of dealing with all the emotions that they were never able to feel while fighting in the field. A number say they came back from war a different person from who they were before.
"They say, 'I never thought I would come back to myself again,' but they have worked through the trauma, dealing with the fear they never felt. It's the same with firemen who have to run into a burning house to get someone out. They don't feel fear, they suppress it, and during these sessions they have had incredible experiences of release."
Most people have breathwork sessions, which last up to two hours, once a month (see page 68). This leaves time to notice and integrate the changes and then for new things to bubble up. Significant results might be observed after one session, but for many, more profound changes take place over time.
"It took me five to six years to deal with my core issues," says Matthew, who now radiates positivity and happiness. "I now consider myself one of the world's luckiest men. Everything works, life is easy, I don't have negative situations anymore. If something comes up, I don't panic, I think 'What can I do to help this?' Breathwork has helped me so much; my mission is to help as many people as I can."
Transformational breathwork therapies
Breathwork has been an element of Eastern spiritual traditions for centuries, integral to the practice of meditation, yoga and tantra. In the West, the power of breathwork was discovered in the mid-twentieth century by pioneers of psychotherapy such as Wilhelm Reich, but it wasn't until the counterculture movement in the 1960s that interest really took off. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his wife Cristina developed Holotropic Breathwork based on Grof's work in psychiatric institutions.
Then Leonard Orr discovered conscious connected breathing practice of Rebirthing in the course of his search for spiritual growth and the expansion of consciousness.
A variety of conscious connected breathwork schools have evolved from Rebirthing, including Integrative Breathwork, Shamanic Breathwork and Transformational Breath.
Pennie Quaile-Pearce set up the Breath4Life training program in the UK after training as a Bodhisoul breathwork practitioner with Christina Thomas-Fraser, director of the Inner Light Institute in California, in 1998.
Each breathwork school combines a unique set of additional healing modalities with the core breathing practice, such as sound, bodywork, affirmations and coaching. Breath4Life incorporates life skills, neurolinguistic programming, life coaching and written and nonwritten process work.
Most practices acknowledge that both the breather and the breath have an innate healing capacity and use positive intention to focus the energy of a session. But they have unique features and spiritual frameworks.
The theory behind Breath4Life is that there are three levels of consciousness and only two states of being. The first two consciousness levels are the conscious mind, accounting for 10 percent of mental capacity, and the subconscious mind, which makes up another 40 percent.
The subconscious has two functions: half of its effort is put toward holding the learned skills that have become automatic, such as walking and driving, while the other half is used to store suppressed emotions.
The third level—comprising 50 percent of the mind's capacity—is the superconscious, sometimes known as the authentic or 'higher' self. The superconscious connects our intuition to our divinity or universal mind—the spiritual part of us that knows who we are underneath the masks, conditioning and limitations we develop as we go through life.
The two states of being are that you are either connected to your authentic or higher self—with emotions, creativity and life flowing naturally and in balance—or you are disconnected. This is a state of suffering—unhappiness, feeling stuck or overwhelmed, in emotional or physical pain and with no flow in life.
Breath4Life postulates that breathing, beyond the basic need for survival, acts as a bridge between spirit, mind, and body and between the conscious and the subconscious.
When used in specific ways, say practitioners, breathing enables the release and resolution of emotions, belief systems, stresses and memories, which are often less accessible through more conventional talking therapies operating solely at the psychological level.
Research into breathwork
While various breathing modalities have been around for centuries, medical research into conscious breathing and other such transformational breathwork therapies is still in its infancy. No clinical studies have been carried out on Breath4Life, but there have been studies on other breathwork modalities, particularly in the area of mental health and wellbeing.
Researchers have suggested that Holotropic Breathwork can support psychotherapy, particularly in reducing avoidance behaviors,1 and that it "can induce very beneficial temperament changes, which can have positive effects on development of character, measured as an increase in self-awareness."2 Transformational Breath has been shown to improve anxiety, depression and wellbeing and reduce physiological measures of anxiety among performers.3
Trials have also demonstrated that breath work can improve physical health. In a study by researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands,4 12 individuals trained in breathing techniques, meditation and exposure to cold had an increased ability to resist infection and fight inflammation. The researchers considered that the breathing techniques were mainly responsible for the results and concluded that the study had "important implications" for the treatment of diseases that involve excessive inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases.4
Another modality, Breath Therapy (a mind-body therapy integrating body awareness, breathing, meditation and movement), was linked to a significant improvement in pain and disability among patients with chronic lower back pain, comparable to high-quality, extended physical therapy.5
What happens in a Breath4Life session?
Breath4Life sessions are carried out with the client lying fully clothed, face up on the floor, on a mat or other comfortable support. After an initial conversation about current concerns and the possible focus of the session, visualization and relaxation exercises help the client to relax and drop into a theta brain wave state (4-7 Hz), which allows easier access to the subconscious.
Breath4Life subconscious connected breathing is done entirely through the mouth. This brings more air and oxygen into the body—and thus more energy—than nasal inspiration. An energetic in-breath is followed by a sighing out-breath, a forceful in-breath and so on, without pausing between.
Evocative music helps people connect to their feelings, and within a few minutes, emotions start to surface. These may be familiar or totally unexpected: the subconscious has its own agenda and knows what needs to be released.
Sometimes the intensity of the emotions can feel overwhelming, in which case the practitioner coaches the client to stay with the feeling and just allow the breath to naturally release the emotional energy.
There is no need to analyze or discuss what is happening unless the client wants to; feeling and breathing is sufficient. Sometimes memories and images may surface, but not always—it's different for everyone.
If people get 'stuck' in difficult emotions such as anger or grief, they are asked to speed up the breath. With this additional energy input, the emotions pass through more quickly. Conversely, if a person is in a state of bliss and expansion (which often happens after a big release), the breath is slowed to hold and intensify the feeling.
Breath4Life sessions last around two hours: up to one and three-quarter hours for breathing, with 15 minutes at the end to lie quietly and integrate what has happened. People often feel exhilarated, but occasionally tired, as they connect to how much their body has changed and how muscles that may have been holding tension for a lifetime have now relaxed.
Some clients find it useful to support subconscious breathwork with sessions of life coaching and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to look at conscious limiting beliefs and behavior patterns and better integrate changes in their inner and outer life.
Matthew Donnachie: www.innerbalancelife.co.uk
The International Breathwork Foundation, which collects and disseminates information about breathwork and conscious breathing research: www.ibfbreathwork.org.uk