To quote the editor of a top Spa magazine, wellness retreats can be one of the best ways to facilitate positive change - physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually - over a short period of time. Having been visiting numerous wellbeing Spas and resorts over the past year or so, I couldn't agree more. I've always been on the lookout for places that are holistic from inside out and help their guests bring at least one new healthy habit into their daily lives.
My recent discovery, a transformational breathing retreat with Alan Dolan on a beautiful island of Lanzarote, turned out to be something quite different to what I've experienced so far. It was the kind of retreat that not only facilitates positive change, but is capable of bringing permanent shifts across the entire spectrum of being. The nature and the depth of those changes are entirely individual, and the journey to them is just as fascinating as the destination.
The technique itself - transformational breathing - wasn't new to me, so I kind of knew what to expect. I've experienced it a few times during group workshops with Alan in London. I've been doing them to enhance my daily yoga practice, clear out some recently accumulated emotional garbage and top up my energy levels. At the end of each workshop Alan used to say that the workshop is a dip of a toe in the water whilst the one-to-one retreat is a real swim. So I've pulled myself together and dived in.
Put simply, transformational breathing is a special breathing technique with no pause between the inhale and the exhale. It's an abdominal breath through the mouth, with the inhale being deep and the exhale short and light. All you do is lie there and keep breathing. The story that's going on within you during those sessions, however, is big enough to write a sequel of "War and Peace". Like many other healing modalities, transformational breathing works progressively, so the more you breathe the more shifts happen.
The retreat offers three programmes to choose from: basic, intensive and super-intensive. I opted for an intensive one, which included one two-hour breathing session and one bodywork session a day. Perhaps I should mention that, having dipped my toe into the ocean of transformational breathing before, I was, frankly, quite scared of all the change that four one-to-one sessions with the breathing guru can bring. That fear got me thinking that we are generally reluctant to let go of faulty beliefs and emotional patterns that are so deep-seated we think they are our indispensable parts. But there I was, on a magical island of Lanzarote, in front of Alan in his cosy treatment room, ready to let go, inhaling and exhaling, time and again.
My four-session breathing experience was an intensive journey within, unveiling, acknowledging and healing layer after layer of my being, many of which happened to have been skilfully hiding from my attention for quite a while. Alan's role during each session is that of a multi-tasking guide: he makes sure that the breathing technique is correct; he applies some acupressure to help release blockages from various parts of the body; every now and then, he gives positive affirmations to the person's subconscious.
My first session was a general energy fill up, waking up of the body and an identification of the areas that needed further work. Through the observation of a person's breath and the response to the acupressure Alan identifies different aspects that require the person's attention. The very first session made it obvious that my major themes are grounding, slowing down, coming back into my body as well as self-expression and self-love. Sounds easy, hey?
During the second session, as I was breathing, I could hear my various sub-personalities being very busy sorting things out amongst themselves, and all I could do was keep breathing, observing them chat. I believe I'm still yet to see the real benefit of that inner round table in the months to come. More themes kept popping up during the sessions and Alan kept pointing them out to me. Some of them I couldn't immediately relate to, such as "embracing my masculine side" (I consider myself an active person with the "just do it" attitude, isn't that quite masculine?) The answers aren't always obvious, and that's part of the journey.
Transformational breathing almost always ends up in tears; people often let go of some suppressed emotions as they keep breathing, finally inviting them onto the surface. Those are arguably the sweetest tears; the degree of relief I felt after my weeping that had finally happened at the third session was something next to an orgasm, but with a longer after-effect.
During my final session we worked on the heart area. As Alan explained to me, doing transformational breathing is like building a house; it starts off with creating a strong foundation - clearing out the abdominal area; then the person moves up in their body, releasing the blockages from the solar plexus, finally reaching the heart area. Letting love in was the theme for me - again, something I was sure I had no issues with. But the body doesn't lie, and so I took note of yet another confession it gave out to me.
Another equally important part of my retreat was daily bodywork sessions I'd been having alongside my breathing practice. Delivered by a surfer by day, healer by night, Denise, who has come up with his own technique, the bodywork sessions were just as transformational as the breathing itself. It's not so easy to explain in words what they are. Generally speaking, Denise uses his intuition and natural ability to reveal blockages in people's bodies and releases them. His philosophy is dead straight-forward: get the blood circulation going before anything else! He does that by finding the areas in the body where he feels that muscles and organs are fused together, and using his strong hands, slowly but surely he set them free. Think deep tissue massages meets acupressure meets Thai massage meets...Denise and his intuition.
Mainly working with his eyes closed, Denise reminded me of a blind sculptor who investigates the stone first and then carves out a beautiful figure out of it. Indeed, when he works on your body, it feels like he's got a knife in his hands, and you haven't been given an anaesthetic. His hands are ruthless when it comes to releasing the blockages. He tends to concentrate on the abdominal area, aiming to have all the internal organs, blood vessels and muscles around them being free and happy.
There was a lot of squashing, pressing and poaching of my abdomen and lower back. I just had to recite some Russian poetry and sing Australian songs for self-distraction. Despite the pain, the bodywork sessions were a great enhancement to the breathing work; Denise's capable hands would open up my body creating more space, whilst Alan's skilful guidance would invite the new energy into those areas. After the two sessions each day, my tummy area felt like a massive pot of energy.
The four days of the retreat seemed more like four weeks. I left feeling more grounded, tranquil and centred, and having opened the door to the new journey I'd been set on: a journey of a relationship with myself. I've also left with a deep assurance that I'm yet to experience all the benefits the retreat had given to me, as I go back into my daily life and watch the results of those inner changes taking place.