Breathing for relaxation

21 Aug 2012

Christchurch "refugee" Maggie Murray couldn't breathe properly for eight months following the September 4 earthquake in 2010. 

"You live in Christchurch walking around almost holding your breath," Maggie says. "In my mind I was OK with these earthquakes, 'I can deal with them'; but my body told another story - sheer panic."

She remembers standing in her kitchen when there was another aftershock, thinking go-with-the- roll thoughts, "but my body was screaming fear".
When that first 7.1 quake hit in the wee hours of the morning, her family home in Rolleston was in a direct path from the epicentre. "I could not get out of the bedroom because my hat stand had flown across the room and barred the door."
When she got out, Maggie and her teenage daughter found it hard to walk up the hallway because the walls were swaying from side to side. "I'm not sure how we didn't get cut feet because there was glass everywhere. I think the only thing that didn't break was the television because it was screwed down.

"The kitchen was knee deep in crockery and food."
That was not the worst quake for the married mother of three adult daughters. The 6.3 quakes that shook the city on February 22 and June 13 last year left the self-confessed control freak feeling helpless. When the ground heaved at lunchtime on that February day, Maggie had taken her mum to the pacemaker clinic at Christchurch Hospital. "We were sitting in the waiting room and there was just this huge roar, which we were kind of getting used to, but this was a really violent roar and we just had to sit there and go with it. In that moment you are absolutely powerless."

But for Maggie, what terrified her most was the realisation they couldn't get out - the hospital's automatic doors had gone into lock-down mode. When they finally escaped, there were scenes of chaos outside. "There were people everywhere and I have got a truck and the liquefaction was above the top of my tyres. People panicked so badly that there were people in cars almost driving over other cars trying to get out of the city."

During those first two big quakes, Maggie's husband had been on a plane returning to Christchurch and hadn't been able to land, so she was the one who had to hold it together for her family. But he was there for the third one. That time they were in a Post Shop in Lincoln faxing a signature to buy a house in New Plymouth when that one came roaring through. The Post Shop, which was packed with people, became a place of terror for Maggie because once again they were shut in by locked automatic doors.
"When I got out that door I burst into tears and just lost it - and I keep losing it," she says.

A few days later Maggie and her family moved to New Plymouth.

"Even now you would be in a shop and a truck would go past and there would be a shake and it would immediately put you straight back into that." Already suffering from adrenal problems because of steroids she took to fight a debilitating fungal infection, Maggie has had a double whammy of mind and body stress. She couldn't sleep properly or concentrate, and was constantly living in the flight-or-fight mode.

That's all changed now.

More than a month ago, Maggie took part in a course in New Plymouth called The Art of Breathing and has found the results astounding. "It's huge. I never thought you could change so much in your body through breathing and it puts you in the most beautiful zone of calm." She mostly does the breathing meditations in bed at night and says she now drifts off to sleep with ease. "I was blown away by the impact of what breathing can actually do."

Art of Breathing teacher Tessa Clark says that following the first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, free courses were offered to people in the trauma- struck city.

Nearly 40 free courses have been run over the past 22 months to help people learn to de-stress themselves through breathing. So far about 750 people have completed the courses, which have mostly been run by volunteers for the non-government organisation, The Art of Living Foundation. It is one of the world's largest volunteer-based, humanitarian and educational NGOs.

"That's how I became involved," Tessa says. "At that time I was not a teacher but I went in to assist with the courses." She has also been amazed by the changes in people. "I'll never forget one lady in particular who told us she had been sleeping by the door in her boots with her bag packed waiting for the next earthquake so she could run out the door - that's how terrified she was.

"After three days of the four-day course her husband couldn't believe it because she was back in the bed with him and she was able to get back to sleep easily after an aftershock." Not being able to sleep or breathe properly were among the main symptoms of those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder following the big quakes.

Tessa says there are four main elements to The Art of Breathing courses. The first is gentle yoga that stretches the body and is suitable for all people. Breathing techniques are the cornerstone of the course, but there is also relaxation with awareness and a special technique that is believed to lift long-held stress from the cells of the body in a natural way. "It's a rhythmic breathing technique that resets the balance of the body."

Taranaki dairy farmer Greg Gooch completed the course about a year ago and says he now feels like a different person. "It's just so amazing and I want the whole world to know about it." Before that he was a workaholic, so to find relief from stress and anxiety, he trained five nights a week at the gym, went on long runs and drank alcohol. "I was still empty." One day in a health shop at Okato, Greg picked up a pamphlet about a breathing course. He decided to give it a go.

"The breathing made me calm. I think what you learn in the course are good skills to live your life by." Greg now does his breathing exercises every morning after milking and goes to a class on Tuesday nights. "It basically taught me not to sweat the small stuff and showed me the peace of life, really."I never allowed myself to sit still and I used to criticise my friends for doing nothing and now I see the beauty in it."

People noticed straight away that he had changed; that he was more friendly and open. "It just brought out the all the good in me. I'm not judging myself any more."
He says he has basically breathed all his problems away, begun focusing on doing good deeds and found his human side. "I had prided myself in how hard I worked and now I pride myself in how many people I can help."

There are other breathing techniques that help people relax, find inner peace and/or increase body strength. They are mindfulness, singing, yoga, different styles of meditation and Pilates, which will all be covered in another Your World story.

The next 16-hour The Art of Breathing course will be run by Tessa Clarke in New Plymouth on the evenings of August 30 and 31 and day time on September 1 and 2. It costs $250 (waged, but there's a two-for-one special on) and $150 (unwaged). For more information, email her on

- © Fairfax NZ News

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