We all do it thousands of times every day, usually without even thinking about it. But how many of us are using our breathing to tap into its full range of mental and physical health benefits? Not enough of us, believes Tom Granger, the author-illustrator of Draw Breath, a new book combining mindfulness, yoga and creativity. He believes that using a pencil and paper to draw pictures in time with drawing breath can ‘enhance your connection between... body and mind’. The publicity for Draw Breath puts it another way: ‘If yoga and doodling had a baby, this book would be it.’
Draw Breath takes the reader through a series of exercises combining drawing and breathwork, which is defined as the deliberate control of your breathing pattern. In completing each exercise, we are encouraged to focus on how we breathe in order to ‘trick’ the brain into making us calmer. The idea is that by imitating a relaxed breathing state we can actually become more relaxed.
So, I ask Granger when we speak on the phone, does this mean we're currently not breathing properly? ‘It's more about, “Are you breathing appropriately for the situation?”, and “Are people aware they can change their bodies and minds through the breath?”’ says the Mancunian, who studied philosophy before becoming a creative for the medical, pharma and wellness industries.
As he readily acknowledges, the idea that breathwork can induce a state of calm is age-old. Marrying this with drawing is also not entirely new – he cites an example found in Japanese calligraphy, which includes a symbol called ens?, meaning the circle: ‘[An] individual ens? depicts a moment in time for the artist who draws it,’ writes the 32-year-old. ‘A single, deliberate movement, committed to paper with a clear mind, in time with the body's natural exhalation.’
But Granger and other practitioners of mindfulness believe we need these techniques more than ever today, given the frenetic pace of modern life, and the way technology makes it so hard to switch off and be present in the moment.
‘I spent four hours on my phone last week," he says. "I'm looking down and that's closing off my breathing.’
The book points out that we need to relax our bellies to create space for proper breath (hard when you're accustomed to sucking in your stomach). ‘If your posture is open and alert, you have more space to breathe comfortably. This takes the strain off your upper back and intercostal muscles – particularly important for desk workers and voracious readers,’ he says. He also points out that you should feel your shoulder blades relaxing down your back as the lungs naturally empty themselves. ‘When we are relaxed, we breathe more slowly and have a slightly longer exhale. Breathing like this also makes us feel more relaxed – it's a positive cycle,’ he says.
Granger's interest in breathing stemmed from his interest in mindfulness, the benefits of which he discovered seven years ago. At this point, he was ‘a complete workaholic, very depressed and full of anxiety’. A course in mindfulness he took at this time had a big effect on him.
He has been working on the book for the past six years, but had the idea to make it interactive and experiential while travelling in the Himalayan foothills of India in 2016, attending meditation workshops and drawing the mountains around him.
Just as adult colouring books offer a way to temporarily switch off the noise of the outside world and be present in the moment, could the drawing in Granger's book, combined with the breathwork, offer a shortcut to calm? Granger claims: ‘Conscious breathing can improve your focus, help you to relax and increase your energy levels.’
The day after our conversation I'm sitting poolside, doing battle with a headache whose arrival coincided with the start of my son's swimming lesson. His toddler sister is incensed that she isn't allowed in the water. I try some conscious breathing – deep, slow inhalations through the nose and long exhalations through the mouth. It does, in fact, alleviate the physical pain, at least temporarily. It can't solve the truculent three-year-old so easily, but then what can?
Come to think of it, drawing can. When we sit side by side at the kitchen table, drawing dinosaurs together or colouring in unicorns, we enjoy some of our calmest, most contented moments. Granger could be on to something.
Draw Breath by Tom Granger (RRP £14.99)
The Daily Telegraph