My dear friend and colleague, senior breath trainer and psychologist, Elif Clarke has shared here her story on how breathwork transformed her physical and mental well-being. Elif and I have travelled the world together teaching people how to breathe well and her joy for life is infectious despite the fact that she has been in physical pain since she was a child. As a baby she contracted polio resulting in numerous hospital visits and operations. Since she has been practising breathwork her right leg has miraculously grown one and a half inches!

This is Elif’s Story.

I was introduced to breathwork following a battle with depression and anxiety partially caused by the gradual deterioration of my mobility over the years, alongside other physical challenges resulting from contracting polio in my right leg at ten months old. From then on, throughout my childhood, I underwent regular physiotherapy and daily muscle-strengthening exercises. I also endured two operations on both legs (to stop one from growing and to lengthen the other). I was so hopeful that after the operations I would be able to walk without a limp. Unfortunately, it took me a year to walk again, with a limp and experiencing constant pain in my right ankle (which was eventually operated on to strengthen it).

Over the years, my list of health complications seemed forever expanding and included gradual muscle loss, scoliosis, severe joint problems, restless legs, fatigue and sleeping and breathing difficulties. Eventually I was diagnosed as suffering from post-polio symptoms and my quality of my life became limited. Sadly, I became too exhausted to continue to work as a psychologist. So, I decided to take some time away from work and focus on improving my physical and mental health. My new daily routine included gentle yoga and meditation and I started to explore other healing activities.

However, I continued to struggle with my breathing – it was shallow and constricted. My search for a class to help improve it began. I was instantly fascinated to discover that you could achieve physical, mental, emotional and spiritual integration through a certain way of breathing, without the need to talk about any issues. I had previously found talking therapy incredibly useful for understanding and processing painful emotions relating to distressing life events, but I was now looking for a new approach. In a moment of clarity, I made the realised that I had pushed the pain associated with living with polio into my body’s cellular memory and this was affecting my ability to breathe freely. This manifested as a tendency to hold my breath to avoid physical pain. Over time this habit had developed into an ability to disconnect from my body and was perpetuating my poor breathing pattern.

I started to become more connected to my body. When I started feeling pain, rather than turning away from it and creating more tension in my body, I learnt to focus on the pain. This new strategy of staying with the pain until it disappeared helped me to reach a new level of relaxation. On an emotional level, I had an opportunity to process many physical and emotional traumas in relation to my experience with polio and its impact on my life. Apart from deepening my understanding of my emotional distress, I also released traumatic childhood memories, thoughts and experiences – stored in my unconscious – with the help of conscious connected breathing, a long inhale and short exhale with no pauses between. It is a self-empowering tool that all of us have access to.

Since experiencing a deeper connection to my body, processing and integrating some painful memories, my mind has stopped ruminating on critical thoughts about myself, my life and my future. As a result, I have started to become more present in my daily experiences and have an increased sense of self-compassion and self-love.

My disability is my gift, giving me an incredible, rich life. My breath helped me join the dots when I was lost and couldn’t find my purpose.