Breathe London: wellbeing at the Colombo Centre

Breathe London room

We settled down for an interview with Andy Roberts, co-owner of wellbeing business linked to Colombo Gym, Breathe London.

So, Andy, what is Breathe London?
We're a community of mind and body therapists working under Breathe London's banner at two centres run by Jubilee Hall Trust. One at Coin Street's Colombo centre in Waterloo, and the other at Jubilee Hall gym in Covent Garden.

We have four beautiful therapy rooms on the top floor of the Colombo centre, with views across to the small park and church on Blackfriars Road. And at Jubilee Hall gym, we have four lovely therapy rooms nestled in a quiet part of the centre, each with views of the bustling streets below. Both centres provide a space to Breathe in central London.

Since the start of the pandemic, we've adapted the business to support people working from home. For example, we run wellbeing webinars to help people focus, stay energised and set boundaries between work and home.  This means we can help people with their wellbeing needs at home, as well as in our centres.

Why do you say the community of therapists?
At Breathe London, we create spaces for some of the best therapists in London to come together and work in the way they want to work; there's no corporate uniform!

Some of the therapists have worked with us for over ten years, so we really are a community of therapists. One of the owners of Breathe London, Laura, has an Acupuncture, Massage and Tai Chi business called Moving Qi. Laura has been my Tai Chi teacher since 2003! Similarly, Brenda is a South London Massage therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher with over forty years of experience. Brenda's been my Yoga teacher since 2004. And Stan, another co-owner at Breathe, has been a Sports Massage therapist in Waterloo since 2009.

The therapists offer Podiatry, Massage, Acupuncture, Reflexology, Physiotherapy, Craniosacral Therapy, Tui Na massage, Tai Chi, Indian Head massage, Laser shock therapy, Structural Integration, Reiki, Psychotherapy, Counselling, Mindfulness, Positive Psychology coaching and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

What happened to the therapists during the pandemic?
It's been a tough time, particularly for the physical therapists.  The centres shut during the lockdown, which meant that people left the business, and some left London to return home to families in other parts of the UK and Europe. And for several of us, it was the hardest of times with illness, separation and bereavement. However, during the lockdowns, we stuck together and supported each other with weekly Zoom calls. As a result, we’ve got closer a group over the last couple of years.

Now we are in an exciting rebuild stage and are attracting lots of new therapists into our existing community.

Why is it called Breathe?
We were stuck for a name, and Breathe was suggested by our lovely Irish client, Alan. The term also took me back to a time when I worked in finance. I was the classic stress monkey, work hard, play hard 1990s example of "full catastrophe living".  I was working on a project late into the night, and being honest, I was a right pain. Pam, one of the department PA's, pointed this out to me, grabbed me by the lapels and quietly, kindly but with some clarity and authority, said, "breathe Andy, just breathe".

The name worked. It still does.

"Breathe" is a reminder to make some space and spend time with the people and animals who nurture you and to make the most of the amazing gifts your body and mind are. And to take one day at a time and be grateful for the other blessings in our lives. To breathe clean air. Such a simple thing, and we take it for granted.

How long has Breathe been around?
I set up Breathe in 2004 with my then partner, Tom Te Whaiti. I practised massage, and Tom taught Pilates and Yoga.  We were looking for a studio and came across the Colombo centre in Waterloo. At the time, Waterloo was up and coming. The "pretamangerisation" of the area was in its infancy. I loved the quirky roughness of the place steeped in rich history.

Across the road from the centre is the Rose and Crown. Some of the locals still call it "The Germans" because it is one of the few buildings left standing in the area following a hefty night of bombing by the Luftwaffe in WW2. And directly across the road from its front entrance is the lane Paris Gardens, the site of a medieval brothel run by the Bishop of Winchester.

Why the Colombo centre?
From the outside, the Colombo centre looked like a 1960s factory. It's an ugly duckling that's grown up to be an ugly duck. But it's real. It's got heart. It's a place where the locals still come for a cup of tea and a chat. It was bequeathed by Sainsburys in the 1970s to the community with the stipulation that the site should remain a wellbeing centre.

Its lease is held by Coin Street Community Builders and the centre is managed by another not-for profit-organisation, Jubilee Hall Trust. Both these organisations have been at the centre of London wellbeing and community building since the 1970s. Through the tough years of 1970s inflation, 80s unemployment and race riots, city loadsamoney mentality of the 80s, the recovery of the 90s, the progressive social agenda of the 2000s, Brexit and pandemic, Coin Street and Jubilee Hall have been working tirelessly to bring communities together and promote wellbeing.

What's the idea behind Breathe?
In addition to creating beautiful spaces and a community of evidence-based wellbeing experts, our business should be about personal wellbeing and encompass community and global wellbeing.

Our breathe business has lost its way slightly. We are probably too focused on personal wellbeing, but we want to support our central London community more in the months to come. A number of the therapists offer community rates for those who can't usually afford our services. I'll be running several wellbeing webinars for our local community with Coin Street community builders. And I'll become more vocal in our stand for action on climate change, inequality and racism.

And we will continue to champion evidence-based wellbeing with our articles and workshops.

Is Breathe more mind or more body therapies?
When we started the business, we focussed upon one-to-one Yoga, Pilates and Massage therapy. But, over the years, more and more therapists joined us, and we started to attract talking therapists.

We now have fifteen physical therapy experts and six mind therapists. And we've arranged the website into three sections to promote physical therapy, relaxation and energy, and mental wellbeing. There is a clear link between exercise, gut health, getting enough sleep, healthy diets, mindset and emotional agility, mindfulness, physical wellbeing and having sufficient relaxation time. 

The future
I'm not sure. I think we are all experiencing the aftershocks of the pandemic and taking one day at a time.

We don't want to build the business back to how it was before, but we want to try to create something new; aligned with our core values of curiosity, fairness and kindness.

Visit the website here