waiting to exhale

I Took Breathing Classes, and They Were Kind of Worth It

Photo: AntonioGuillem/Getty Images

When I signed up for OXYGEN™ at Willspace, a private fitness studio in the West Village, I was fairly certain I was about to fall prey to a cult where I would learn to live on oxygen alone, or maybe some kind of motivational workout scam. Best case, I was going to lose some money; worst case, I was going to lose my soul, free will, and rational belief that food and not deep gulps of air fuel the body. Besides, even if it’s not in fact a cult, expending time and money on inhaling and exhaling seems like the bougiest of all bougie fitness trends (Lululemon aside). Breatharians even have their own guru, Alan Dolan, who hosts Transformational Breathing Retreats on the Canary Islands. These classes promise that, for $55, you can rid yourself of chronic pain, constipation, anxiety, acne, and insomnia, just by mastering the thing you’ve done automatically since exiting the womb. Stressful job? Creative blockage? Low energy? Bad sex? Just breathe.

I chose to meet with Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of Breathe (out today), a book that expounds the miracle benefits of “mastering” basic lung functions. Her class, she says, is geared towards “type A people who don’t respond to the idea of meditation.” It’s part aerobic, part yogic, and offers a fourteen-day program that’s the basis of her book. She writes that “breathing exercises can energize you better than a Red Bull, put you to sleep better than an Ambien. They are the No. 1 antidote for stress: lowering your blood pressure, cortisol, and neutralizing your acidity in minutes.”

Turns out this was a promise that the weird little hippie in me couldn’t resist. And so I found myself sitting alongside Vranich, belly in hands, forcing myself to hyperventilate, to see if re-learning how to breathe was the truly the pathway to higher self or just SoulCycle for lazy people. The process is as follows:

Figure out your baseline: Vranich and I started by determining my baseline — basically, figuring out how incorrect my breathing form is. While the book asks for a million (fifteen) different physical and emotional check-ins, Vranich took quick stock of my issues (I don’t sleep well, I snore, I sometimes struggle to focus, I’m generally stressed and overbooked, just like everyone else). Then she used a tape measure to measure my sternum while I took a deep breath in order to get a sense of my lung capacity. Afterward, she had me hold my breath as long as I could. It felt like one minute; actually, it was about twenty seconds.

Let your gut hang: To understand how it feels to breathe correctly, Vranich had me liberate the space — the space being my stomach. “Ever watch a baby breathe? It’s all tummy,” she said. That meant I had to abandon the habits cultivated in every other moment of my life — when I am sucking in, wearing Spanx, or crunching my organs in high-waisted jeans — for the sake of breathing. I got on my knees, tipped my pelvis back for proper alignment, and let it all hang like Homer Simpson. As I breathed (in through the nose, out through the mouth), I’ll admit it was a relief to give my abdominal walls and shoulders a break for a moment, but picturing myself going full-tummy was unfamiliar and anxiety-producing enough to destroy any of the holistic calming benefits. 

Warm up the diaphragm: As a “trained singer” (i.e., forced my mom to pay for childhood voice lessons, am now a proud karaoke addict), I was familiar with contracting my diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle between the lungs and abdomen. This earned me a gold star from Vranich. We went through various yoga positions, like cat/cow and child’s pose, while breathing in and out deeply, making sure to keep it low and in my belly. Then I just sat around breathing very deeply, making sure to tilt my pelvis back. The strategy here is to use no effort on the inhale, just to let air into your lungs passively and silently. This is similar to “fire breath,” or kapalbhati in yoga, which is supposed to help you master long, deep breathing, as well as cleanse your mind and soul.

Sip some air: This is kind of the “workout” portion of the breathing exercises. To increase my lung capacity, Vranich had me take the biggest breath I could — and when my lungs were filled with air, I was supposed to try to “sip” more air by taking short, sharp breaths until my lungs literally felt like they were going to burst through my chest. Deep-sea divers call this airpacking. I call it hell.

Hyperventilate, then meditate: At the end of the session, Vranich had me lay down and take rapid, deep breaths, keeping me on pace while I inhaled and exhaled quickly until I felt like I was gasping for air. I didn’t know if I was going to cry, orgasm, pee, or pass out. Then, gradually, Vranich started decreasing the pace, and I found myself doing some weird, next-level breathing. I could feel my lungs emptying completely, with a moment of suspension before I took my next breath. Once my breathing regulated, we did two song’s worth of mediation to some pleasant Enya-type music by candlelight. We checked my progress, and I could now hold my breath for triple the time I managed at the beginning of class.

After being released into the world post-class, I felt high. Like I had just taken MDMA. Maybe I was just really affected by the hyperventilation stage, but I wandered around Soho feeling blissed out and transcendent. That night I slept deeply, and woke up without an alarm clock (also with aching abs, as if I’d been doing sit-ups). For the next two days, I swear I was on a non-RX creative bender that I hadn’t experienced since my college days.

I had to go back. All I wanted was air. But rather than continuing to shell out money for private breathing instruction, I opted to spend ten minutes a day on the fourteen-day at-home program outlined Vranich’s book. At the end of two weeks, I was calmer, I mediated every morning (sneaky Vranich), and I wasn’t out of breath on the treadmill. I recorded myself during sleep (yes), and my snoring went from jet-plane levels to a gentle purr.

Of course, this wasn’t a controlled experiment — I had recently started running again, which probably had something to do with my general sense of health and well-being. And I can’t speak to weight loss or constipation relief. But here’s what I know: After two weeks of breathing exercises, I no longer get winded during “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on karaoke nights. That’s transformational enough for me.

Breathing Classes: Worth It? Kind of!