hot bod

Breath Work Is Like Having an Adult Tantrum

Photo: Nicola Katie/Getty Images

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

Transmitted through breath and distressing our lungs, the coronavirus has introduced a state of respiratory panic. While in quarantine, I noticed surging interest in a practice that centers the respiratory system directly: breath work.

Intimate studio classes (that may have hosted 30 people) migrated onto live video streams with unprecedented numbers of attendants. I heard of a collective Zoom class beaming from a teacher in London that hosts 200 participants lying on their respective floors and panting all together; individual coaching over video chat from Brooklyn; a Topanga Canyon folk singer offering original music to guide Sunday morning breath work ritual; and a sleek, disproportionately popular crowd-funded alarm clock, which features breath work courses along with white noise and sound baths as part of its mental health buffet. Breath work has been prancing between neo-mystical fringes and the wellness industrial complex for years. But during an exhausted and frightening time, recalibrating our breath — something tantalizingly on the liminal edge of our control — has become irresistible.

Breath work can take many forms, but always involves controlled breathing. Holotropic breath work is a trademark attributed to Stanislav Grof’s method, which he developed following his research in LSD-based psychedelic therapy in the late 1960s, though pranayam, often translated to “breath control,” dates back millennia. Breath work is often intense, usually a diaphragmatic breath (so like from your deep, low ribcage, rather than the top of your chest). Many teachers encourage rapid inhales and exhales, with no pause in between, to induce a hyperventilation. Classes are sometimes aided by sound baths or climatic music or a wash of therapeutic lectures. Students are sometimes encouraged to release noises (screams, howls, moans) or slam their palms on the ground. The flavor can change, but at its core, breath work involves lying on the ground, doing almost nothing except breathing fervently, up-tempo.

I’m a Maggie-come-lately to breath work. I started after my calm and willowy roommate, several weeks ago, floated onto the patio aglow with achievement and recommended a particular teacher. “I sobbed,” she said, “so there must have been something I needed to get out.” This roommate has also recommended dark moody tie-dye and sugarbush flowers to me, so I pursued away. There was something about the promise of breath work — just intense breathing — that carried an intuitive logic to me, given the respiratory element of this pandemic. Maybe focusing attention on a vulnerable region of my body would at least make me feel more in control. Maybe I too would experience a clearing bout of surprise-sobs.

These past few weeks, a pandemic during a pandemic, a collective hurt intensified and I saw breath work sessions offered with even more fervency and focus. The founder of Spirit House Collective in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, Aja Daashuur, tells me she has spent most of the past couple weeks working with other black healers to figure out how to keep up their energy in this moment and beyond it — and breath work is a priority.

“Given the murder of black people, even drawing breath feels like a gift instead of a right,” Daashuur says. “When you breathe, you are saying, I deserve to breathe, I deserve to be alive. I not only deserve to be alive, I deserve to thrive.” When I talk to my healers, they say: breath work and cardio, breath work and cardio, breath work and cardio.” She laughs and groans, because she admits both are tough for her, though she quickly says that cardio sounds much worse. Daashuur admires courses from teachers Maryam Ajayi and Susan Ateh. “I recommend [breath work] to people who have experienced any type of trauma. It can move shame, anger, resentment out of the body. I think everyone should be doing breath work, even though it’s really intense. Even I have trouble doing it because it’s so intense.”

While breath work might be straightforward, it’s never easy, says Rachel Ricketts, who leads online courses on spiritual activism, featuring breath work guidance, from her home in Toronto. “Rare is the person who won’t wind up bawling.” Like almost every breath work teacher I spoke to, Ricketts shifts the emphasis in breath work to the final word. “It is work, it takes work, getting extra oxygen inside your entire body. Physically, it relieves our muscles, spiritually it allows for a major release.”

In my experience, during hour-plus breath-work sessions, my bod experiences all the major genres of emotion: ecstasy, shock, hilarity, panic, sleepiness. Tremors come across my temples (are there even muscles there??) and my jaw bone, I shake with full body trembles, my hands clamp up, I can’t stop laughing, I have a good big cry. “Breath work is for people who are willing to get uncomfortable,” says Regina Rocke, who’s been leading fifteen-minute breath work sessions on her Instagram live, Thursdays at noon, from her home in Brooklyn. “It’s an adult tantrum,” breath work coach Kathleen Kulikowski says. “You scream and shout and cry.” Like a tantrum, it can feel equal parts sincere, dramatic, and exaggerated. I’ll shake and tear and giggle, and then suddenly stare at my meditation alarm clock or a practitioner leading a Zoom class and think: How did you do this to me? 

There are also some safety checks to keep in mind. “Our bodies are very good at noticing when things are out of the range where they should be,” says Dr. Russell Buhr, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center. “Your body will intervene to get you to normal breathing again,” by which, Buhr means, “you could hyperventilate to the point of passing out. Don’t do it standing up and pay attention if you’re feeling dizzy or lightheaded.”

Panting while doing nothing sometimes feels like I’ve just caught myself from falling from down the stairs: a quick bout of misplaced panic. Even shorter breath work sessions feel … physically confusing. The shortest (and only on-demand) breath work sessions I’ve done are on the Loftie prototype, a tiny bathtub shaped alarm clock. Because of their lower time commitment and because teacher Kulikowski has organized the classes (seven so far) to build progressively on each other, they’re an especially encouraging way to begin the practice.

For something that we’ve been practicing since the minute we’re born, there are still endless things to learn about breathing. Dr. Louis Passfield, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary who researches respiratory frequency in athletics, says that a practice like breath work can have a series of dramatic effects on the body and mind. Disorientation, involuntary muscle contraction, tremors, all the weird things I felt, Passfield says, “are the classic symptoms of low carbon dioxide. As we breathe more,” he says, “we’ve opened the tap to pour the carbon dioxide out of the body, but we’re not making any more. It would make sense you would begin to feel disoriented. Hallucinogenic effects don’t feel surprising at all, because the body is being challenged by this experience.”

Passfield also mentions that breath work could be accompanied by some fantastic sense of deep satisfaction, due to our deep association between hard breathing and hard work. “You might have a sense of wellness you might feel after a hard training session, because our perception of how hard we find something is guided by our breath rate,” he says. “Changing your breathing sounds innocuous but its effects are surprisingly profound.”

Breath work’s perception shift is maybe what most appealed to me, while frustrated and restless during isolation. After my first class, I was actually most reminded of being a child and spinning in circles and later realizing that was a bit of a drug-impulse, to shake up the brain and feel a new and exciting way.

But don’t think breath work is all adult tantrums, activist spirituality, and drug approximations. It can also be excruciatingly boring. On my most distracted day, I kept fixating, creeped out, by some people on the Zoom who seemed to be staring. Was I staring to determine if they were staring? Oh yes, you better believe this little hypocrite was. I constantly shifted my camera around, worrying about how I looked, hiding my little hand claws under a blanket. I tried to fall asleep, tried to breathe fast again, gave up, did my physical therapy exercises to the original music, and then went to bother the dog for a walk. When we got back, the Zoom was still going and people were thanking the teacher for a profound experience. That part felt restorative to hear.

Breath Work Is Like Having an Adult Tantrum