Breathing Classes Helped Me Deal With My Anxiety

Not what breathwork is actually like. Photo: Jonathan Kirn/Corbis/Getty Images

At my first breathwork class the instructor had us sit in a circle and say our names, why we’d come, and something about what we hoped to work on in ourselves that evening. He showed us how to do the breathing exercise we’d perform for 30 minutes at a stretch, a sharp, two-part inhale that expands first the belly and then the chest. “It’s normal to feel tingly or light-headed,” he explained. “And if your hands start to clench or spasm, that’s called tetany, and it’s normal too.”

At which point I realized I had just paid someone $20 to teach me to self-induce the symptoms of a panic attack.

The term “breathwork” is a relatively meaningless one: It’s an umbrella, encompassing a handful of different practices. Teachers sometimes call the style I was learning shamanic or pranayama breathwork, though neither designation is accurate — there’s no specific shamanic lineage, and pranayama is actually its own branch of yoga, a collection of breathing styles intended to address different physical and mental states and guide you toward a meditative mind-set.

This breathwork, in contrast, is confrontational, designed to bring you into contact with your self and your stuff. It’s a single technique with a single goal: to move something that’s gotten stuck. What that something is depends on whom you ask and what you believe: Either the breath is expanding the diaphragm and oxygenating the blood, or it’s helping you identify and clear more nebulously defined energetic blocks. I have a high tolerance for white-people mysticism; my line on this stuff is mostly that I don’t care how it works, as long as it does.

This doesn’t mean I don’t try to pay attention to the science, too. A panic attack, for me, always starts at the back of the throat: My mouth gets dry and I think I can’t swallow and then I think Wait, I can’t breathe. The rapid, gasping inhales I take to try to calm myself down send the carbon-dioxide levels in my blood plummeting; that messes up the amount of calcium available to my muscles, causing spasms in my extremities — and, I’ve learned, if I let it go on long enough, eventually in the rest of my body, too. This was the mechanism behind the tetany the teacher was talking about.

But understanding that mechanism hadn’t brought me any closer to finding a way to stop it from taking a hold of me. Maybe, I told myself, if I felt like I were in control of what was happening — if I knew that I’d done it to myself on purpose at one point — I’d feel more in control of the experience later, when it sprang itself on me, when I was suddenly filled with dread I couldn’t explain or sometimes even name.

I grew up with the kind of low-grade anxiety that can allow girls especially to earn a lot of praise: the kind that makes you quiet and hardworking and somewhere between solicitous and self-sacrificing, eternally convinced that if you can do something — anything — well enough then you’ll be able at long, blessed last, to relax. I refused to make a big deal out of it. I taught myself to manage it: with sleep, with yoga, with therapy, by avoiding caffeine and hallucinogens and anything else that might potentially derail the delicate machine of my mind from its sometimes precariously narrow tracks.

For a long time that worked, and because it worked I believed myself to be stable. But the system had never been pressure-tested, and when it was it collapsed, and so did I. It wasn’t a bad strategy, exactly, except that it had failed to account for how exhausting it is to try to maintain control all of the time — and how, once you’ve worn yourself out that way, it’s all too easy for the world of things you can’t control to get inside of you, and mess you up.

Managing something is different from treating it; I gave my anxiety space and made my self and my life small, eternally retreating, hoping I could pull myself in tightly enough to keep from jostling or jarring it by moving or thinking or feeling the wrong thing, which eventually became pretty much anything at all.

Coming to breathwork was the first step toward acknowledging something I had spent years trying not to notice: that I was on the verge of shrinking my life down so small that pretty soon there might not be room left for me in it anymore.

This particular class took place in a comfortingly normal setting: not some palo-santo-scented healing center, where I would have felt like an intruder, an unbeliever tainting everyone’s auras with her sticky misery. Instead we gathered in a second-story dance studio at the local Jewish Community Center, yoga mats, candles, crystals, and essential oils laid out on a floor slightly sticky from preschool ballet classes held earlier in the day.

The class, too, was a more diverse crew than I’d been expecting: eight or so men and women of varying ages and backgrounds who were working with everything from autoimmune issues to loss and grief to the simple desire to try something new. Instead of the pressure to perform some spiritual feat, I felt like I was being asked to do something comfortingly concrete: to lie down with myself for 30 minutes, and find out what came up.

I was right to think that my hands would spasm, but I was also right that it was useful to feel the physical effects of panic without the attendant psychological stress — especially because panic attacks are a self-generating system, each one teaching you to recognize a new symptom, to fear a new feeling, to be ever more vigilantly on guard against yourself. “It is safe to be in my body,” the instructor had us say out loud before we started. It was startling to realize that even though I knew I didn’t have to believe them, I could still barely get the words to come out of my mouth.

But beyond that, breathwork did something I hadn’t accounted for or expected. The practice, which I’ve continued in the months since, brings me into direct contact with the part of myself that is always frantically attempting to solve a problem — any problem, anything it can find, that grinding anxiety brain that’s always looking for something to chew to pieces. It’s easy to focus on the inhale, moving the belly, moving the chest, but what I always forget to mention is that there’s a third part to the exercise, an exhale, which you do not perform so much as allow.

“Can you stop controlling that?” the teacher asked, maybe a month in to my practice. “Can you just let the exhale happen?”

I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I had come to breathwork to teach myself something: to approach and confront anxiety, to approach and confront myself. I had not come to let something happen to me. I did not understand how to do that.

I still don’t, to be honest. I’m in a state now where I recognize the shape of the problem, but can’t see past it to find a solution. When you are always at work on yourself, it’s easy to forget that the work is not actually the point; hurling yourself into action for action’s sake can make any practice — yoga, meditation, breathwork, et cetera — into an exercise in futility. In a no pain, no gain culture, and with a type-A overachiever’s mind, it’s often difficult to sort the growing pains of progress from the ache that comes from pushing and pushing against something that is simply stuck.

You can’t die of this. That’s what I tell myself when I’m having a panic attack; no matter how convinced I am that I’m about to stop breathing, I know that the body doesn’t work that way. If necessary, the brain will knock out my conscious mind in order to let my lungs do their thing. It seems like a semantic distinction, maybe, but lately I’ve been trying to stop going to breathwork and to start showing up for it instead: to control the inhale and allow the exhale and see what each of them brings me, even if it’s awful — even if it’s worse, which is when it’s nothing. That’s okay too. The nice thing about the breath is that it’s always moving. Sometimes all I can do is watch it, knowing that it will keep on without me, trying to remember that I am allowed to let it.

Breathing Classes Helped Me Deal With My Anxiety