On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens gathered at The Assemblage, a wellness-focused coworking space located off of Park Avenue. The fern-filled room was full of people who paid up to $350 to learn how to breathe. With most of the men in V-necks and women in harem pants, it was a scene worthy of Big Little Lies. Or maybe Midsommar.
An electric violinist named Sage Rader emceed the event, titled “40 Years in 4 Hours, A Masterclass in Breathwork with Dan Brulé.” From a little after 1 p.m. to just after 5, guests would get to hear from Brulé, who has been a working breathwork expert since 1970.
A gothic font tattoo peeked out from the top of Rader’s shirt. Just after taking the stage (and a deep, hearty breath), Rader proclaimed, “Breath has saved my life.”
Hasn’t it saved us all? According to the EPA, the average person takes between 17,000 and 20,000 breaths every day without having to think about it. Just as hearts beat on their own, sucking in air is one activity maxed-out humans don’t have to waste attention on.
Still, interest in breathing-as-wellness keeps growing. Just this month, both British Vogue (as guest-edited by Meghan Markle) and New York magazine published glowing reviews of the practice, saying sessions with an instructor can cure everything from stress to acne.
Breathing is also a backbone principle of savasana, or “corpse pose” in yoga, which is supposed to be the most relaxing part of class, unless you consider that it was named because your posture mimics that of a dead body. Yoga has been around for over 5,000 years, so like most alternative therapies, breathwork is not new.
But it is gaining traction, and not just among the token demographic of stressed millennials. At Barbara Bush Hospital in Portland, Maine, pediatric cancer patients get breathing sessions every Friday in addition to medical care. The nonprofit Veterans Yoga Project offers free classes to members of the military and their families in an effort to combat symptoms of trauma-related PTSD.
In Madison, Wisconsin, $3,000 buys access to an “18 day life-changing training,” which spreads classes like “Breathe for Gratitude” and “Breathe for Social Justice.”
Earlier this year, the Florida School of Holistic Living in Orlando, held a $50 “Conscious Breathwork” seminar that promised to “trigger a natural process of cleansing.”
A handful of people at Brulé’s workshop told me, with great certainty, that classes have partially cured their cancerous tumors or alleviated chronic depression. While leading the group session, Brulé himself cried out claims like, “This one hour will replace a year of psychotherapy,” and the more suspect, “No disease can survive in this kind of environment!”
Of course, there is no scientific evidence that good breathing can provide lasting medical benefits, or else cardio instructors would live forever and never cry. But, as a 2017 study proved, regular rounds of deep, diaphragmatic breathing can lower cortisol levels in healthy adults, which reduces stress.
“Deep breathing has been shown to help with anxiety by stimulating the vagus nerve, which is known for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, or the nerves that generally relax us,” Dr. Tania Elliott, clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, said.
According to Dr. Elliott, deep breathing has been “shown to improve lung capacity” for asthmatics. “Chronic back pain is often associated with anxiety and/or depression, so addressing the mental health component of back pain with meditation deep breathing can help, too,” she said.
But it’s not a cure all. As Dr. Elliott explained, “Breathwork can be used as an adjuvant, but never to replace medical treatment for these conditions.”
After Sage Rader introduced his “breath brother” Dan Brulé, the 68-year-old took the stage. With his tight curly hair and classical nose, Brulé looked like a classical statue wearing a black polo and chinos—the standard uniform of a dad playing golf.
Brulé spoke as if he fancies himself a rock star, saying “I woke up in Moscow, and I’m going to bed in New York.” Mid-sentence, he paused, closed his eyes, and took a deep sigh.
During his introduction, Brulé noted how air is recycled, and the oxygen we inhale has also been inside “every great leader” throughout history. By extension, that would mean we’ve also shared those particles with every bad leader, every despot, every neo Nazi. Brulé did not bring this up.
We were all in this together, Brulé implied—everyone in the room would be passing air back and forth. I’d be breathing in what the woman on a pillow next to me just sighed out. As he said this, a few rows behind me, someone let out a few wet-sounding coughs. I held my breath.
For the next four hours, Brulé said we would “master the skill of letting go of an exhale.” He wanted us to breathe in deeply, slowly, and take our time, but not linger on letting it out—just push the air out fast, as if we were women in a birthing class. “When we’re in pain, we want out of pain now,” Brulé said. Ergo—snappy exhale. He told us to imagine our sighs dropping down into nothing, as if they were a trap door.
Unlike Brulé, Dr. Elliott recommends patients make their exhales “almost twice as long as inhalation.”
The room was full of people listening intently and taking notes—ideal for anyone giving a presentation. But anytime it got too quiet, Brulé would lightly chastise us for not breathing hard enough. Then a chorus of airy moans would begin, and the room began to sound like the party from Eyes Wide Shut.
Using a whiteboard, Brulé drew out models for what he called “Triangle breath,” which was inhaling, exhaling, pausing, and repeating. He called the cycle a “magical, mystical cosmic journey you take 20,000 times a day,” and urged us not to rush through each step.
Then we moved on to the more advanced “Box Breathing”: inhale, pause, exhale, pause. Brulé told us we were “combining energy and relaxation,” which led to complete “control” over your body. By his count, he’s taught this technique to 150,000 people in 65 countries.
For the last hour or so of class, everyone laid down on pillows and breathed to their own beat, while Brulé sang along to acoustic meditation songs, with affirmation lyrics such as “I am one with the higher power.” He encouraged everyone to “breathe into intensity,” adding we needed to “get comfortable with intensity, or else you’ll get crushed by it.”
A man a few pillows down from me began shaking his legs, as if he was seizing. An event photographer snapped a photo. Near the end of our session, a woman close to me began to sob.
For my part, I felt my limbs go limp and numb, that pins-and-needles, falling-asleep feeling. I guess the class was relaxing enough, although it probably would have felt even more luxurious if my too-close neighbor’s feet weren’t cradling my head.
Dr. Belisa Vranich has studied and taught breathing for 10 years. It began when she had a private psychology practice while she worked as a sex and health editor for Men’s Fitness. She was living the typical, Type-A New York professional life, but an intense panic attack and gnarly habit of grinding her teeth compelled her to do something to manage her stress.
She tried yoga, and found herself moved to tears during savasana. “I would just cry because of the breathing,” Dr. Vranich recalled. “What was going on with me?”
After getting certified by the healer David Elliott, Dr. Vranich moved on to sports science, and her current method involves a lot of the mechanics of breathwork. “I’ve found that people will say, ‘Just breathe,’” she explained. “But there’s no practical advice. You’re anxious? Just breathe. You’re winded? Just breathe. You’re upset? Just breathe. How do you breathe? Eh.”
I met Dr. Vranich in her office, which is affiliated with a physical therapy practice. It’s filled with mats and bouncy balls, and there are Pinterest-y silver letters spelling out “BREATHE” on the wall. It feels more like an exercise class than a doctor’s office or yoga studio, and Dr. Vranich instructs with the commanding pep of a fitness instructor.
She asked me to breathe for her first, and after one big sigh, she muttered, “Jesus Christ.”
“I’m not trying to scare you, but thank God you’re here,” Dr. Vranich said. “You breathe exactly the opposite of how your body is supposed to breathe. Had you continued to breathe this way, I would have seen you in 10 years with massive digestive problems, lower back issues, and serious anxiety.”
She noted that I was breathing “with my shoulders,” with my chest moving up and down with every inhale. The proper way, Dr. Vranich explained, was to fill up my diaphragm, letting my stomach puff out and in.
“We need to change breath back to how it was before you were 5,” Dr. Vranich said. “You were rolling around on the ground, you did not give a shit that you had a big belly, didn’t care about waistbands. Five is when you start going to school, being ashamed, being a social animal who cares what people think. And you suck in your gut.”
I sat down opposite Dr. Vranich, who has some of the most insane abs I’ve ever seen in real life. She’s able to push her stomach out when she breathes, filling it, and then contracting it back all the way to six-pack status. She wanted me to do the same, so she encouraged me to tip back my hips and ungulate my stomach with every inhale.
It’s not to say every human should breathe like this all the time. “It’s good to exercise your wind instruments and practice on some sort of regular basis,” Jill Miller, founder of the wellness method Yoga Tune Up Fitness, told me. “You want to manipulate your psychology every day, for 15-20 minutes of practice, but even five minutes can help.”
I asked Miller if deep breaths were such a good idea considering the World Health Organization warns that 91% of the world's population gulps down polluted air.
“Well, you're going to get that whether or not you're doing deep breathing or rapid breathing,” Miller rationalized. “But maybe as people breathe more or breathe bigger, there will be somebody out there selling air filters. That’s probably a good business to be in soon.”
Dr. Elliott, the Columbia instructor, says she “wouldn't recommend” practicing breathing outside, due to unhealthy air quality. “I sometimes recommend my patients do it in a salt cave, so they can get the additive respiratory benefit of inflammation reduction.”
After meeting with Dr. Vranich, I met up with a friend who suffers from a chronic digestive condition. He rattled off a laundry list of ailments—abdominal pain, nausea, earaches, and head fog. Even though he is on a crushingly strict diet where he can basically have no sugar, he still feels symptoms.
“Well,” I offered. “Have you tried breathing?”