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Work In, Work Out

The latest it exercise regimens will leave you bruised, bloody, light-headed and loving it. But are breathing classes the next big thing in fitness?

Bright shone the summer sun on acres of lush farmland in central Pennsylvania last June. But I didn’t notice. I was too busy crawling facedown through a pit of mud, trying not to get electrocuted. Barbed wire was strung inches above my head, and from it hung randomly electrified cords. I was competing in a Tough Mudder, an extreme obstacle course that has surged in popularity since it began in 2010. In its first year, there were 20,000 participants; in 2012, there were 460,000. Along with similar masochistic endeavors like the Spartan Race and the Warrior Dash, the Tough Mudder challenge involves painful obstacles, feats of superhuman endurance and no small amount of mud.

On that summer day, I leapt across deep valleys, jumped from high platforms, surmounted half pipes, submerged myself in a dumpster full of dirty ice water, ran 10 miles and, oh yeah, got electrified. I was bleeding and bruised. But why? And why did thousands of other Tough Mudders do it with me? The answer is twofold. On one hand, we all wanted to prove our toughness. On the other, running around outside is a great de-stresser—even if it is painful. And often, the more painful the experience . . . the more satisfied we would be on Monday.

tough mudder

Tough Mudder participants crawling through the “Electric Eel” obstacle; photo: Ryan Collerd

But Monday would inevitably come, and then four more days of office life. Stress would coil my back and clench my jaw. The exhilaration of getting through the ten-mile crucible would fade. I needed a de-stressing, life-sustaining exercise I could do all the time.

Dr. Belisa Vranich had an idea for people just like me—weekend warriors who get an adrenaline rush from Saturdays engaged in mock heroics but spend the week as mere mortals. In 2013, Dr. Vranich unveiled a class called Elements of Breathing ($125 for a semi-private 90 minute session), held in Willspace, a New York fitness studio, to train the muscles and organs most athletes overlook: their lungs. “Breathing is the next big thing in fitness,” Dr. Vranich says. “It literally helps you in every single aspect, from endurance to strength to recovery.” Dr. Vranich, a muscular blond clinical psychologist, combined techniques of yoga, meditation, martial arts and Russian tactical-forces training to create the ultimate lung workout. Hey, we all have to breathe.

According to Dr. Vranich, we use just a fraction of our lung capacity. We breathe with our chest, but we should be breathing with our bellies. Breathe deeper, breathe better—more oxygen flows, well-being ensues. And so on a recent Friday evening, for just over 90 minutes, Dr. Vranich bullied and cajoled me to breathe with my belly. “I taught this to a jujitsu guy,” she told me. “Now he never gets tired. Not ever.” I’m not entirely sold on that claim, but the benefits of deep breathing have been well documented. Breathing balances your blood’s pH levels; when we’re stressed, it counteracts our flight-or-fight response, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system’s sense of calm. Plus, you know, the more oxygen your body has, the better.

So I followed Dr. Vranich’s bidding. I held my breath. I stood up straight. I engaged my pubic floor. For the last 15 minutes, I lay on my back while Dr. Vranich taught me “recovery” breath. I inhaled and exhaled as instructed while Dr. Vranich played pop music on the stereo. For the first five minutes, I thought I was going to pass out. “What’s the difference between this and hyperventilating?” I asked. Answer: “When you hyperventilate, you’re not in control.” I forced myself to inhale and exhale even more deeply, flooding my blood with oxygen. For the second five minutes, I freaked out and tried not to show it. My jaw tingled. I felt floaty. My belly ached. But I persevered. And for the final third, I reached a sort of super-oxygenated Zen peace. It made the mud pit look like a tiptoe through the tulips. I left that night, floating around the West Village like a deep-breathing sage. The relaxation lasted all weekend—and into Monday.