New York: Twice a week, often between video calls or meetings, Andrew Lowenthal takes a break from work to open an app on his phone that helps him focus on his breathing. The payoff? Better stress management, clearer thinking at work and — to Lowenthal’s surprise — more strength and power in the gym. “It’s such a fundamental part of being human but not something that we think about often,” Lowenthal said about his breathwork.
As executive director of Out in Tech, a Manhattan-based nonprofit, Lowenthal, 33, typically spends three to 10 minutes on an app created by Inscape, a New York meditation studio. He inhales, holding and exhaling his breath for various lengths of time according to prompts. Lowenthal said he now exercises more regularly and takes care of himself better because of his breathing exercises. “It definitely helps me with my endurance,” he said.
Long a key part of meditation and some kinds of yoga, breathwork is now becoming a discipline in its own right, with proponents offering classes, one-on-one sessions and apps dedicated to the practice. And whereas the focus has predominantly been on the mental and psychological benefits of breathwork, fitness industry professionals are increasingly saying that it can also enhance athletic performance or speed muscular recovery after a workout.
Mindbodygreen, a wellness-focused media company that has published articles on breathwork, has noted an uptick in interest in the subject from its audience — in particular from “people who are thinking meditation is too woo-woo,” said a company co-founder, Colleen Wachob. “It’s a slightly different cohort that’s looking for a shortcut or hack and that’s more performance- or science-driven,” she said.
It has long been recognized that deep, controlled breathing can calm someone having an anxiety attack or help anyone in need of a little more stress-relief and mental clarity. Hillary Clinton, for example, has talked about using alternate side nostril breathing to help her relax while on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. But what’s new is that scientists have found a physical link between breathing and what they call “emotionality.”
A study published in March in Science showed a direct anatomical link between the parts of the brain that control voluntary breathing and the parts that control emotionality. Altering the activity of this connection changed how aroused, alert or calm mice were. “It’s an important finding because it shows that there is a causality between the two,” said Andrew Huberman, a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University.
In his lab at Stanford, Huberman is doing research on breathing and how it impacts emotional states. He’s also developing an app with Brian MacKenzie, a strength and conditioning coach in San Mateo Hills, California. The goal of the app will be to customize breathwork for people by giving them a simple inhale-and-exhale test and incorporating other data provided by those who sign up for it.
“Breathwork can be thought of as exercise in that, if done correctly, has immediate benefits — physical, emotional and cognitive — but breathwork also has longer-term benefits if you do it regularly,” Huberman said. “The idea is that people can alter and strengthen the neural pathways that link breathing with emotion regulation centers in the brain, which can help them feel calmer and more alert, and sleep better, depending on the protocols they use.”
It can also make you a better athlete. MacKenzie, who is the co-author of three sports-related books including “Unbreakable Runner,” teaches his clients how to use nasal breathing to optimize their athletic performance and be more “metabolically efficient.” Breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps people remain calm and alert, improves their peripheral vision and encourages them to maintain better posture and mechanics, which results in fewer injuries, Mackenzie said.
All of these findings are not lost on Equinox, the chain of high-end gyms. Instructors started getting basic training in breathwork about two years ago when the company introduced a class called HeadStrong, which blends a high-intensity workout with mindful movement and concludes with breathing. “I do see breathwork becoming as ubiquitous for recovery as foam rolling or stretching,” said Michael Gervais, Equinox’s senior manager of group fitness talent. He mentioned one study that shows a link between parasympathetic nervous activity, which is activated by breathwork, and recovery status after an intense workout.
Khajak Keledjian, founder and former CEO of Intermix and the founder of Inscape, credits meditation, which he does twice daily, for reducing stress and improving his sleep and energy levels. He’s also noticed that he has an easier time breathing when he goes on challenging hikes. “According to heart-rate standards,” he said, “my endurance and stamina is at the level of an athlete.”