Who hasn’t been annoyed by the advice—usually offered when a shot of tequila or a Xanax would be more welcome—to just take a deep breath? But it turns out there might be something to that recommendation. According to Jill Miller, the creator of the Yoga Tune Up program at Equinox, exercising your breathing muscles—namely, the diaphragm and intercostals—can not only chill you out but also improve your physique. A perfect inhalation, Miller says, reaches all the way down to the lower lungs, puffing out the belly. “If breathing muscles are aligned properly, your heart and digestive system work better,” says Miller, who created a workout during which students roll their bodies over rubber balls to get those muscles working optimally. And there’s an aesthetic upside: Miller likens strong intercostals to “an internal corset” that holds in your midsection. Meanwhile, in New York, clinical psychologist Belisa Vranich’s Breathe classes at Willspace studio combine posture correction, core work, and inhalation practice to get students using more of their lung capacity. “You break down nutrients with oxygen—your brain runs on it, and your muscles heal with it,” she says. But stress, combined with sucking in our bellies, drives most of us to breathe shallowly. It’s a vicious cycle: Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing increases stress, leading to elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to increased belly fat.
Breathing exercises, on the other hand, have been shown in recent studies to lower blood pressure and improve hand-eye coordination. The self-proclaimed “breath guru” Alan Dolan believes they can also save your career—and even your marriage. Dolan conducts retreats on the Canary Islands, where, in addition to yoga, he uses stretches, breath work, and music to help clients reset respiration. “I’ve ‘breathed’ athletes, actresses who need help steadying nerves, and couples working on a relationship,” Dolan says.
If an island retreat isn’t in the cards, check out Vranich’s book, Breathe, out in January. Her DIY techniques draw on martial arts, pulmonology, sports psychology, yoga, and Russian special-ops training. “My clients are type A people who tune out as soon as they hear the word ‘meditate,’ ” Vranich says. But that isn’t to say her breathing lessons don’t have a trippy side. At the end of each class, Vranich uses music, aromatherapy, and cycles of very deep, very fast breaths to flood students’ bodies with oxygen. The side effect? A light-headed, blissed-out state that, for some, borders on hallucinogenic. Even Xanax can’t compare.