Meditation Retreats

Breathing comes naturally: So why are people paying $40 to learn how to do it?

I’m sitting in a room with about 20 other women at the Marsh, a fitness center in Minnetonka, where we have paid to breathe together for two hours.

This is my first “breathing workshop.” I am completely out of my element, nearly $40 poorer and skeptical of what lies ahead. The carpeted room we are in is bright and covered in mirrors, reminiscent of an ’80s jazzercise studio with sporadic Asian elements. The view of the surrounding marsh and greenery alone is enough to put me at ease, but I do my best to keep my focus.

During the workshop, a handful of women teach us different breathing techniques, specific ways to inhale, exhale and move our bodies in order to reach a certain mental state. Between each session, the group discusses the effects of the previous exercise and the science and mechanics of the next one.

The “sun breath” is meant to help me visualize pulling the sun’s energy toward myself with my hands as I breathe in sync with the movement. It makes me feel centered, but overly conscious of my arms. The session on forced laughter is meant to get me to breathe deep in my belly and, hopefully, trigger real laughter. But a room full of unprompted cackling just ends up giving me the heebie-jeebies.

The workshop is hosted by BreathLogic, a nonprofit “breath literacy” organization that teaches people — from refugees to housewives — how to “breathe better together” at workshops and retreats similar to this one.

But why would we spend money to learn how to breathe — something we’ve all done since birth?

The local breathing business

Mindful breathing (also called “controlled breathing”) is nothing new. One of the earliest recorded breathing techniques, pranayama, is an ancient breath-focused yogic practice that originated in India. Other practices are well recorded in Hindu scripture and Buddhist teachings, and have since been incorporated in techniques used to deal with stress in everyday life.

BreathLogic is one of many businesses across the country that host events with schools, corporations and community groups. Co-founder and breath coach Laurie Ellis-Young — alongside George Ellis, her husband and fellow BreathLogic co-founder — has also worked with retreat groups and other gatherings across in over 20 countries.

But, of all the ways to help people deal with stress, why breathing?

Breathing “gives us the most power over our state of being, over the way we think, over the way we act, over the way we react,” said Ellis-Young. “It’s also something that we are doing constantly. So it is at our beck and call immediately. It’s our most constant and empowering resource. And it’s right at the tip of our nose.”

More recently, the couple lived and worked in Ukraine, where Ellis counseled people living in conflict areas. Earlier this year, the two of them published “Breath Is Life,” a book focusing on different breath techniques and the science behind them, as well as anecdotes from their personal and professional lives.

The SKY Campus Happiness program is another group that focuses on breath meditation, as well as other community building activities, to provide mental health support. They focus on college populations and have been working with students, staff and faculty at the University of Minnesota since 2015.

Lalitha Belur, assistant professor at the U and SKY Campus Happiness instructor, said there has been a steep climb in demand following the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

Those events “sparked a lot of stress,” said Belur. “It’s so worth it to do it because … you just put in that time and then you’ll have a breath practice for the rest of your life.”

The program offers breath meditation retreats and will be available at the U’s Recreation and Wellness Center through a well-being program this coming year. The next student session date is in September and costs about $30.

Not just blowing smoke

The breathing science checks out.

We need to breathe in order to live — and the benefits of controlled breathing have been proven again and again. Controlled breathing immediately helps to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, sending our body into a relaxed state.

But why not invest in something more traditional, such as therapy or exercise?

“It’s not that this is to the exclusion of something else,” Ellis said. “Rather, it’s an immediate thing. Diet, exercise, looking for social supports — all of that in the research is important to help people manage stress.

“But what helps you in the moment when your boss is in your face? It’s not your diet. It’s not like you can call a good friend. … No, what it is, is identifying what state I’m in and then using my breath to quietly and gently shift state so that I can hear what my boss is saying and interact with him or her.”

Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the U’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, said that there is strong science behind the effectiveness of breath and other mind-body practices when it comes to stress. She compared stress responses to “throttling down the road at 100 miles an hour” and related breath to the brake pedal.

Over time, studies have shown that controlled breathing also can help provide pain relief, alter mood and reduce anxiety and other mental health conditions.

The result?

I wouldn’t say that I felt better after my class, but I didn’t feel worse. As someone with a poor work-life balance and chronic anxiety, not feeling worse actually is saying something positive.

So why not try it? The people are friendly and genuinely want to help. If you don’t want to pony up cash for it, watch any of the countless videos or read one of the endless articles available to you online for free. Download a dime-a-dozen app with an inflating box. Breathe in joy and breathe out negativity.

Just pick a breath and take it — and don’t stress about doing it perfectly the first time. You have the rest of your life to get it right.

Jasmine Snow is a reporting intern at the Star Tribune.

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