Breathing coach thrives on a restless city

It's 6 p.m., and five employees from SciMedMedia, a TriBeCa-based company specializing in software development for the pharmaceutical industry, are sitting on the floor in their conference room learning how to breathe.

"Team building was always around something lame, like bowling and drinking, which slightly boosted morale but wasn't very effective," said Peder Regan, SciMedMedia's president. In his quest for better health, he started a program to bring in different wellness professionals to help his 42 employees find ways to de-stress.

"We've had a personal trainer, a cleaning specialist, an energy worker and a breathing coach, who was by far our most popular," he said. "We did four classes during the month, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to do properly. This is what companies should be putting money, time and resources into."

Belisa Vranich is one of the practitioners helping New York's corporate masses fill their lungs. She is a clinical psychologist, wellness coach and founder of the Breathing Class, which she teaches privately or in a corporate environment, and the Oxygen class, which is offered at Willspace, a private boutique training facility in the West Village.

"More than 90% of Americans don't know how to breathe correctly," said Ms. Vranich, whose classes have become extremely popular in the corporate world. "Last year, I might have gone into corporate offices three times a month, then it became three times a week," she said. Her calendar is heavily booked until August. "Over the next several months, I'm going into offices five or six times a week," she added.

If this seems a little New Agey, it is—and it isn't. A number of Fortune 500 companies—think Apple, Google and AOL—offer meditation and mindfulness programs for their staffers. Oprah Winfrey has brought in specialists to teach Transcendental Meditation to help Harpo employees learn to de-stress. Last year, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about how important meditation has become in his life. And last month, a Time cover touted "The Mindful Revolution: Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently."

Mindfulness classes

According to the World Health Organization, workplace stress is the No. 1 health problem in the United States. It's only logical that businesses large and small are bringing mindfulness classes into the office. Better breathing is the latest trend being offered.

Rimma Muchnik, a strategic management consultant, saw Ms. Vranich on the Today show. A bad case of insomnia propelled her to take a class, then another, and another. "Type A personalities, especially those in banking and finance, tend not to be as open to new things like this," she said. "I liked that it wasn't yoga-y. There wasn't any deep discussion about the universe. I sleep better. I am more focused and productive at work; my blood pressure has gone down."

Ms. Muchnik also learned she is a "vertical breather." "I was also using my shoulders and neck muscles," she said, "which I'm no longer doing, so I feel better and more relaxed."

During the 60- or 90-minute class, based on pulmonary health, martial arts, Russian special-operations training and sports psychology, Ms. Vranich guides clients through interactive exercises such as exhale pulsations and diaphragm extensions while examining the function of breathing patterns. Private classes start at $250 for an hour and $375 for 90 minutes.

At Willspace, her Oxygen class, a stress-reduction session that focuses on oxygenation and relaxation, is $250 for 60 minutes, and an intensive three-hour group workshop is $150 per person. Office-group classes cost $1,500 for 10 people, though prices vary depending on class size and frequency.

Some cynical New Yorkers may have once rolled their eyes and made snide comments, but now they're the ones pushing their bellies in and out, or asking for meditation methods.

Jon Aaron, a teacher of mindfulness meditation, has seen an increase of 40% to 50% in office requests, be it for weekly training or workshops. "The purpose of the training is to teach people how to relate to their minds in different ways, like concentration and focus," he said. "Through meditation, they become aware of how often they're distracted and how to come back to the task more efficiently."

According to a 2012 report by Buck Consultants, 61% of companies surveyed said their top wellness objective is combating employee stress. Some 27% of firms surveyed globally now offer yoga or meditation as a part of their employee wellness programs.

"The cost to companies to treat stress is astronomical. The rising cost of health care is a huge global problem," said Mia Kyricos, chief brand officer of SpaFinder Wellness 365, a media and marketing company that specializes in the spa industry. "Companies are finding that if managed correctly, stress is controllable. So they're invested in finding more in-house solutions. Breathing classes in the corporate environment is the next sensible step."

Yet getting help to breathe can still evoke embarrassment. Few want to admit they need assistance with the most basic of human functions.

"There's still an element of not understanding what proper breathing really is, and some look at that as a weakness," said Ms. Vranich. "And there's a stigma associated with anxiety disorders. We don't want to admit to that, either."

On the flip side, some see Ms. Vranich as their secret weapon. "Companies are always looking at ways to increase performance, and get longer hours out of employees while outperforming or gaining a competitive edge over other companies," she added.

Some blame technology and our 24/7 lifestyles for our inability to recharge.

"Many of us also suffer from email apnea, where we hold our breath while at the computer," Ms. Vranich explained. "It's a predatory stress-induced concentration while staring at the screen. Breath holding during the day is one of the worst things you can do because you're depriving your body of oxygen."

Creative solutions

Her newest client is the Soho House, a private club that originally hired her to teach its spa team how to breathe more efficiently.

Douglas Drummond, SoHo House's U.S. regional spa manager, was so impressed that he hired her to do corporate workshops and members-only classes. "Belisa has a logical approach and strong scientific background to the breathing," Mr. Drummond said. "That works very well in a corporate environment, where [management] needs validity and practical reassurance to bring in something new or that's more creative."

Jeff Burns, SciMedMedia's vice president and executive producer, who has taken several of Ms. Vranich's classes, highlighted another positive.

"Investing in your employees has a very good return, especially when those employees are working 14-hour days," he said. "Belisa taught me how to put work aside and focus on myself for a little bit, which is fantastic. The ability to relieve stress and anxiety is an attractive skill set to have."


A version of this article appears in the March 10, 2014, print issue of Crain's New York Business as "The business of breathing".