Lying prostrate on the ground with the rifle in his hands, eyes narrowed on his mark, Steve Kardian concentrated on not moving a muscle. "I need complete control for long-range shots; even one micro flinch can send the bullet flying feet from your target," he says.
The FBI defense tactics instructor had been called upon by a top military agency to take on a classified secret service–like assignment—if he failed these qualifying tests the job was gone. Just before stepping up to the line, Kardian performed a deep diaphragmatic breathing exercise taught to him by his respiratory guru of two years, Belisa Vranich. "It brought a calm over me. I was able to maintain my positions and hit all my targets."
Kardian was so impressed with the changes Vranich's instruction wrought ("it lowers my blood pressure and heart rate, allows nervous excitement to leave me") that he referred his son-in-law, Michael DeBiase, 30, a competitive jiu-jitsu fighter, to her. "I kept running out of gas with a couple rounds left in the match because of how I was breathing; in certain positions, I couldn't get enough air." DeBiase performed Vranich's exercises while running errands, walking down the street, and at work. "After a few months I entered the NAGA World Championships and beat several black belts—as a brown belt. My classmates said I made it seem effortless."
For the past 15 years, Vranich, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, has been teaching CEOs, SWAT units, DEA officers, and Carnegie Hall musicians the most basic of human functions—breathing. "I look at your dysfunctional, subpar breathing and completely dismantle it," she explains. Indeed, Vranich's method (detailed below) goes beyond simple eyes-closed inhales and exhales. Her aim is to overhaul students' involuntary respiratory patterns (how one subconsciously takes in oxygen) in the name of consuming more O2, which in theory keeps stress at bay and increases overall stamina. Now, with her new group "lung workout" offered at New York City's Willspace fitness studio, she's bringing better breathing to the masses. In the 55- or 90-minute classes, Vranich wraps measuring tapes around clients' torsos, pushes their stomachs with her hands, and assures them it's okay if they pass out or cry. (Both have happened before.)