On a Friday evening several months ago, I took a breathwork class at the pop-up location of the digital fitness and mindfulness platform Open in Venice, California. And as I laid on the hardwood floor, trying to keep up with the quick, rhythmic, controlled breathing exercises that were making me feel both uncomfortable and out of control, my suspicions were confirmed: As a healing modality, breathwork is intense and can even be intimidating.
“Breathing is one of the body’s few functions that happens both automatically and voluntarily. We define breathwork as any practice that manipulates the breath,” says Raed Khawaja, CEO and co-founder of Open, a digital wellness platform that aims to provide accessible, inclusive wellness practices, like breathwork. “By manipulating the breath through targeted breathwork techniques, we can access a multitude of physiological and psychological benefits. Some have been studied in clinical settings, others are more anecdotal and occur on an emotional level.” Some of these benefits include decreasing anxiety and promoting better sleep.
The first part of the class, marked by a feeling of breathlessness, had me questioning all the life decisions that led me to that exact moment in time, which I was regretting at that moment. But I kept going, and then I felt it: the stillness and silence people describe finding during meditation that I’d never seemed to be able to find. You know how when you start your computer, the machine whirs to warm up, but then it stops and there’s a beat before the screen comes back on? That’s how I felt for the duration of class, after I got past the breathlessness of the warmup exercises. And after class, I felt ready to release—like I wanted to go hide in my room and sob, but in a good way.
“I believe mindfulness is the gateway to well-being,” Khawaja says. “I was raised in a wonderful Muslim household and learned prayer from a really young age. I would not have called it a ‘meditation practice’ at the time, but that’s exactly what it was for me. Every Friday, I’d join hundreds of people at my local mosque as we prayed in unison with a billion other muslims around the world.” While he has since grown away from his religious practice, he says that group prayer was his earliest exposure to what community feels like, and that has been a guiding inspiration in cultivating the Open community.
“We set out to create the feeling you get when you practice with your friends and community at your local studio—a feeling many of us really missed last year.” —Raed Khawaja, CEO and co-founder of Open
Though Open was originally conceived to be a brick-and-mortar studio (it hosted over 100 pop-ups in San Francisco in 2019, and was scheduled to open a permanent studio in 2020 before the pandemic hit), those plans changed. At the onset of the pandemic, “we quickly ramped up our team and directed all of our resources and focus towards translating the magic of the in-person experience into something you could access from anywhere,” Khawaja says. “We invested a lot of resources to ensure we delivered the most immersive audiovisual experience for livestreams.” From there, the team considered which features would best allow users to engage with its community, which includes people from more than 130 cities and 40 countries.
“People love that you can turn your camera on to get live feedback from teachers, chat with others in the class, and even connect around moments from birthdays to world events,” Khawaja says. “We set out to create the feeling you get when you practice with your friends and community at your local studio—a feeling many of us really missed last year.”
The app offers classes in three modalities: Breathe, Move, and Meditate. (If you’re not sure where to start, there’s a guided survey that can point you in a direction based on your specific goals). That said, each of the experiences on the app are “designed to meet you where you are,” Khawaja says. “Someone who has never meditated before can drop into the same class as someone who has been practicing for 10 years, and they’ll both benefit from reliable access to presence and a sense of community.”
You can also filter classes by modality, duration of the class (there are classes from one minute to 60 minutes long), and instructor. Both on demand and live classes are included with the membership—which, after a two-week free trial, costs either $20 per month or $10 per month with an annual membership—and each class comes with notes about what you can expect to experience. Instructors also state contraindications—like if you are pregnant, have asthma, or are prone to seizures—in both the app and at in-person classes to make sure everyone is safe. Basically, if you’re looking for a Peloton-esque community for mindfulness, breathwork, and meditation (along with Pilates and yoga), Open is your answer.
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