Just Hot Air? This Greek Retreat Wants To Cure You With Oxygen
Pnoé Breathing Life Resort, Crete. Photograph by Olia Paspalaki, courtesy of Pnoé
As I climb into the aluminium and stainless-steel tube, I thank my lucky stars that I am not claustrophobic. It is about the same diameter as a water slide, so not oppressively narrow, but my toes almost touch one end, while my head is only a few inches from the other. Bright white and lit from the inside with a blue glow, it makes me feel as if I am going to be cryogenically frozen for a long space flight or, less glamorously, as if I am in a tanning salon. As the spa attendant slides the heavy polycarbonate lid shut and bolts it tight, I lie back and close my eyes. Even with headphones on, I can hear the unmistakeable hissing sound of gas being released from a pipe above my head and soon the pressure inside my tin can has built to the point where my ears pop.
I am not here for a tan. If I wanted one, I would not need manufactured ultraviolet light. The Greek sun is beating down outside and most of the other guests at Pnoé Breathing Life, a new five-star hotel on Crete’s north coast, are lounging by the fan-shaped pool or under tastefully earth-toned macramé parasols at the beach. Instead, I am at the cave-like spa inside a £17,000 contraption that, though it may resemble a sunbed, is designed not to ruin my complexion, but to upgrade it – along with, it seems, almost everything else.
My therapist, Mr Spyros Koukous, has already run through an encyclopaedic list of potential benefits, from better skin and improved circulation to stress reduction and even a boosted sex life. Rather than curse his impudence for suggesting I need help with any of these, I decide to give it a whirl.
The magic ingredient in this state-of-the-art pod is oxygen. While in it, I will breathe in about 50 per cent more than I would from the atmosphere. Medical-grade hyperbaric chambers are used to treat decompression sickness in scuba divers and are now being deployed for a range of other chronic conditions from bone infections to long Covid. Recently, however, they have moved from the medical sphere to the woollier arena of wellness. Celebrities such as the musician Usher and the footballer Mr Cristiano Ronaldo are reportedly queuing up to use them. The singer Mr Justin Bieber sleeps in his. Purported results include new skin cells and extra collagen (ie, youth).
Where the A-listers lead, wellness enthusiasts follow. While 80 per cent of the guests at this 60-suite, adults-only hotel are more interested in the farm-to-table organic cuisine and sunset cocktails at the west-facing rooftop bar, there is a significant minority who are drawn by the state-of-the-art wellness facilities, according to Pnoé’s general manager, Mr Giorgos Sirmos. There’s a clue in the hotel’s name, which means “breath” in Greek.
As my session ends, I feel tingly and energised, but I am tempted to credit my time spent lazing by the private pool in my suite’s palm-fringed courtyard as much as my oxygen-flooded blood. If you are expecting immediate results, you will be disappointed. Koukous likens oxygen therapy to a gym session. One alone won’t achieve much. All guests are offered a free trial and then 30-minute sessions are €100 (£86), about half the cost of similar treatments in the UK.
“I am intrigued to learn that we are more likely to be taking too many breaths than too few”
My extra vim and vigour might also have something to do with the second flavour-of-the-moment wellness practice that I have been trialling on this trip. When I agreed to a breathwork class, my inner teenager rolled her eyes. Surely I don’t need to be taught how to breathe?
I have scoffed while Mr Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, roared, “In! Out! Let go!” at weeping celebrities and when the actress turned wellness entrepreneur Ms Gwyneth Paltrow said she sometimes tapes her mouth shut to regulate her breathing during the night, I assumed I was no more likely to try breathwork than any of her other recommendations. But, having listened to the Stanford neuroscientist Professor Andrew Huberman hold forth on his podcast about the scientifically proven benefits of breathwork for both mental and physical health, I felt persuaded to give it a go.
My guide here at Pnoé is Ms Gina Poulou, who, as a vocal coach and professional opera singer, is no slouch at controlling her lungs. It feels rather like a cross between a guided meditation and a yoga class. Sitting on a cork mat in a shady area outside the hotel gym, I am encouraged to breathe from my ribcage and am taken through a series of exercises inhaling, exhaling and holding my breath for different counts.
I am intrigued to learn that we are more likely to be taking too many breaths than too few. Counterintuitively, this leads to a lack of oxygen. Our too-frequent exhalations leave us short of carbon dioxide, which is needed to release the oxygen we have inhaled into our cells. Poulou’s techniques are designed to slow down our breathing and encourage pauses between breaths, with the dual win of better oxygen absorption and a feeling of meditative calm.
“I will be detoxing like an absolute champion”
Having started as a sceptic, I am left feeling that not only is the scientific basis for regulating the breath undeniably sound, but that the practice of it is pleasingly calming, although some elements activate the cynic in me. As a bashful Brit, I struggle with the moments when I am asked to hum my exhalations at a worryingly audible volume and when I bump into Poulou at breakfast after the class, I am hard-pushed not to snigger when she asks after the quality of my urine. Apparently, I will be detoxing like an absolute champion.
My body had been supplied with plenty of toxins to work with. I’d sampled an extensive range of Cretan wines in the hotel restaurant, at the nearby beach club Cicada and up in the mountains at the organic farm that supplies Pnoé’s fresh produce, where I’d finished a multi-course feast with a shot of homemade raki. I am happy to report that breathwork (along with a strong coffee) seems to help with a slight hangover, something Paltrow may have forgotten to mention.