Myth and truth about breathing

Intro to Buteyko Breathing

I love it when everything I thought I knew on a particular subject gets turned upside down! A while back I discovered that deep breathing was exactly what I did NOT need to do more of. Do you gulp air in between sentences when you talk, and sing? Most people aren’t even aware they’re doing that, but we could greatly benefit from retraining our breathing patterns.

Even if you think you know about proper breathing, please read on, because this is actually quite different from what is commonly taught as healthy breathing practices.

A Russian physician named Constantin Buteyko discovered some important principles of breathing in the 1950’s, and the breathing method he developed has a long history of safe and effective use. It corrects hyperventilation, which causes many common disorders, and surprisingly 98% of us are actually hyperventilating as our usual way of breathing!

The Buteyko method is sometimes known for treating asthma or panic attacks, but really it’s for everyone who can’t hold their breath for 60 seconds comfortably!

The Buteyko website says this about what it can correct:

“Most of all, diseases, which often accompany bronchial asthma: chronic rhinitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, hypertension, and stenocardia. Bronchial asthma and stenocardia are only 2 distinctive models, which effectively demonstrate application of the Buteyko method. However, these are, by far, not the first diseases, which can be successfully treated using the Buteyko method.

Normalization of the immune response removes appearance of various forms of allergy. Improvements in blood supply and oxygenation of the whole organism make application of the Buteyko method efficient in solving problems which are connected with toxicosis of pregnancy, sleep disturbances, insomnia, snoring, sleep apnoea, and also for a wide range of neurotic diseases of the nervous system.”

This is based on the fact that CO2 is actually not purely the waste gas we think it is. CO2 actually helps to make O2 available to the cells, by releasing hemoglobin. This is known as the Bohr effect. Without enough CO2, you can gulp air and still not feel like you’re getting enough.

This is the situation not only with asthmatics but with people who have chronic anxiety, panic attacks, depression, any condition associated with stress, all kinds of nervous and immune system disorders, cardiovascular disorders, migraine, etc.

The Buteyko reduced breathing practice stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows for the relaxation response. Our chronic hyperventilation is keeping us in a state of fight-or-flight all the time, where the sympathetic nervous system is stuck in the “ON” position rather than turning off most of the time when it’s not needed. We’re really not being chased by bears all the time, to be honest. And we waste loads of energy and stress many vital functions when our metabolism is stuck in that crisis mode.

Nuts and Bolts

Now, to introduce you to what a beginning Buteyko routine might look like..  And I also want to emphasize that this is just an introduction to the topic. Many people will have a better experience with coaching by a Buteyko practitioner to learn many of the more subtle aspects of the practice. 

First to define some terms:

CP = Control Pause. you sit quietly, breathe normally for a minute or two, then after an exhale (don’t try to exhale every last bit of breath, just exhale naturally) hold your breath comfortably and time how long you do that before you get a strong urge to inhale. if you have to gasp or gulp air after that, you’ve gone too far; do it again. you should just be able to resume normal breathing after that. it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. a little strange, maybe, but not uncomfortable.

This is used as a diagnostic and also as a measure of your progress. if you are below 40 seconds, the Buteyko method is indicated.

RB = Reduced Breathing– this is breathing shallowly but also slowly. you sit comfortably, or reclining, and allow the breath to get “smaller.” A helpful technique i use is just noticing the breath. don’t try to do anything to it; just watch it, and it naturally gets smaller. you can put a hand on your belly to feel it rising on the inhale and going down on the exhale. You watch the movement getting smaller. also notice that there is a natural pause after the exhale, but don’t try to extend it. just “intend” to breathe smaller and slower.

A Beginning Routine:

  • Do a CP
  • Do 10 minutes of RB
  • Do 3 minutes of normal breathing
  • Do a CP

This is one set. The number of sets you need to do depends on your particular circumstances, but a general recommendation is to do one set 3x/day the first day, then increase the number of sets up to a total of 80-90 min of RB each day.

If you’ve done it correctly, the last CP should be higher. The RB is the real therapeutic part of it.

There are many variations on this, and as I mentioned before, it’s highly recommended to work with a Buteyko practitioner to guide you in practicing the method correctly and safely especially if you have health issues.

Highly Recommended Reading:

Book: Close Your Mouth, by Patrick McKeown

The best book on Buteyko theory and practice, it describes several other simple Buteyko practices that are suited to various needs.