I’m a fan of Buteyko Breathing. It’s a bit strange, to be sure. But then, most things are strange…especially professional sports. And personally, I enjoy Buteyko breathing much more than, say, American football.
If you’ve never heard of Buteyko breathing, then here’s a brief bit of background on the subject. In the second half of the 20th Century a Ukranian doctor named Konstantin Buteyko (pictured left) developed a system of breath retraining that he believed was nothing short of a panacea for all sorts of health problems, including asthma, heart disease, anxiety conditions, and probably even cancer. The breathing exercises and lifestyle recommendations that he developed now have somewhat of a cult following across the globe. There are Buteyko professionals all across the U.S. who will teach you, for a fee, to do Buteyko reduced breathing exercises. Personally, I learned from a book. I learned from Patrick McKeown’s Close Your Mouth book. And on this page I’ll give you a brief introduction.
The basic idea underlying the Buteyko breathing method is that many (or perhaps all) sick people hyperventilate. I cannot personally verify that this is true, and so I will not make any such claims myself. But this is what Buteyko breathing aims to correct in theory. Whether or not this is the mechanism by which Buteyko breathing is effective in helping people heal I do not know, but however it does work, it has helped me tremendously. The theory is that sick people hyperventilate, thus exhaling too much carbon dioxide, which then reduces body’s ability to utilize oxygen. Therefore, the theory states that by reducing breathing volume it is possible to retain greater amounts of carbon dioxide and improve oxygen utilization. Again, I don’t know if this is exactly what happens. But I do know that modifying my habitual breathing has been very helpful for me.
The first thing to note about the Buteyko method is that all breathing is done through the nose. The reasoning for this is that the nose provides important filtering functions and it naturally limits the volume of air exchange with every breath. So anyone beginning the Buteyko breathing method who is in the habit of breathing through the mouth is first encouraged to breathe only through the nose. This extends to night-time breathing as well, and so those who breathe through the mouth at night are encouraged to find ways to breathe only through the nose while sleeping. One way to achieve this is to tape the mouth shut at night. There are also chin straps that could serve this purpose.
The foundation of the Buteyko method is a diagnostic exercise called the Control Pause, or CP. This is meant to be the measurement, in seconds, of oxygen reserves in the body. (If you happen to have extreme anxiety or other severe condition then Buteyko tradition cautions against any breath holding such as with the CP test. Therefore, use your own judgment as to whether or not it is appropriate for you to do this test. If not, you can still do the reduced breathing exercise without measuring your CP until your symptoms reduce.) The way to measure the CP is to do the following:
- Breathe normally through your nose for several rounds if inhalation and exhalation, relaxing your breathing.
- After an exhalation take a small inhalation through your nose.
- Exhale, and then hold the breath by closing your mouth and pinching the nose closed so that no air can enter.
- Watch a clock or watch that indicates seconds, and continue to hold your breath for only so long as it is reasonably comfortable. Do not strain to hold your breath for as long as possible.
- At the first sign of air hunger, note the time, and inhale through your nose. The inhalation should be smooth and controlled, no larger than a typical inhalation. If it is larger or gasping then you have held your breath too long.
The number of seconds that you can hold your breath at the bottom of an exhalation until the first signs of air hunger is your CP.
Buteyko found that CP correlates with state of health. <20 CP indicates poor health (<10 is often very severe.) 20-30 CP usually indicates some minor health problems. 30-40 CP usually indicates good health with some health problems brought on by certain stimuli such as specific allergens. And 40+ CP is meant to correlate to good health without qualifications. Again, I cannot confirm that this is true for everyone. I can say that as my own CP has increased I have noticed improvements in my health.
For all the breathing exercises in the Buteyko method the inhalations are active and the exhalations are passive. Furthermore, all inhalations are done using the thoracic diaphragm as the primary inspiration muscle. This is all in line with the basic anatomy of breathing in the human body, and so it makes a lot of sense. The way to measure progress in this is to place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. The belly should move outward on inhalation and should relax and move slightly back inward on a passive exhalation. Meanwhile, the chest should not move. If you notice that your chest moves during breathing then stay with this as an exercise until the only movement is in your abdomen and not in your chest.
The fundamental breathing exercise in the Buteyko breathing method is basic reduced breathing whereby you strive to reduce the inhalation volume. The way to do this is to start out breathing as usual for several rounds, and then on the next inhalation only inhale about 3/4 of the usual volume. Continue breathing in this fashion, inhaling only 3/4 of the usual volume. The idea is to reduce the volume enough that you feel a very mild air hunger, but not so much that it is stressful. It is important that you maintain a mild sense of air hunger by keeping the inhalation volume below what is usual for you. The key is to make it sustainable for about 20 minutes. If you reduce the volume too much then you will feel air hunger that is too strong and you will not be able to maintain it for long enough. Patrick McKeown suggests that the air hunger should be similar to what you might feel if going for a walk. Over the course of a 20 minute session you may find that the 3/4 volume becomes easier and the air hunger reduces. If so, then reduce the volume a bit more in order to maintain the same level of air hunger.
That is the basic exercise of Buteyko breathing. There are other exercises that one can do after becoming proficient at the basic exercise. The intermediate and advanced exercises involve breath holds at the bottom of exhalation and physical exercise such as walking combined with reduced breathing. I may write about these at another time.
I want to add another note here to state that I don’t necessarily believe that Buteyko breathing is the be-all-end-all of health and wellness. I believe that it can be a great adjunct to other practices and lifestyle modifications. I believe that it has helped me tremendously, but it isn’t the sole thing that turned my health around in a positive direction. For me I have found Buteyko breathing to be very complementary for reducing anxiety and improving metabolism. However, I attribute the positive changes in anxiety primarily to other practices and exercises that I have practiced and developed, and I attribute metabolic improvements mostly to eating and resting. There is a big overlapping effect between all of these things in my own experience: by reducing anxiety I was able to eat more and by eating more I was able to reduce my anxiety. So all of these practices and changes in my lifestyle worked together in a positive feedback loop to build health and reveal happiness and peace in my life.
UPDATE: I received an email asking about how I reconcile the traditional Buteyko dietary teachings with my own views regarding the importance of eating more to improve metabolic health. Here is the reply I sent in email:
I am an advocate for doing what works and being honest about your own needs versus following the dictates of some system. I personally have found tremendous benefit from Buteyko breathing as a guideline but not as a rule. Frankly, I find a good deal of Buteyko breathing teachings to be a bit obsessive and even borderline cultish. I should probably add a note about this in the blog post to make this clear. In the Buteyko obsessive community upping the CP is the most important thing above all else. Some recommend no talking no laughing no coughing no sneezing and sleeping only on the left side in addition to dietary recommendations. I just don’t agree. I think the breathing exercises, done with a light attitude and a smile can be tremendously helpful. I completely understand the deep desire to regain health, and so I understand how a practice that can be helpful can be turned into an obsession, but I don’t think it is healthy to do so. I think it is best to do it with an inquisitive and curious attitude, but don’t take it too seriously. Above all, relax, smile, and enjoy life. That is my view of it. You have to understand that I am, perhaps ironically, a bit obsessive about NOT being obsessive simply because of my history of being so obsessive with negative consequences. So I try not to take any practices too seriously.
If a person needs to eat more (i.e. low metabolism or history of starvation) then this person should eat more. Breathing exercises don’t change that or make an excuse for not eating more when it is appropriate and necessary to do so. I don’t know what your story is, and so I don’t know if you need to eat more or not. But if you do then my advice would be to try the reduced breathing exercise if you are inspired to do so AND eat more. Also, I don’t personally find that eating more or less makes such a difference in breathing exercises as the obsessives would have us believe. Same as I don’t find that sleeping on my back is a problem. Same as I don’t find that laughing is a problem. In fact, I enjoy sleeping on my back and I enjoy laughing. I also enjoy eating because I feel better. So my advise is to do what you know to be right for you. You probably know, at heart, what is best for your own health and happiness. Since you’ve asked this question, I’m guessing that you know that eating enough is important for you. So if I’m right about that, then I’d advise eating enough.