In this age, there’s a slew of medical drugs and equipment that can help them. Yet there may be the ultimate alternative prescription: breathing.
Sounds too simplistic? Margo Lao, certified Ashtanga yoga practitioner, explains: “The breath is connected to the mind. Extremes of emotion affect the way you breathe.” Exploiting this connection for more positive effects is the objective of the breath-centric practice of Pranayama yoga.
Pranayama is a technique to contain the breath so that the yogi can practice for a long time without getting tired. A slower breath slows the heart rate, so exertion and the consequent fatigue are kept to a minimum. Also, by “locking” in the breath, internal heat is created, as opposed to the external heat of Bikram yoga. In both methods, heat is used to keep muscles functioning optimally while reducing the risk of injury.
“Control your breath and you control everything,” goes the yoga adage. Physiology illustrates the point more bluntly: When a person takes shallow breaths, less oxygen reaches the brain. Conversely, deeper breaths results in the efficient use of oxygen, and the person is able to function better.
Lao used to suffer bouts of allergic rhinitis, and is now sneeze-free after switching her breathing methods. Her brother-in-law, a triathlete, benefited from the breathing technique as well, with a boost in his athletic performance.
However, don’t expect to learn this technique overnight. “Pranayama is a whole prescription,” reveals Lao. “You can’t just look it up in a book. It’s tailor-made per person … [and] you have to go to someone who knows what [he’s] doing.”
Russian breath revolution
In the 1950s, Russian medical scientist Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko made a radical discovery: Nine out of 10 people breathe too much, and this incorrect breathing is connected to many diseases we face today. His research was sparked by his observation of terminally ill patients, who respired at an above-normal rate. The phenomenon was attributed to carbon dioxide, widely known as a “waste gas.”
Jac Vidgen, senior Buteyko practitioner, says, “What most people don’t realize is that carbon dioxide is about fully as important as oxygen.”
Let’s put on our science caps for a moment and go back to a concept we probably took up in high school physics: the Bohr effect. It states that in the absence of carbon dioxide, oxygen becomes more tightly bound to hemoglobin, the component of blood that carries oxygen to the cells. Following logic, the more carbon dioxide we exhale, the less oxygen reaches our cells. This is why advocates of Buteyko’s breathing technique say that overbreathing is clinically dangerous; counter-intuitively, breathing deeply and more rapidly results in oxygen-deprivation. This is actually the concept behind breathing into a paper bag when one feels faint—increasing carbon dioxide in the body increases the oxygen delivery to the brain.
To corroborate this principle, Dr. Buteyko found that those suffering from chronic diseases all ventilated above the recommended three to four liters of air per minute at rest. In contrast, those who breathed the correct volume demonstrated excellent strength and stamina. In line with these discoveries, he created the Buteyko method—a drug-free breathing technique that claims to have the ability to reverse chronic diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “The idea is simple,” writes Christopher Drake, the first Westerner to earn a diploma from the Buteyko Institute in Moscow. “Retrain the breathing pattern to the optimal, and the level of carbon dioxide will also become optimal, and related health problems … will diminish proportionally.”
Accessible health tool
In his 18 years of teaching Buteyko’s method in Asia, Vidgen claims to have had dramatic results. “It’s healed people with sleep apnea and gotten them off the CPAP [or an assistive breathing device], and … produced immediate results in patients with mild to moderate asthma, allergic rhinitis, anxiety disorders.” That’s not to say it’s a cure-all. Vidgen is careful in pointing out that breathing is not the only factor that propagates chronic diseases. “But it’s a major factor, and we have access to it.”
Buteyko might sound very appealing to people with respiratory or other chronic diseases who have grown increasingly frustrated with ineffective drugs. “But the real benefits [of Buteyko] are in its preventive health benefits. Everybody would benefit from more optimal breathing,” says Vidgen.