Sunday, February 21, 2010


I have been spending my days recently re-learning to breathe. I thought I knew how, but apparently not. My recent bout of pneumonia compelled me to go back to my Buteyko breathing exercises to deal with the wheezing and cough that I had. My doctor was scaring me with words like tumor and tuberculosis, and was sending me off for X-rays and CT scans. (No tumor. No TB.) I had to take matters into my own hands.

I first heard about Buteyko five years ago when I just happened to be wandering the isles of my local Borders and a book jumped off the shelf and said, "Read me!" (Does that ever happen to you? It happens to me all the time.) The book was Breathing Free by Theresa Hale. The cover blurb promised that this "5-Day Program" would heal asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Quite a promise! I don't usually believe such wild assertions but I had bronchitis at the time, so I thought it was worth a read.

The method really interested me but I was on my own as far as trying it out. When I did some internet research I found that there one or two websites devoted to the method and virtually no practitioners in this country. Even books other than the Hale book were hard to come by. The method was accepted by the medical establishment in Russia and becoming accepted more and more in England, Australia, and New Zealand after several clinical trials proved that it works, but not here. Happily, when I searched the web for information in January, I found that times have changed and there are many sites and practitioners in the US now. There is even one in Pasadena, whom I promptly called to set up an appointment.

I found that I have become a chest breather and I think that one of the reasons is because I misinterpreted the directions in Hale's book to breathe shallowly. Other Buteyko books use the same word, but what they mean is taking small breaths not great big gulps or big breaths. What they don't mean is to breathe only moving the chest and not the diaphragm. Reduced breathing might be a better term. So I have been practicing erect posture and relaxing my tummy to allow my diaphragm to do its job and gently pull my lungs down with each inhale, and totally relax on each exhale. It's so subtle but the effects are enormous!

Meanwhile I discovered You-Tube. It's amazing what you can find there! And what I found were videos of Buteyko practitioners explaining the method and giving groups of people instructions on the exercises. There is even an interview with Buteyko himself (in Russian, but an English transcription is available). The explanatory videos you can find are by Brian Firth who has an amazing story to tell about his own asthma, Paul O'Connell who has a 17-part introductory seminar starting here, Patrick McKeown (love his Irish accent), and finally Artour Rakhimov. Rakhimov's book, which can be bought online, Normal Breathing: the key to vital health, is the most comprehensive and scientific of the books available in English. The best website for all things Buteyko, including lists of practitioners in many different countries, is here.

But Buteyko isn't only for asthma and other breathing related disorders. That's what so exciting about this idea. Since when we overbreathe we actually deprive our cells of oxygen instead of increasing the supply, our organs cannot function at their best. Our immune system gets overwhelmed and cannot make needed repairs. Our heart works harder, digestion goes slower, muscles get sore, cancers grow. We get panic attacks, hypertension, insomnia, depression, Alzheimer's, hormonal problems (think thyroid and pancreas), and others. Buteyko estimated that there are 150 to 200 health problems that are connected with abnormal breathing, the health problems that are fairly common for modern people. But the Buteyko method is important for everyone who is interested in optimum health.

Because of the subtlety of the method and the seriousness of the diseases it treats, every Buteyko website or author will tell you that you need to learn the technique from someone who is specially trained in it. I would agree with that. It's well worth it to seek out personal instruction and guidance.

The thought has occurred to me that not only should we be eating like our ancestors did, exercising like our ancestors did, and getting plenty of sunshine like our ancestors did, we should be breathing like our ancestors did. I'll talk more about the principles of the method and why I say we should breath like our ancestors in the next post. Oh yes, and I would say that the "5-Day" promise really means five sessions learning the principles and weeks of practice!


  1. That's funny. I have the opposite problem. I am a diaphragm breather.

    When we breathe, our spine moves slightly and the sinovial fluid goes in and out with each breath. A diaphragm breather does not move the fluid out of the thoracic joints in the spine. I have to spend a few minutes each day, practicing Feldenkreis "funny breathing" to articulate my thoracic joints.

  2. I'm glad you called it "funny breathing" because what Buteyko was talking about is normal breathing. The breathing we do most of the day and when we are asleep. The breathing we do when we are not thinking about our breathing.