Take a deep breath.
Isn’t that what people tell you when you’re stressed, angry or in pain?
Breathing is something we do naturally, but the majority of adults are sadly, not doing it right, leading to a number of respiratory ailments. They are probably breathing from the chest or taking in too much air.
Habitually clenching the belly muscles, which is commonly seen among women (to appear slim) and men who are under stress, is one of the main causes for chest breathing. We have learnt to cut ourselves off from uncomfortable feelings and sensations by gripping the abdominal muscles.
Good breathing uses the diaphragm (abdominal breathing) instead of the chest.
If you observe a baby or a toddler, you’ll notice him or her breathing with a relaxed belly. This diaphragmatic breathing occurs by default when we lie on our backs or sleep at night. At some point between childhood and adulthood, fear and anxiety creeps in and we forget how to breathe “correctly”.
Ancient mind-body disciplines such as yoga and qigong emphasise breathing less in order to calm and still the mind. Often, heavy chest breathing is a reflection of an agitated or anxious state of mind. When the breath is quiet, the mind is calm, and vice versa.
“Faulty breathing has been around for a while. People tend to believe their breathing is too shallow, but when we breathe from the upper chest, gulping in air through the mouth before each sentence, when we snore, yawn, cough a lot, and awaken in the morning feeling tired with a dry mouth and blocked nose, we are certainly over-breathing. This tendency to involuntarily and habitually over-breathe is known as chronic hyperventilation,” says Shilpa Ghatalia, the owner of Yogshakti, a yoga studio in Kuala Lumpur.
“Many people think breathing less is against the norm, so they take in deep breaths and start to hyperventilate. The word ‘deep’ is misconstrued and there is a lot of misconception about breathing, even among yoga teachers and practitioners. Keyboarding causes us to hyperventilate and no one realises it!”
After 20 years of teaching yoga, Shilpa, 54, discovered the Buteyko method, founded by a Russian medical doctor, Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, who theorised that there was a profound relationship between our breathing pattern and our level of health.
In the early 1950s, one of his practical assignments as a medical student involved monitoring the breathing of terminally ill patients prior to death. Dr Buteyko observed that with approaching death, the patient’s respiration got heavier. By visually observing the patients’ breathing, he was able to predict how many days or hours of life were left.
Dr Buteyko continued his experiments and discovered that deliberate acute hyperventilation quickly worsened the health of patients.
The Russian, who suffered from hypertension, theorised that if overbreathing is the cause for his problem, then by correcting his breathing pattern, he may be able to cure his disorder. Needless to say, he healed himself and conducted clinical studies on more than 200 patients to confirm his findings.
He gradually developed his method comprising a system of breathing exercises and other auxiliary activities to restore normal breathing in his patients.
When Dr Buteyko formally presented his findings and a detailed theoretical explanation to the medical elite in Russia in 1960, they were outraged at the proposal of a non-medical treatment that claimed superior results.
However, by 1967, official statistics cited over 1,000 people had recovered from asthma, hypertension and other related conditions by practising this method.
The drug-free approach of Dr Buteyko’s method is slowly being recognised as a viable complement to allopathic medicine.
“I first learnt this method more than a decade ago as I was interested in its impact on the mind. My posture improved, yoga was much easier and my quality of life got better.
“Breathing less also allows one to go into meditation easily. They become more focused as the breath is in accordance to their meta-bolism. To learn this method, no prior know-ledge of yoga is required,” says Shilpa, who will be conducting a special workshop on the Buteyko method on April 22 and 23.
According to Dr Rosalba Courtney, an osteopath, health consultant and breathing therapist, many trained health professionals think that breathing means getting as much oxygen as possible. They don’t realise there needs to be a correct balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
“If our bodies are depleted of carbon dioxide because of over-breathing, we are unable to use oxygen properly, leaving us depleted of oxygen in the tissues. People who over-breathe feel breathless.
“Low volume breathing often reduces the effort of breathing, leads to relaxation of respiratory muscles, and improves the function of the diaphragm,” she says.
Yoga practitioners may ask, what is the difference between pranayama (breath control) and Buteyko?
Hypoventilation (breathing less than you think you need at the time) is the essence of both Buteyko and pranayama. By studying the Buteyko method, one is better able to understand pranayama.
The yogis believe your lifespan is measured by the number of breaths you take. Hence, the more you breathe, the more you deplete life force or prana from the body.
Shilpa explains, “Both techniques (if carried out correctly) cause the body to enter a state of mild respiratory acidosis, which immediately calms the nervous system. This promotes increased parasympathetic activity of the autonomic nervous system, which help to enhance digestion, immune and reproductive body system activities.”
In contrast, hyperventilation causes the body to enter a state of mild respiratory alkalosis, which stimulates the nervous system.
“It is quite normal for people who have breathed excessively during swimming or while working out at a gym to feel very hungry afterwards, whereas someone doing yoga with reduced breathing may expend the same physical energy, but may not feel as hungry afterwards,” she says.
The Buteyko method is easy to learn, even for young children, though it requires some discipline. It claims to provide significant improvement for those with asthma, insomnia, sinusitis, eczema, dental problems, migraine, emphysema, panic attacks, weight issues and other conditions.
However, it is contraindicated if you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or have conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart problems, brain tumour or kidney disease.
For athletes, Shilpa says, “It’s like simulating high altitude training.”