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ISSUE No: 48 July 1998 SECTION: Features WRITER: Phil Cornwel-Smith

Waiting to Exhale



Did you know we're all mildly hyperventilating? Phil Cornwel-Smith learns from the Buteyko method how breathing less can cure asthma, allergies, stress and even snoring.


"You don't need to wear a mask in Bangkok if you know how to breathe"
"Though some results are miraculous, they're in fact earned, logical and physiologically based."

"Take a deep breath." Sound advice when you're under stress you'd assume and a common response around the world, but not according to Jac Vidgen, an Australian practitioner of Buteyko, a self-corrective method of breathing. He urges you to "breathe less"!
"What they're really saying is control your breathing," he explains. "It's only very recently as upright creatures that we've experienced stress the way we do. Our heart rate and breathing increase and chemical changes occur. Now, that's appropriate for a hunter or fighter, [but not] for someone sitting behind a desk or in traffic. Our respiratory centre, part of that bank of computers in the rear of the brain that controls the body's automatic processes, has been reprogrammed by the culture we live in."
Don't be alarmed - you can change it back! "In the 1950s, Russian respiratory physician Dr Constantin Pavlovich Buteyko, found that by re-training incorrect breathing habits, chronic patients significantly improved in a whole range of breathing related conditions, such as allergies, sinusitis, hayfever, anxiety, sleep apnoeia, emphysema and chronic fatigue syndrome, but the easiest [to improve] is asthma."
"I was trained five years ago by a Russian protégé of Buteyko, Alexander Stalmatsky, who'd been brought to Australia [where 10% of the population is asthmatic], then New Zealand, where in the two countries we've had more than 10,000 patients and 30 practitioners," says Vidgen, who's giving a lecture and clinic at Marisa Collection over July 21-30. Buteyko's now become a hot fad in the UK, the USA and on the World Wide Web, but it's actually rooted in logic.
Consider this: "You eat two to four times a day. If you don't eat you can live for a month. If you don't drink you can live for days. You sleep two to ten hours a day; if you don't sleep you can live for a week. Exercise is good three times a week, but you don't have to exercise to live. You breathe 30,000 times a day. If you don't breathe you die within five to ten minutes. That primary function has profound effects on the body and mind."
Now compare public knowledge about diet with widespread ignorance about our intake of air. "In physiology books normal breathing at rest is 4-6 litres of air per minute to balance body gases and metabolic function," explains Vidgen. "We breathe 10-20 times a minute, which should mean 0.25 to 0.5 litre per breath." Problem is most people in this industrial century have come to breathe two, three, four or even more times that. That means you and I are hyperventilating!
"Hyperventilation for most of us means 'huh-uh-huh-uh-huh' [demonstrating a heaving chest and wheezing], but if you were to pant that'd be between 30 and 50 litres per minute. So we're talking about a relatively low level of hyperventilation. Now unless your very well trained that's very hard to recognise."
So why don't doctors ever test our minute tidal volume? "We've discussed this with high ranking physicians in Australia. One response was: 'It's not diagnositically interesting, because it's easily influencable by the patient' - which is exactly why what we do works!" exclaims Vidgen, aghast. "But if a patient can influence their own health, that's highly threatening to allopathic modern medicine."
And Vidgen's due to encounter opposition to this method from Thai medical doctors during a panel debate at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on July 29 from 8pm.
Sounds like the usual naturopathic anti-establishment mantra, but Jac feels that the "valid alternative treatments" similarly tackle symptoms and not causes, and invade our bodies with chemicals. "We don't invalidate other approaches," he asserts. "We give people tools and a structure, but the only thing that can consistently change it is you. People have to be willing to take a new level of responsibility for their health."
"If you've been doing something wrong enough for long enough, when you try to change it, it's got to feel uncomfortable. It causes headaches, just like fasting for a day would," says Vidgen, comapring it to the Alexander posture technique. Because books, videos or tapes can't overcome what habitually 'feels right' nor manage individual response and progress, Buteyko's best taught by an expert and Vidgen plans to train up locals on twice-yearly visits to Bangkok, Bali and Manila.
"At first you feel, 'I'm not getting enough air.' Of course that's not true," says Vidgen of the initial discomfort of pauses between breaths in the training. Most people think breathing's just about getting oxygen; actually it's a discomfort level of carbon dioxide that triggers inhalation - something we habitually override.
"When you hyperventilate you're gasping oxygen in, [but] exhale carbon dioxide faster than you make it. Now you'd say 'what does that matter, it's a waste gas.' We prefer to call it an end product and before you get rid of it, CO2 plays a range of important functions. It's the forgotten chemical."
"The result is you don't absorb oxygen effectively from your blood, your pH in your blood and respiratory system tends to shift to alkaline, and the muscles that surround your myriad smooth vessels will be inclined to spasm or constrict." That's not just your brochial tubes, but also the micro-vessels in your brain, your cardiovascular passages, your digestive and reproductive passages and all your blood vessels." You breathing's probably increased on hearing that!
The spasming during an asthmatic attack is because they're not getting enough carbon dioxide - a natural defence mechanism undermined by non-emergency use of oral puffers to open bronchial tubes artificially. "I firmly believe one reason asthma's worse these days is the availability of bronchio-dilatory drugs: Ventalin, Bricanol, Theadur, Theofalin," says Vidgen combatively, "though they're wonderful in life or death situations."
Puffers are commonly used in Thailand at the slightest slightest sign of discomfort, when they should be on preventatitve therapy, such as steroids. "Many people have a great fear of that, but in fact our bodies make cortico-steroids," he says. "When you don't breathe correctly you don't make enough of them and they're the very chemical you need to help control your breathing."
This phenomenon is akin to antibiotics and anti-histamines weakening your immune system, which, Buteyko claims, is another beneficiary of correct breathing. As are cardio-vascular, hormonal, neuro, circulatory and digestive systems, sugar and cholesterol levels, common colds, allergies, anxiety attacks and even snoring. In fact, Buteyko breathing has been an integral part of the Russian health system since 1981 and is used to treat complains as diverse as angina, haemorroids, varicose veins and even cancer.
If you want individual or family training, Vidgen can do that, but prefers one-to-one in a group, because of the benefits of feedback. His two-hour workshops are on three consecutive days, with breaks to practice before and after the fourth session, plus a fifth, "to fine tune things so the person's confident, clearly aware of what it's doing and how to manage it according to their life. If you need follow up, I do that for free," he offers. "Very few people have that need."
To my shock, his test of my breathing efficiency (I'm average) instantly relieves my pollution-induced congestion. "If you breathe too much bad air, guess what, you get a blocked nose," laughs Vidgen. "It's your body telling you: breathe less. You don't need to wear a mask in Bangkok if you know how to breathe." Bad news for Ventalin shareholders.
"Most people would say their skin's the most exposed part of their body to the air," he adds. "In fact if you spead out your skin it'd cover a few sqaure metres. If you spread out the alvaeoloi pockets from your lungs they'd cover a football field. Now, if you use the wrong hole you're exposing unfiltered, non-humitity controled air at the wrong unregulated rate to this huge mass of tissue. Your nose is a much better regulator [and] a very efficient filter."
"We usually look at health in terms of insurance, or fixing things," he observes. "Buteyko's an investment in your long term health, which most of us don't do very often." And you can imagine its value to athletes, divers, actors and singers. Australian Olympic swimmers, rowers, kayakers and ironmen already use it, as do Russian cosmonoauts in space, for obvious reasons.
"We like asthmatics because we know they'll work hard and get quick improvement," grins Vidgen, who overcame hayfever, sinusitis and psoriasis through Buteyko, even though his breathing still isn't perfect. "Those I'm seeing in Bangkok have reduced relief medication by about 90% in four sessions. Though some results are miraculous, they're in fact earned, logical and physiologically based."
Vidgen recommends mild lifestyle changes in eating, sleeping and exercise habits ("Aerobics done with the mouth open is a joke.") You might assume your breathing's most natural during sleep, but it's often at its worst, as morning phlegm reminds many of us. "Humans probably breathe better when not lying flat," says Vidgen, who recommends dozing on your side (left is better due to bronchial layout); on your back is an absolute no-no.
"It's most people's experience that they get shorter and more efficient sleep, better energy levels and a decrease in hunger," he says, further claiming: "If you're overweight, it'll usually result in you losing weight."
As Buteyko detoxifies the body, suppressed symptoms temporarily recur and smokers expel some startling substances. "Serious smokers justify continuing to smoke by saying they'll be able to deal with it better," remarks Vidgen. "And you know, they're right! Wouldn't you want a strong body if you're going to put even more garbage into it than you get out of the air?"
But health freaks aren't always on target. I'd filled my 5.5 litre lungs in my daily yoga regimen with pride, only to learn I've simply gotten better at deep breathing bad air! Gulp.
"Actually how those yogic masters of pranayama breathe in ordinary life is hardly at all," says Vidgen, observing how humans with a high consciousness - priests, yogis, monks, martial artists - usually have highly trained self-discipline of their body, mind and breathing. There's an inseparable relationship between your breathing and your mind." And when meditating, sure enough, my breath settles to the imperceptible level textbooks recommend.
Essentially, Buteyko's about restoring pre-modern norms. Native American braves trained to hunt through their breath not moving a feather held under their nose, says Vidgen. "They also slept with their babies, holding their lips closed. What a good idea. Train children to breath correctly and they'll have a much healthier life."


Copyright 1998 by Bangkok Metro Magazine .