The Russians do quite well in Olympic swimming, and if one notices, it is apparent that while some others are huffing and puffing through their mouths, many Russian athletes appear to practice exercises similar to Buteyko exercises before sports performances. Just as eating a bowl of spaghetti 15 minutes before an event would be detrimental, so is increasing the breathing. The Russian Natalia Molchanova has broken almost all categories of freediving records, and it is interesting to watch her breathing before a dive, as well as after a dive. Static Apnea training also includes minimizing breath.

To put it simply, Buteyko exercises are a set of tools, which allow "asthmatics" and others who are prone to hypocapnia (deficiency of carbon dioxide in the blood resulting from hyperventilation) caused by overbreathing, to return to stasis without (or with fewer) drugs, under medical supervision. Buteyko breathing exercises recalibrate the baroreceptors and parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for a lower breathing rate, and more normalized CO2, carbonate and pH levels in the blood, allowing the tissues to utilize oxygen better. Remember doctors using paper bags to stabilize asthmatics? (Do not breathe into a bag without medical supervision!)

Years ago I took a confined space training class, and we took turns blowing into an O2 detector after holding our breaths. Most trainees yielded 16-18% O2. I blew a 14% since I held my breath much longer. Assuming that the office had ~19% O2, this taught me that normal breathing is not very efficient, and perhaps has to be inefficient to allow for sufficient tensile strength of lung and vascular tissue, and delicate balance of blood chemicals. It occurred to me that more volume of air passing through the lungs does not necessarily mean that more oxygen is being passed to the bloodstream.

Two days after diving in the Pacific ocean, I was hiking in the snow up Cotopaxi at about 16,000' (+4800m) above sea level. My extremely fit, but asthma-prone girlfriend began having shortness of breath. I also became light headed, and began experimenting with my breath as I trekked up the volcano. Several such times I inhaled deeply and compressed my chest with my intercostal (rib) muscles for a long moment. This seemed to help increase my consciousness even after I released the breath, and I realized that I had the power to change my physiologic state quite simply. It became clear to me how the mechanics of overbreathing/ heavy breathing and the partial pressure dynamics (elaborated by Buteyko doctors and scientists) may have much to do with the asthmatic response.

Many doctors now agree that overconsumption of nutrients (overeating) does not guarantee more nutrients to the tissues, but not many seem to consider respiration rate in the respiration equation, that overbreathing may play a key role in respiratory "disease." In fact, some doctors no longer check respiration rate during an exam. It is commonly known that increased obesity results in metabolism dysfunction, large meals cause blood sugar spikes and metabolism accelerators (dieting drugs and supplements) due not increase stasis in tissues, making loss of fat more difficult in the long term. Similarly, overbreathing causes a spiraling of processes which decrease alvioli efficiency, disrupting breathing rate "calibration" and oxygenation of other tissues, decreasing health and oxygenation. Despite more oxygen entering the lungs, because of the low CO2 level, less oxygen actually makes it to the cells that need it. This overbreathing could be triggered by stress, anxiety, nasal congestion, allergies and other triggers and factors which cause people to breathe more frequently and deeply than their body would otherwise. One problem of low CO2 levels is a scientific hypothesis proposed by Artour Rakhimov, PhD, that chronic hyperventilation promotes disease and cancer. Previous research has suggested that chronic hyperventilation washes out CO2 from each cell of the human organism. Since CO2 is a dilator of small blood vessels, low CO2 concentrations lead to the constrictions of arterioles causing problems with blood and oxygen delivery.

In addition, low CO2 values cause inability of red blood cells to efficiently release whatever little oxygen they bring (the suppressed Bohr effect). The final outcome is hypoxia in the tissues, including the vital organs.

Some argue that "We are under constant stress because we don't breathe enough," without really measuring the actual volume of gases inhaled. Typically respiratory rate and volume increase when stress increases. Even the Johnson & Johnson Company sponsored research by University of Miami School of Medicine (Director Tiffany Field, Ph.D.) shows that massage increased pulmonary function in asthma patients. Once I was at the doctor, and a nurse assistant checked my pulse, bp and respiratory rate: the assistant reported that I had 18 breaths per minute, however I measured 6-7 breaths. I asked how she measured it, and she stated simply that "everyone has 18-20 breaths." Such inaccuracy may lead to wrong conclusions by medical staff.

In 2005, the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine reported that "Hypocapnic but Not Metabolic Alkalosis Impairs Alveolar Fluid Reabsorption." What this means is that a low CO2 level causes blood pH to change, and more fluid build up in the lungs. Thus the more a person breathes, the more CO2escapes, and more fluid may build up in the lungs. Buteyko theory includes the facts of the body's attempts to regulate carbonates and alkalinity.

Although Buteyko Therapy originated in the Ukraine Forty years ago, and has gained medical acceptance in Russia, Australia, Asia and England, it remains a seldom used "alternative" treatment in the USA. My mentor, John Harris, brought the first Buteyko Therapy Practitioner to the USA in the 1980's: Rosalba Courtney, ND, DO, DipAc, CA, an Australian osteopath, naturopath, California-certified acupuncturist, and chairperson of the Australasian Buteyko Association. The practice has been taught to many practitioners and countless patients who, under medical supervision, have overcome much or all of their dependence on asthma medications. John is said to breathe 3/min at rest, and 1/min during meditation.

Most meditation practices promote slowed breathing, and can accomplish these effects, when breathing is slowed more in ratio to the metabolic rate. Vocalizing the typical "oum" slowly while breathing through the nose only, will slow the breathing, and CO2 levels can stabilize toward a normal level. It is the respiratory rate and partial pressures that mainly control how much O2 in the lungs will pass into the blood. Proper singing and playing wind instruments may have similar effects, partly due to the increased partial pressure inside the lungs.

Most Pilates trainers, Yoga instructors and even physicians speak of shallow and deep breathing, but frequently don't specify breathing rate, or encourage increased rate. Some yoga classes sound like an aerospace wind tunnel. However experienced yogis are rarely seen panting, and even with Ujjayi Pranayama, they breathe s-l-o-w-l-y, which along with the resistance of Ujjayi, causes partial pressure inside the lungs to absorb more of the oxygen while keeping enough carbon dioxide to maintain balance. Have you ever seen a Buddhist monk panting? Have you noticed that healthy older people do not breathe noticeably?

By slowing breathing to more fully utilize O2 efficiency and not depleting CO2 levels necessary for proper muscle and lung physiology, Buteyko breathing is said to enhance performance. Traditional Pilates and certain specific yoga practices that encourage faster breathing rates thus may cause an opposite effect. After I began to master these techniques, my breathing slowed during my workouts, and my efficiency increased. I learned that if my mouth would open during a run, it was time to back off, slow the exhale, until my efficiency increased again. Once you open the mouth, the breathing efficiency goes down the toilet. Now if a sprint is required, forget the rules, and when activity slows, then immediately slow the breath. Watch a video of Natalia Molchanova, world record freediver, and see how slowly she breathes after swimming under water for several minutes. I have also found that "catching" the breath only throws the balance off.

Since this also affects blood pressure, a US Patent has been issued for use to control hypertension. The American Lung Association has informed me that since most research has been in Russia and Australia, they are waiting for more USA trials on Buteyko before they comment or promote it for asthma.

One day I was examining the lungs of a cadaver and noticed that significantly diseased lungs with a fraction of their original available surface area still kept the person alive. Later that day as I was swimming (controlled breathing exercise, right?) I experimented with different breathing depths and rates, and thought of Buteyko's theory, and that wide ranges of breathing patterns may have strong effects on what the lungs pass to and from the bloodstream, and resultant physiological responses. Apparently humans are overdesigned in many ways, thus improper function may occur for long periods before symptoms become apparent, and finally nudge a person to submit to crisis-control allopathy.

About ten months after NPR, and eight months after Oprah Winfrey started a neti bowl craze, I noticed that neti bowls were more popular on the net, but at a drugstore I asked two pharmacists for "nasal irrigation such as neti bowl or neti pot" and they did not know what it was. I was promptly shown the medications section, and then I found and showed the pharmacist a plastic irrigation bottle which the store carried.

One day I was swimming in the ocean with a tight wetsuit for about 45 minutes, I then swam to the beach and all of a sudden, I noticed that my breathing was still rapid although my effort was decreasing as I rode some waves in. I began to overventilate, and experienced my first taste of pre-asthmatic behavior.

I was in a yoga class, and the instructor was discussing Pranic Breathing. He said that he would demonstrate, but that it may cause him to start coughing. I wondered why anyone would practice a breathing type that would cause coughing?

At the 2007 IDEA Conference, I began a test for O2/ CO2 output, but the test was suspended because the machine kept turning off due to my breathing rate of 6-7 breaths per minute. The tester stated that I had to breathe at least 10 breaths per minute to keep the machine on! I decided to abandon the test.

Manual Bodywork can also help stabilize body systems by assisting the parasympathetic system to resume control. Nevertheless, always consult a medical doctor before beginning or changing an exercise or treatment program, or when you have new symptoms.

Author's Bio: 

Paul Svacina, BS, PE, LMT, has a BS in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M University and learned bodywork and health sciences in Europe and the United States, most recently at the Santa Barbara Body Therapy Institute, and with John Harris, Olympic therapist and coauthor of Fix Pain - Bodywork Protocols for Myofascial Pain Syndromes, explaining treatments for trigger points and sports injuries. Paul specializes in trigger point therapy, barefoot deep tissue massage, and myofascial release. For more information and resources about trigger point therapy, visit Paul Svacina's websites at or where you can buy the new book "101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health".