How Buteyko Breathing transformed my yoga practice.
I always loved the breath practices in yoga. Stretching and moving feels great, but the biggest shifts I’ve experienced in my years of practice have always come from Pranayama (breath). I’ve always tried to choose to learn from teachers who value Pranayama as part of yoga. And it’s always formed the backbone of my own classes.
Of course we covered pranayama on my teacher training. But whilst we spent days studying posture and mantra, breath was tagged on to meditation and only given a cursory glance. We learned mostly about the various techniques -breath of fire, sitali, alternate nostril breathing. How to do them and their uses & benefits. We focused on the mechanics of breathing – breathing into the belly and using the diaphragm. How the exhale breath relaxed the body.
There was no mention of the science of breathing, in particular, the chemistry of it. Since our entire physiological system is founded on the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, this now seems like a glaring omission. Our tutor told us that Breath of Fire oxygenates the blood. This is very often cited as a benefit of all pranayama. I had at least enough basic understanding of blood chemistry then, to know that most people’s blood is usually almost fully oxygenated. When I asked the tutor to explain more, he referred me to the manual which offered no more explanation. Pranayama oxygenates the blood. All yoga teachers have said it because it’s what we’re taught. But is it true?
Bigger is Better?
In Kundalini yoga the breath is loud. Participants are encouraged to breathe so the person next to them can hear it. Some classes sound like a steam train convention. Bigger is better. The cues from teachers were always deep breath in, breathe out completely. Breathe out as though you’re sighing. This isn’t exclusive to Kundalini – these are common cues in yoga classes. There is a common misconception that the more air you take in and out, the more you oxygenate the body. And consequently the better it must be for your health.
This idea feeds into the acceptability of breathing through the mouth in yoga classes. Very often the exhale in particular is encouraged through the mouth. I’ve heard globally respected yoga teachers give this instruction. Big breath out through the mouth. I recently attended a course in how to teach yoga to people with chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue. The tutor told us that we should never breathe in through the mouth but it was fine to breathe out through the mouth. Her point was that she yawned and sighed and coughed a lot over the day anyway. So in her mind, breathing out through the mouth must be her body’s way of balancing itself. In a sense she was right, but this adjusting is certainly not healthy (it’s actually maintaining carbon dioxide deficiency). Teaching people suffering with fatigue to breathe out through the mouth, as it turns out, is one of the worst things you can do.
When the breath stops healing
My daily practice is mostly composed of Pranayama. I am a little prone to lethargy, so my historical breath practice has usually centred on the more energising breaths like Breath of Fire and Tummo (Wim Hof). I practiced Tummo religiously for about 2 months, most days of the week. It enhanced my meditation practice enormously, but had an unintended consequence. I started to wheeze. I’d find myself breathless after moderate exertion. My energy levels weren’t what they should have been. At first I put it down to my age and the perimenopause. I also explored the possibility that childhood asthma and a previous life as a smoker had come back to haunt me. I wasn’t prepared to accept that Pranayama could in any way be detrimental to my health.
I signed up to train with Patrick McKeown of Oxygen Advantage on a whim. After my teacher training, I had sought out non yoga teachers to fill in gaps in my knowledge. Shamefully, I’d left breath until last, studying the nervous system, fascia and functional anatomy before it. What was first apparent was how complex breath is and how little I knew about it. There isn’t a condition out there that can’t be linked to dysfunctional breathing (whether that’s breath driving the condition or vice versa). And one of the worst culprits? Over-breathing aka big breathing, which I had been practising for years and teaching. Turns out breath is mostly chemistry. Functional breathing needs to support the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body; that’s how oxygenation happens. In my ignorance I had been depleting myself of carbon dioxide, bringing on a form of adult asthma, accompanied by fatigue, brain fog and general malaise.
The other thing you learn pretty quickly with Buteyko breathing is just how difficult it is to do. Not only are you working against everything you’ve ever believed about breath, you’re also undoing a deeply entrenched unconscious habit. Resetting the blood chemistry takes persistent work and is extremely uncomfortable. It’s far more skilled than the Pranayama I had been taught previously. But in that need to focus more on my breathing, stirred the first shoots of a deepening of my yoga practice.
Less is More
The classic yogic texts don’t refer to big breathing. In fact, much is made of the link between mind (citta) and breath or prana. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is said “When prana moves, citta moves. When prana is without movement, citta is without movement.”. Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, says “the state of yoga reflects the cessation of movement within the mind”. So, it stands to reason that the goal of pranyama is cessation of breath; big breathing is absolutely at odds with this. Breath, according to the early texts, is to be gently uncurled like a delicate thread, made subtle and prolonged, kept close to the body. The inhale sipped, puraka, the exhale so subtle (suksma) that a piece of cotton placed at the end of the nostrils doesn’t move. And the spaces in between the breath extended, more and more, until the breath becomes so consistently subtle that it stops.
What is described within the yoga texts is Buteyko breathing. Reducing the volume of breath, and increasing breath holds. As I practiced Buteyko, so my meditation became easier. As I breathed less, my mind became still.
The Unsexy Breath
Buteyko isn’t the sexiest breath. It doesn’t deliver the out of body highs of Tummo or Holotropic breathwork. Nor the instant caffeine like lift of Breath of Fire. In a society dominated by constant stimulation, it isn’t the most appealing approach, requiring patience, commitment, focus and stillness. Buteyko delivers contentment, quiet, and well-being. What Buteyko has given me is a healthy foundation to my Pranayama practice. I still use and teach Tummo, Kapalbhati, Breath of Fire and other practices. The difference is that now I always return to Buteyko afterwards. I always re calibrate my carbon dioxide levels. My cues when teaching Pranayama have also changed – gone are the big breaths, and sighs, the depletion of carbon dioxide levels through extended mouth exhales. And I am much more aware that students coming to my class in this day and age are likely to arrive with a breathing pattern disorder. That will take time to put right. And that is more foundational to their health and well-being than being able to touch their toes.
Suzanne’s 7 hour course, Buteyko Breathing for Yoga Teachers, runs several times throughout the year. If you’d like to deepen your knowledge of breath & Pranayama, and transform the health of your students, this course is for you: