A Breath of Fresh Air (from South China Morning Post, HongKong)

A breath of fresh air
South China Morning Post (HK) – Monday March 4 2002

A controversial respiratory technique is providing relief to Hong Kong residents lucky enough to have discovered the ‘miracle cure’. Amanda Watson reports

‘I COUGH FOR UP TO two hours at a time. There are nights when I can’t read my children a book at bedtime because I just go into these spasms. And then I’ll start vomiting cupfuls of blood. Apparently that’s normal with my disease. It’s very common here in Hong Kong.’

Lori Foster is in her early 40s, a petite, sleek housewife. And the disease she’s talking about is bronchiectasis. Permanent bronchial damage, to you and me.

Her lungs, say the nine doctors and specialist she’s seen, are damaged beyond repair and the best she can hope to do is manage her condition.

Her immune system is packing in, she gets frequent respiratory infections, she feels tired all the time and normal life is out of the question: it’s difficult, for instance, visiting the hairdresser or dentist because lying back just starts off the coughing. Life has become a non-stop round of inhalers and antibiotics.

But just three years ago, Foster was as fit as the rest of us. She’d only just arrived in Hong Kong from Australia and was trail-walking to explore Hong Kong. So when she first became sick and doctors started testing for asthma and tuberculosis, she was shocked. ‘I was in tears when my doctors finally diagnosed my condition and told me I couldn’t get my lung function back again. It was devastating. Like a sentence.’ Now, after spending ‘hundred of thousands of dollars’ on medical bills, she says she’s lost faith in conventional medicine. It’s been hazy about why she’s in this state – and has come up with no solutions.

Which is why we’re sitting talking – out in the yellow pollution which now frequently befugs even rural Sai Kung – just before we go into another course session on a controversial respiratory technique.

‘Shut up!’ In the chic exercise room of Sai Kung’s The Studio, Australian Jac Vidgen begins by sharply telling the 10 of us who’ve signed up to shut our mouths and breathe only through our nose. He dictates what we’ll do for the next five days – ‘it’s a ruthless compassion’ – but we’re the ones soon looking like little Hitlers, with our fingers stuck under our noses, indulging in a spot of nasal-gazing. How much are we breathing in and out? Can we see ourselves doing it in the mirrored-room? What do we feel like? ‘Listen to yourselves,’ he says, when he tells us to breathe more shallowly, so that there’s this disturbing feeling of slight shortness of breath and no visible signs of chest movement? There are charts to fill in (part of each session we time how long we can do without breath, walking and even jumping to extend the time), extensive medical histories to divulge, HK$3,000 to hand over.

At night, we are told, we must tape our mouths to make sure we only breathe through our noses. That proves a rather frightening experience – it feels a bit like condemning yourself to an early grave.

Vidgen is a ‘senior practitioner’ who travels throughout Southeast Asia teaching the Butekyo Breathing Technique, a breathing method first developed by the Russian respiratory physician, Dr Konstantin Buteyko, nearly 50 years ago. It’s based on the theory that Western society’s stresses mean that many of us have developed into hidden hyperventilators, which Buteyko believes is a major underlying cause of illness and linked to over 200 diseases. What asthmatics – and the rest of us – need to do to correct that, Vidgen adds, is breathe less.

Taking in less air, he says, is a simple solution through which we could cure ourselves with a few minutes’ exercise daily of everything from allergies, ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), asthma, migraines, insomnia, depression and high blood pressure to snoring and weight loss. No more obsessional need for inhalers and antibiotics, Vidgen suggests. For some of Hong Kong’s 300,000 asthma sufferers, promises like that are not to be sniffed at and there is an increasing interest in the technique – long taught in Australia and introduced into Britain in 1994 – here in the SAR.

Buteyko felt the key to the problem of dysfunctional breathing wasn’t insufficient oxygen but too much. His solution: recondition our breathing.

Vidgen explains that normal breathing results in a very specific accumulated gas mixture that we need to function properly – and modern stresses mean most of us are getting the ratio of oxygen we inhale and carbon dioxide we exhale all wrong. Conventional medicine, skeptical as ever, has paid little attention to the idea.

‘In terms of the relative importance of our three major functions – eating, sleeping, breathing – breathing is supreme, it’s vital,’ says Vidgen, a former caterer and event promoter. ‘And yet most of us have never been taught to breathe. Even worse, most people in our society believe that more is good and certainly that breathing in more is a good thing. We’ve developed a stress mechanism that was related to fight or flight when we were hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. Now, in a short time, we’ve dramatically changed how we live. The reality now is that every time you experience anxiety or worry, say operating a computer or your mobile phone, your breathing, heart rate and hormones change, and that change is not appropriate if you are at rest,’ says Vidgen.

‘The nature of our lifestyle has increased our breathing pattern and we cope by a whole range of compromises because that’s the design of the body.

No matter how you treat it, it will compensate. But this time it’s simply wrong.’

Vidgen, rake thin but energetic enough to talk theory for hours, has experimented on himself and tells us repeatedly the Buteyko method has cured himself of sinus conditions and a host of other minor ailments. His clients in Hong Kong suffer from all manner of complaints.

Financier Peter Wynn Williams started a Buteyko course last year with severe asthma, a problem that got worse whenever the weather became hot and humid.

He’d had the condition since he was 10, but here it grew rapidly much worse. And that meant long-term drug use. Buteyko, he says, has had a dramatic effect on that. ‘It’s reduced my symptoms considerably for a start. I’m using a lot less medication too,’ Williams says.

‘I thought the whole idea sounded quacky to start with. You feel stupid holding your nose. But now I’d say the single biggest benefit has been sleeping with my mouth taped over. I found it difficult at first but it’s really improved my sleep dramatically. I feel much more rested.’

Back on the Sai Kung course, nine-year-old Peter Austin is running about the room, holding his nose to extend his pauses between breaths. He’s past a minute and still going strong. He’s asthmatic, so it’s quite an achievement for him and he’s visibly pleased to be picked out from our group as someone who should be able to recondition their breathing easily – the young being less set in their ways Vidgen explains. Not to be outdone, I try pacing up and down for longer and my head feels like it’s going to explode.

But then Peter has a bigger incentive. He plays football for his school and that has always meant frequent breaks to use his inhaler. His worried mother wants him to stop playing until the breathing problems stop. But Peter loves sport, so he sticks with the 10-hour, week-long course.

‘I felt left out of sport before I started this,’ he says afterwards.

‘No one picked me for games. But I already feel I can play better. I don’t feel myself struggling for breath so much now. It feels like I’m in control.’

Visit the Web site www.buteykoasia.com for more information on the Butekyo Breathing Technique.

How do you know if you over-breathe?

Try Konstantin Buteyko’s ‘control pause’. Sit upright but be relaxed. Breathe in gently for two seconds, exhale gently for three seconds, now hold your breath until the first moment that it becomes difficult.

If you can only hold your breath for less than 10 seconds, you have serious health problems.

Under 25 seconds, your health needs attention; 30 seconds you are mildly asthmatic; 60 seconds, you’re in good health.