Air Apparent (from Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Philippines)

By Joy Rojas from the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, August 06, 2000 Issue

A DVOCATES swear it reduces asthma attacks almost to the point of nonexistence. Others attest it’s relieved them of allergies, coughs, clogged noses, sneezing, snoring, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, stress and hypertension. In one extreme incident, it’s even believed to have brought back the monthly period of a menopausing lady of 52! “It,” however, is neither a wonder pill nor a miracle gadget. It’s a revolutionary treatment, one that-hold your breath now-encourages people to decrease their breathing.

Welcome to the Buteyko Breathing Method. Developed in 1952 by Russian respiratory physician Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, the method was based on the idea that illness evolves from our tendency to overbreathe. When we breathe too much, we exhale more carbon dioxide (CO2), thus creating a deficit of CO2. Lowered levels of CO2 strengthen the bond between hemoglobin (in red blood cells) and oxygen (O2), making it difficult for the sufficient oxygenation of brain tissues and other vital organs. If there is insufficient CO2, our tissues may suffer oxygen starvation (hypoxia) regardless of the amount of O2 present. To restore the body’s balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, patients of the Buteyko Method are trained to change their breathing patterns altogether, first by breathing exclusively through the nose. “Unlike the mouth which was designed for talking, eating, and drinking, and is too huge to act as a filter, the nose is effective as a filter, regulator and temperature controller,” says Australian senior practitioner Jac Vidgen. Patients are also asked to adapt the method’s definition of “correct breathing”-that is, barely perceptible breathing, the kind you don’t hear or see whether one is at rest or in motion. Having taught the Buteyko Method to a variety of students since 1993, Vidgen is well aware of the resistance that comes with this radical approach. “It can be difficult to change something you do 20 to 30 thousand times a day,” he agrees. “But it’s actually not complicated. It only requires consciousness change and a paradigm shift about breathing-and most people are not really interested in changes and paradigm shifts.”

The few who are, however, appear to be reaping the benefits of the drug-free solution. Vidgen, who recently concluded a series of workshops last July (five two-hour sessions held in a span of two weeks), initiates his patients into the Buteyko Method the same way: after explaining the concept of overbreathing, the coach then instructs his patients to assess their own breathing pattern through this easy test. Sitting in an upright position and with his mouth closed, the patient takes a light breath in and a light breath out and pinches his nose shut with his fingers. Upon feeling the very first impulse to breathe (way before the point where he must gasp and heave for air), the patient releases his hold on his nose. Called the “Control Pause,” this “pause” allows the body to produce carbon dioxide. The longer the pause (Buteyko says an ideal Control Pause is one that is comfortably held for 50-60 seconds), the higher the level of carbon dioxide in the system. While the exercise sounds like a cinch, both Buteyko and Vidgen emphasize the importance of having a qualified practitioner around to closely supervise patients, lest they misinterpret the method and aggravate their current condition.

As fiercely passionate as he is to Buteyko’s method, Vidgen does acknowledge traditional treatments (“I have a lot of respect for conventional medicine,” he insists, “so believe me, if I break my leg I’m going to see a doctor”) plus the fact that bad breathing isn’t the only root of all illness.

“There’s genetics, there’s environment, there’s diet, there’s lifestyle,” he enumerates. “But you don’t have as much control or access over these aspects as you do your breathing. Breathing is critical to life. You can live four weeks without eating, you can live three days without drinking – these are all undeniably essential to our health. But none of them even comes close to the importance of the way we breathe.”

Amazing, almost-instant results support the senior practitioner’s bold pronouncements. Depending on how serious one is with the method, a chronic mouth-breather who commits to breathing through his nose may note a dramatic change in his symptoms in half an hour. Moderate asthmatics, meanwhile, have reported a profound reduction in their need for relief medication a day or two after the Buteyko session. During one of Vidgen’s free introductory lectures, a lady on the verge of an asthma attack instinctively reached for her Ventolin puffer. The coach offered to assist her through the breathing method, and in a few minutes, the lady’s asthma was averted.

Vidgen’s last success story, however, came to him via e-mail: a young severely asthmatic woman who attended his workshop in Australia last April 1999 wrote him recently to share her incredible progress. Since starting on the Buteyko Method, she’s lost 35 kilos, hasn’t used a nebulizer, cut down significantly on her relief and preventive medication, and has traveled thrice in the last year without having to lug along her suitcase of steroids and puffers. “It’s an extraordinary example,” beams Vidgen. “But I get them every day.”

Touching testimonies like these are clearly reward enough for a man who, despite his attraction to alternative forms of treatment (he’s tried yoga, vegetarianism, vitamins and minerals), was led to the Buteyko Method because he needed a job fast. Financially indisposed at 44, Vidgen (whose professional background includes catering, theater and event organizing in Sydney, Australia), accepted administrative work from the company that brought in Alexander Stalmatski, Dr. Buteyko’s leading prot‚g‚ and Vidgen’s mentor. Inspired within weeks by how safe and effective the method was, Vidgen trained extensively under Stalmatski and was eventually allowed to teach in Sydney. The Australian brought the Buteyko Method to Asian shores in 1994 when he supervised two patients while vacationing in Bali. Upon the advice of a friend, Vidgen then introduced the method in Manila in late ’96, and has made it a point to return to the country regularly for workshops. (Vidgen may be contacted through his e-mail, jacvid@attglobal.net)

Interestingly, Vidgen, a tall and wiry guy of 50, is a one-man operation: he funds his own trips and receives no recompense from any association or the 75-year-old Dr. Buteyko, whom he has not met. But Vidgen, whose days are always as fresh and free-flowing as the air around him, isn’t complaining. “Helping people and working with people is challenging, demanding and very exciting,” he affirms. “It’s a very satisfying and rich life and I like it that I move at a pace I can define.”