Buteyko: Can a breathing workshop help with panic attacks?
It's the most natural of bodily functions, and yet 'breathing workshops' are the latest wellness trend. Sophie Donaldson finds out if a divisive technique could help her cope with panic attacks
It's the first thing we do when we enter this world, and the last thing we do when we leave. In between, we are doing it constantly - while we eat, sleep, run, laugh, talk. Breathing is perhaps the most fundamental biological function and one we only tend to consider when we are having trouble doing it. Perhaps, however, that's all set to change. As technology becomes ever more entwined in our lives, many of us have come to rely on it to rate and assess our bodily functions. There are endless apps for sleeping, walking and eating that track our every snore, step and bite. Could breathing be next in our quest to monitor our every waking (and sleeping) move?
There are countless apps on the market designed to assist us in controlling and calming our breath. They promise various results, from better sleep to treating anxiety. Beyond tech, the luxury market could be looking to commodify our breathing, too.
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In the September issue of British Vogue, which Meghan Markle guest-edited, a wellness feature suggested to readers that a week-long stay in a luxury Indonesian resort that offers breathing workshops could be the very thing to improve their lives - costing around €4,500. While that might seem a tad extravagant, breathing workshops in various forms have been gaining in popularity in recent years.
Martha De Buitleir is a registered nurse who has worked in the field for many years in Australia, the UK and Ireland, and has been a Buteyko practitioner since 2016. The Buteyko method is an alternative therapy devised by Russian physiologist Konstantin Buteyko in the 1950s. The breathing exercises he developed aim to retrain our respiratory habits to combat conditions such as asthma. The method is centred on three main principles; relaxation, nasal breathing and reduced breathing. It is this last principle that brought Buteyko some controversy in July when Indonesian singer Andien posted a photo to her Instagram, which has 1.6 million followers, of herself, husband and young child with tape over their mouths, with a caption extolling the virtues of Buteyko.
Practitioners believe that this is an effective exercise that ensures breathing is done through the nose, rather than through the mouth, but the technique has prompted criticism from medical professionals, who say there is scant evidence for the various health claims made around it.
But despite this recent controversy, Butekyo remains a popular alternative therapy. Martha came to Buteyko after experiencing breathing difficulties herself. She experienced fitful sleep and put it down to rearing her children who were all infants at the time. With her nursing background, she felt going to the doctor would have been fruitless - she didn't want to be medicated and didn't feel overly stressed. After reading about Buteyko in a magazine, she decided to undergo a short course, because she couldn't "lose anything by giving it a go". Within a few weeks her symptoms - a dry mouth, sleeplessness, and recurrent throat infections - were gone.
"What was happening was that I was mouth breathing at night and that's what was waking me. I would have had an incredibly dry tongue. The funny thing is, I would never have gone to the doctor complaining of a dry tongue and questioning why that was. I was just so used to it I didn't think it was relevant," she says.
Martha runs her clinic from her sunny garden office in south Dublin, where she welcomes clients of all ages suffering from various of complaints and conditions. While she recommends people see their GP for problems such as high blood pressure, Martha believes Buteyko may offer an alternative for those who've not successfully overcome their symptoms via mainstream treatment.
"A lot of my clients would be experiencing symptoms for years. I would not be the first port of call, but they would see over the course of a few years that they aren't feeling better, they aren't seeing benefit from medication, and so they start looking for an alternative," she explains.
A few years ago I experienced what was the first of several debilitating panic attacks due to anxiety. They always bring about an acute shortening of breath and I've never been able to regain control of my breathing during an attack; rather, it feels as though somebody has inserted one of those pumps used to inflate air mattresses into my lungs and begun to pump very, very quickly. I wonder if a crash course in Buteyko could enlighten me to techniques that might help. Anxiety is just one of the reasons somebody might seek out a breathing course - stress, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and asthma are all common in Martha's clients, and our modern lifestyles don't help much, either.
"Breathing habits have deteriorated with our lifestyles. We are more sedentary; compared to our life 100 years ago we don't work as hard physically, but we work mentally. We sit at desks, we are hunched over. The increase in technology makes us more sedentary because we don't have to go out - we can get all the information we need from the device in our hands," she says. "We are not naturally working our bodies or creating carbon dioxide - that lack of movement means our body just isn't getting enough oxygen."
These bad habits can be rectified with relatively simple exercises, she continues. "All it requires is little changes throughout the day. When you manage your breath you can manage everything outside of yourself."
Adults usually undergo around four sessions with Martha to successfully manage their issues with breathing, and my visit will be just a snapshot of what Buteyko entails, yet the techniques are simple enough they can be practiced alone.
Before we begin, Martha mentions that her sessions start from the moment she opens the door to her clients. She examines their breathing as they enter the room, whether they breathe through the mouth or nose, whether they are out of breath or inhaling and exhaling too quickly. She notes she couldn't "see or hear" me breathing, which is a big tick.
When we undergo the first exercise however, things don't go so smoothly. It turns out that maintaining calm, controlled breathing under the watchful eye of an instructor can be a supremely difficult task.
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After adjusting my posture so my back is straight and shoulders square, Martha instructs me to breathe in, then breathe out, and pinch my nose for five seconds at the end of the out-breath. I hold for a few seconds then breathe in through the nose, and out again. After the second or third round, I feel as though air is filling my lungs at what seems an alarming rate and the desire to exhale with a big 'aaahhh' through the mouth is overwhelming, while my shoulders move up and down as I breathe.
Next, we try controlled breathing. I am told to sit straight, and relax. I put a hand on my chest and a hand on my stomach, then breathe in and out through the nose. Martha instructs me to pay attention to the breath, and slow it down.
"As you breathe in, the tummy should rise with the diaphragm," she says gently. My shoulders continue to hop up and down, inadvertently shrugging at my inability to simply breathe.
We try the same exercise again, this time as I lie on her sofa. She places a few books on my stomach, so it's easier to monitor the up and down movement of my diaphragm. Lying down proves far easier when it comes to controlled breathing, and alleviates the sensation that my shoulders are filling with air. Sitting upright again in my chair, we discuss the quickfire session. I admit the blindingly obvious, and say that I found the whole thing far more difficult than I had expected.
"But of course you did," Martha says kindly. "You've been breathing a certain way for so long, and now we are trying to change that. It's natural for the first time to feel like a struggle but with practice it becomes far easier."
I take her advice home with me and after a few days of practising I find myself able to sit down, relax - and breathe.