How should I breathe?

People often ask if Buteyko is just another tool to activate diaphragmatic breathing because they have tried this in the past and found it largely unhelpful. This is probably partly because the western perception of breathing is often misguided, with people believing that deep, slow and forceful breathing that empties out all the "dirty" air in your lungs is "good". The Buteyko Method has another take on the matter of breathing, focussing more on minute volume, or the amount of air you breathe each minute, rather than which part of your body brings air into your lungs.

In saying all that, using your diaphragm to breathe with is the most efficient way of breathing because it uses the least amount of oxygen. Using chest muscles to breathe with not only takes a lot more effort and oxygen, but repeatedly using your chest muscles to breathe with starts telling your brain that you are under stress, which increases the likelihood of hyperventilation. However, you can still over-breathe or hyperventilate by using your diaphragm to breathe with, simply by breathing forcefully or quicker than usual.

When I take my classes I explain to people that the following types of breathing patterns are linked to hyperventilation:

  • Fast breathing - the average adult breathes 12 times a minute with about 350ml of air while resting (i.e. sitting or standing), but if we use 500ml to demonstrate, it makes our mathematics easier to do. 12 x .5 litre = 6 litres of air. If you breathed 500ml 20 times a minute, like lots of people I see in my work, this brings the volume up to 10 litres of air breathed per minute. You have almost doubled the volume of air just by breathing once every 3 seconds instead of once every 5.
  • Mouth-breathing - the mouth is much bigger than both nostrils combined, so you can easily move more air in and out of the lungs, simply by breathing through your mouth. You also miss out on all the warming and filtering that the nose does.
  • When the mouth is used for breathing, chest muscles are also usually involved, and chest muscles are powerful, being capable of shifting a lot of air in and out of the lungs quickly.
  • Forceful breathing - generally when we are resting breathing is passive and gentle, yet many people with hyperventilation issues do lots of sighing, yawning, coughing, sneezing or gasping.
  • Erratic breathing - instead of being smooth and rhythmical, the breathing has lots of gaps in it - the apnoeas we hear about during sleep also happen during the day time, and both deep and very shallow breaths, or sighs.
  • Noisy breathing, where the person snuffles, snores, wheezes, or just breathes so heavily that it can be heard, even when the person is not under exertion.

People who over-breathe usually have a combination of these points, rather than just having one of them. What we try to do with the Buteyko method is to change these unnatural patterns back to quiet, relaxed and easy breathing at rest. Automatically breathing well when you are at awake and resting, means that you are also more likely to breathe appropriately when you are exercising or asleep.

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