Konstantin Buteyko, MD-PhD, often wore a wide leather belt around his torso, just underneath his outer garments. He would say, “Hyperventilation hides waiting to ambush; the belt is your protection.”
Hyperventilation Is Hiding Waiting to Ambush
When I heard this story from his widow, Ludmila Buteyko, I was surprised: Aren’t we supposed to gain control over our breathing so that we naturally stop hyperventilating?
Certainly, this is possible, yet it is important to understand that there are some factors that promote hyperventilation. Here are a few of them:
- Many people were born as hyperventilators, and therefore have a strong predisposition toward over-breathing.
- Because some people have been over-breathing for a very long time, they may have developed a strong hyperventilation habit, which might be difficult to eradicate completely.
- The common Western lifestyle is conducive to hyperventilation.
- A polluted environment contributes to over-breathing.
- Due to atmospheric changes that have gradually occurred on this planet for millions of years, humans have a mild propensity toward hyperventilation.
A belt is a tool that helps to increase awareness about breathing, and as such, it is very valuable.
It is helpful for people who hyperventilate terribly (for example, those who suffer from asthma or obesity, for those whose air consumption is mild, and even for those who have won the battle against hyperventilation by normalizing their breathing. In the second part of his life, Dr. Buteyko belonged to the last category, and yet he chose to wear a belt every day for the rest of his life.
The belt has many applications. One of them is to support good posture. A straight and strong back is essential for good breathing; when a person straightens their back, their breathing automatically gets reduced. The opposite is also true: a person who spends most of their day with a hunched back has a tendency to breathe more or deeper. If you put a belt around the area below your ribs, you will notice that you do not feel the belt when your back is straight. As soon as your back is bent (this often happens when sitting in front of a computer), the belt becomes uncomfortable to the point that it is almost painful. The result is that you want to correct your posture right away. The belt is an irreplaceable tool, especially for people who have to spend most of their day sitting in an office chair.
Another application of the belt is to alert us to moments when we start breathing deeply. Any strong emotion, good or bad, usually makes us breathe deeper; however, most of the time we are not aware of those moments.
There are two ways to wear the belt: slightly touching your skin around the area of the diaphragm, or snugly fitted around this area. So far, we have mostly been discussing the first approach; now let’s talk about the second one.
I remember one of my first meetings with Ludmila Buteyko in Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, when my husband, Thomas, was receiving his asthma treatment. “There is no gentle breathing without relaxation,” Ludmila taught us. “If your diaphragm is tense, your breathing will be heavy. If you relax it, you will switch into more shallow breathing.” Most people cannot relax their diaphragm since this is out of their control, just like they cannot slow their heartbeat. Ludmila got up from her office chair to demonstrate the difference between a relaxed and a tense diaphragm. She asked Thomas, and then me, to put a hand on the upper part of her stomach in order to feel those two states. The distinction between them was significant, though it is difficult to describe in words.
“Is my diaphragm tense?” I kept thinking after this meeting. “Since I’ve never even felt my diaphragm, it must be very relaxed,” I concluded. This illusion was destroyed after I slightly tightened up the belt on my stomach. Right away, I felt not only the area in between my ribs, but intense tension as well. Was my diaphragm like this all my life? I can only guess that the answer is yes, even though I used to think of myself as a rather relaxed person. I continued wearing the belt every so often for the next couple of days, even though it felt like my diaphragm was fighting against it.
Then something happened: it felt as if my diaphragm suddenly gave up. It stopped fighting and became relaxed. My breathing changed, and my control pause rose up. My automatic pause (this is the time naturally occurring between exhalation and inhalation) became worryingly long. I remember sitting on a couch watching my natural patterns of breathing. Gentle inhalation, exhalation, and then . . . nothing would happen. I was supposed to breathe, wasn’t I? After several long seconds, my gentle inhalation would take place again. I was feeling great, and yet it was almost frightening that my inhalation would come so long after it usually did.
Dr. Buteyko taught that this is a pattern of healthy breathing. Most people inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale—there is no break in between. Over-breathing has become so common that we consider this pattern normal. If you observe the breathing patterns of wild animals or even a healthy dog, you notice an automatic pause occurring between exhalation and inhalation. Buteyko stated that humans are supposed to breathe this way as well. The belt helped me to develop this natural pattern.
It is important to know that the belt is not suitable for everyone. For example, Ludmila Buteyko never wears it. She explained that for her, as a former asthmatic, the belt creates a restraint, which she associates with the feeling of suffocation that she used to experience. Her awareness of her breathing is high, and this allows her to retain her breathing without using a belt. Certainly, not everyone can do this!
Similar to Ludmila, some people suffering from asthma or breathing difficulties don’t feel safe using the belt. If you are one of them, please be careful. I suggest gently trying the belt in the presence of someone else. If that feels OK, then try to keep the belt on, but for no longer than 15 minutes. The belt should be almost loose on you, just slightly touching your skin. When and if you feel comfortable with the belt, you can slowly increase the amount of time you wear it during the daytime.
The belt can also be used during the night. Gently put it on before going to bed and take it off in the morning, or anytime you feel uncomfortable. The belt will slightly restrict your breathing, preventing or reducing hyperventilation during the night. It can also act as an alarm that wakes you up when your belly starts moving because of deep breathing (of course, you cannot use sleeping pills if you are wearing the belt).
If the texture of the belt is too rough for you, you can substitute it with a long piece of cotton fabric. Often this is a good solution for children. Just tie up the fabric underneath the ribs, making a knot in the back. If it gets loose during the night, you can tighten it up slightly.
Please be careful and use common sense! If you are not at ease with the belt, take it off immediately. If you have any questions or concerns, call the Breathing Center. Our specialists are always available for a consultation. And, of course, never breathe through your mouth, whether you are wearing your belt or not!