Hyperventilation hides in ambush; the belt is your protection.
Konstantin Buteyko, MD-PhD, often wore a wide leather belt around his torso, just underneath his outer garments. He would say, “Hyperventilation hides in ambush; the belt is your protection.”
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.
The belt is a tool that helps to increase awareness of 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 wasn’t his invention. In fact, this tool was known in many cultures. I once saw drawings of military uniforms that were used in Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Most of them contained a tight belt sitting high up on the trunk of the body. At that time, soldiers had to be active to survive: You would think a belt would limit their ability to run, ride, and fight, so why were they wearing one?
As a scientist and medical doctor, Dr. Buteyko discovered that a belt, when it is placed around the area of the diaphragm, contributes to preventing hyperventilation and making a person breathe less. When less air is consumed, the lungs accumulate more carbon dioxide and, counterintuitively, a person’s organs, including the brain, receive more oxygen. (This phenomenon is called the Bohr Effect.) As a result of higher oxygenation, a person functions at a much higher level physically and mentally. Higher levels of oxygenation make a person calmer and stronger, less influenced by fears and emotions, and more able to stay focused and pursue a goal. All these qualities are desirable for a soldier, aren’t they? It is also interesting to note that pirates and musketeers wore similar belts as well. Now we can understand why.
Dr. Buteyko was very curious about why a tendency to hyperventilate seems to be present on this planet. He started analyzing scientific data about our atmosphere and its transformation since the time when various species began evolving. He found scientific proof that many millions of years ago, our atmosphere contained 40 to 80% carbon dioxide, and less than 1% oxygen. Today, it is very different: our atmosphere is about 21% oxygen and 0.03% carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the combination of gases in a woman’s womb still reflects this ancient atmosphere of our planet.
As a scientist, Buteyko suggested a hypothesis that these changes in the planetary atmosphere caused the extinction of some biological species, such as dinosaurs. He believed that humans were able to adapt to this major change; however, since today’s atmosphere is foreign to our original physiological makeup, the tendency to over-breathe remains present for modern-day humans. If this minor inclination is accelerated by other factors, such as mouth breathing, sedentary lifestyle, and a protein-rich diet, hyperventilation can become harmful, creating a strong negative effect on the whole body.
Apparently, older cultures were more aware of this effect than our modern-day civilization. Remember the old tradition to swaddle a newborn? In many cultures, people believed that a baby who is swaddled tightly is calmer and eventually becomes a stronger person. Considering the revelations of Dr. Buteyko, these beliefs make sense: a baby whose breathing is restricted slightly is less affected by the sudden shock created by the difference in gas proportions in the mother’s womb and the outside world. A swaddled baby is pushed to breathe less, which means that their lungs accumulate more carbon dioxide, which has a calming effect. Besides, the baby’s organs receive plenty of oxygen, and as a result, the child has a higher probability of becoming a stronger and even more intelligent person. Presumably, this same common sense motivated people to put a cover around an infant’s bed, which would slightly modify the environment, creating an atmosphere with a higher percentage of carbon dioxide.
Of course, those traditions are rather different compared to our modern way of welcoming a baby into the world. Today, a newborn receives a slap on the butt, which makes them cry hard: by doing this, a baby is pushed to breathe heavily through their mouth in their first moments of life outside the womb. Additionally, stress always leads to hyperventilation, and babies are not exempt from this rule. As a result, the body of a newborn is fully exposed to the shock of a different atmosphere.
Dr. Buteyko stated that many people start their lives as hyperventilators. This is partially due to the tradition described above, and partially because their parents were hyperventilating. If parents over-breathe, there is a considerable likelihood that their baby will have the same problem.
This was my case. My father, who worked as a reporter, smoked and drank a lot of coffee, which often creates hyperventilation. In addition, both my parents preferred rich food such as meat, which was always present at the family table; they also did not exercise regularly, and they were often were stressed out. Of course, I was born a hyperventilator. I know this because my parents told me that I have been snoring since my first days on this planet. They even gave me a nickname: Snuffle-mountain. Snuffling, or snoring, is a clear indication of hyperventilation.
I had been snoring all my life. In the beginning, it was a sweet baby snore, but over the years it became more pronounced. By the age of forty, my thunder-like snores would sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night. It was embarrassing, and yet I did not know what to do. The Buteyko Breathing Normalization method fully cured this problem, and the Awareness Belt was partly responsible for this.
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 excessively. Any strong emotion, good or bad, usually makes us breathe more; however, most of the time we are not aware of those moments. I remember a situation when I needed to pay a visit to my lawyer: it was nothing serious, but I was anticipating a discussion about a rather unpleasant real-estate issue. Fortunately, my belt was hiding under my blouse. As soon as I stepped into the attorney’s office I felt my belt, which suddenly became uncomfortable. Why did this happen? Apparently, I felt slightly anxious, and this triggered hyperventilation. Excessive breathing made my stomach move out, and as a result, the belt became too tight and felt uncomfortable. After noticing this, I modified my breathing. Without the Buteyko Belt, I would have hyperventilated throughout the whole meeting, which would have been quite harmful to my health.
Emotions make us breathe more; on the other hand, over-breathing makes us emotional. It’s a vicious cycle, which the belt can sometimes stop. Here is another story from my life. Once I was expecting a phone call from my boss, who was upset about business-related matters. He wanted me to take his side; however, my perspective was different. I knew the conversation was not going to be easy, so I put on my Buteyko Awareness Belt. The discussion took about an hour, during which time I was able to stay calm and express my position clearly. My husband, who was listening to our conversation, was amazed by my self-control. I believe this was possible because the belt did not allow me to over-breathe, which would have caused me to slip into the familiar world of emotions, stress, and hyperventilation.
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 healthier 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 belly 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 Buteyko belt on my belly. 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 Positive Maximum 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 wore 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 allowed 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 excessive 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, contact a Breathing Normalization Specialist. And, of course, never breathe through your mouth, whether you are wearing your belt or not!