Breathing During Sleep(continuation from the previous blog)

Let’s go back to the nighttime... When you start breathing through your nose, you will still have to face another goal – reducing your nighttime air consumption. For this, a sleeping posture becomes essential. The posture to avoid is sleeping on the back:  it stimulates both mouth breathing and over-breathing and was called ‘the corpse pose’ by Dr. Buteyko. A better position is sleeping on your side, especially the left one, but on your stomach is preferable. Sleeping on your stomach naturally restricts the diaphragm, forcing a person to breathe less; children usually like sleeping this way; however, their parents don’t feel comfortable with it and try to retrain them. You’ll be surprised, but the best sleeping position is sitting vertically or semi-vertically, which allows a person to maintain the lowest level of hyperventilation and the highest level of oxygenation. Many people who experience strong asthma attacks or other symptoms have no choice but to put cushions underneath their back and sleep in this position.

Of course, sleeping in a seated position could be challenging, but following Dr. Buteyko’s lead, you can train yourself to sleep this way. I remember that one day Ludmila Buteyko showed me Konstantin’s “bed”: an old armchair with a straight back, where he slept sitting up. At a certain time in my life, I also needed to learn how to sleep vertically even though I don’t use this skill anymore. It was during a year, which I spent on an isolated island doing yoga practices under the guidance of Tibetan lamas. During this strict retreat, the participants were instructed to sleep seating in the Lotus position. Of course, at first it seemed impossible and yet after a few months of struggle, I was able to sleep sitting up with my legs crossed. My experience was that this uncomfortable posture helped me in maintaining awareness throughout the night and kept me from falling into deep sleep. Was it worth the struggle? Only later, after I came across the work of Dr. Buteyko did I realize all the incredible benefits of this position for body, mind, and spirit. 

Now we approach another fascinating topic: how much sleep is sufficient for a human being? Doctors tell us eight hours, which, I agree, is average for hyperventilators. When I over-breathed, my body required at least nine! Now, six or seven hours is usually sufficient. It seems that various levels of hyperventilation require various lengths of sleep: the more a person over-breathes, the more energy he loses, and the more sleep he needs.  People whose Positive Maximum Pause is below ten seconds need lots of rest, while those who have achieved the norm could be satisfied with a few hours. Hagiographies tell us that many saints hardly slept at all and yet functioned in life better than most of us. The same is true with advanced yogis: their bodies can survive on the smallest amount of sleep and yet they are healthier and happier than an average person who spends one-third of life sleeping.

In retreat, I was trained to sleep as little as possible, though during the day I still had to be both physically and mentally active. When I felt sleep deprivation, I would nap during the day for five or ten minutes whenever I had time. These short moments of rest usually were enough for to recuperate. Ludmila told me that Konstantin slept in his favorite chair approximately four times a day: about fifteen minutes each time – mostly during the night, and this was sufficient for him. For Ludmila, three hours of rest at night is often enough. On one hand, breathing reduction naturally shortens the length of sleep; on the other hand, by sleeping less we defeat over-breathing.

Buteyko stated that ‘sleeping less’ is an important part of his method. He called the time between three and five o’clock in the morning the ‘the death zone’ and recommended getting up as early as possible. This term was originally coined by Russian doctors who noticed that most deaths in hospitals occur during these early hours, but they were not able to figure out the reason for this occurrence. Buteyko explained that during this time period, a human body has usually already received enough rest and moved into the mode of excessive sleeping, provoking hyperventilation and therefore empowering all symptoms. An acupuncturist friend of mine told me that in Chinese medicine, this time between three and five AM is associated with the lungs. In retreat, by the way, the participants were forced to get up at four-thirty AM.

The bottom line is that it is healthier to cut short the time of morning leisure in bed. People who are seriously ill often have no choice but to wake themselves up around three AM to normalize their breathing: if they don’t, a half an hour later, most likely, a symptom attack will wake them. When Ludmila was severely ill, she would set her alarm clock to wake her up every two hours during the night. She would use this time for breathing exercises and then go back to sleep: this allowed her to be free of asthma attacks during the night. Most people who are ill cannot sleep for a whole night anyway experiencing insomnia, which, by the way, often protects them from hyperventilation. When over-breathing becomes high, a person gets woken up - then, he or she might sit up or go to the kitchen to get a glass of water – whatever it is, he is still more active than while sleeping, so his metabolism produces more CO2.

Generally speaking, the intermittent pattern of sleep is more natural. Just look at dogs or cats: they always use their free time for napping and relaxation. When my husband suffered from asthma, he would often take a long afternoon nap, which, honestly, drove me crazy. I tried my best to be patient and yet my mind kept whispering; “He is so lazy!” I discussed it with Dr. Novozhilov who told me, “Thomas must take naps: they are preventing evening asthma attacks.”  This helped me understand this better and accept it. With the improvement of his health, Thomas’ body required less time for rest.  Working as a Buteyko Breathing Method specialist, I learned that many people with low Positive Maximum Pause experience outburst of their symptoms in the early evening. This often happens because they are tired and do not allow themselves to rest, even for five minutes. I know that sometimes, especially in work situations, even five free minutes are difficult to find and yet people who practice the Buteyko Breathing Method  manage to relax in an office chair, outside on a bench or hiding in their car.

Ludmila shared with me that Konstantin thoroughly studied the work of Ivan Pavlov, the legendary Russian physiologist and psychologist, mostly known to Westerners by his experiments with dogs. In a medical archive, Konstantin found Pavlov’s unpublished manuscript, in which he described his scientific findings regarding sleep. Pavlov observed people with severe cases of insomnia. He found out those who believed their condition was abnormal were tormented by lack of sleep; however, those who did not have this belief were fine. Summarizing his research, Pavlov concluded that a healthy human body does not need eight hours of sleep, as doctors believe, but can exist on short intermittent periods of rest, literally, minutes. I’ve never seen this manuscript and therefore have no means to verify this information; however, what I discovered examining various yoga traditions is confirmative to this story.

Of course, for most people, a significant sleep reduction will remain a lofty goal; however, the reduction of hyperventilation will gradually make it more real, especially if you start using the Awareness Belt while asleep (Please note: people taking sleeping pills, should not use this tool; also, this tool should be used under supervision of a Buteyko Breathing Method specialist only). The nighttime belt could be the same as described in my previous blog, or wider and firmer. For children, it is recommended using a long scarf, which should be tied underneath their ribs with a knot in the back. This knot prevents a child from sleeping on their back and also gives a parent an opportunity to tighten “the belt” without waking the child.

Why is the belt recommended for the nighttime? Just observe your breathing in the evening, when you lay down at night. Every time I did that, I was surprised to find my breathing getting significantly deeper. The nighttime and hyperventilation are best friends, no wonder in some spiritual traditions the nighttime is associated with evil or ignorance. To overcome the impact of night breathing, the belt is helpful. Dr. Buteyko wore his large, leather belt every night, and I also made an effort to train myself to sleep with a belt. Honestly, it’s not easy… Often, I am not comfortable wearing my firm workout belt throughout the whole night but it stays on at least for a part of it restricting my breathing. The belt also acts as an alarm clock waking me up when my stomach starts moving from heavy breathing.

You see, I was born a hyperventilator and therefore, according to Dr. Buteyko, will retain the tendency to hyperventilate throughout my whole life. So I need to control it.  Only people who were born breathing normally (by Dr. Buteyko’s standards) are free of this inclination. By the way, Dr. Buteyko’s specialization in college was gynecology and later on in his life he worked with couples planning on parenthood, teaching them how to conceive and give birth to a baby free of hyperventilation. Babies born under his supervision were extremely healthy and also often had unusual abilities, which could qualify them as indigo children. In our Breathing Center, we pass this precious knowledge to future parents in an educational program called Buteyko Breathing Normalization Method Level 2.

How do I know that I was born a hyperventilator? It is because my parents told me that I have been snoring since I was an infant; my father even gave me the nickname: Snore-Mountain.  Snoring is a clear sign of over-breathing. First, my baby snoring was sweet but over the years it became more pronounced. By the age of forty, my thunder-like snores would often wake up me and everyone around. I also developed sleep apnea, when my breathing would suddenly stop for several seconds. I didn’t know what to do with this embarrassing and potentially dangerous problem. Fortunately, the Buteyko Breathing Method cured this: I don’t snore anymore and my sleep apnea is gone. I thank the tape and the belt.

Snoring and sleep apnea are compensatory mechanisms for reducing hyperventilation. First, the body narrows its airways by creating an edema of soft tissues in the nose and throat areas, which facilitates sounds known as 'snoring.' This actually forces a person to breathe less and consequently increases CO2. Besides that, the sound itself could awake a person, temporarily forcing him to close his mouth and lessen his breathing. Unfortunately, this language of the body often remains misunderstood; instead, a person begins breathing even deeper, fighting against his constricted airways. This amplifies hyperventilation and, in turn, the body needs to come up with a stronger defense mechanism. When the level of CO2 becomes dangerously low, the body will try to accumulate it by bringing breathing to a halt, which doctors consider a disease called ‘sleep apnea.’ Normally, after a breathing pause, the inhalation re-establishes though doctors often frighten people by telling them they will die unless they use a CPAP machine.

In our Breathing Center, we often work with people who have insomnia, sleep apnea, and snore or suffer from other sleeping disorders. Regardless of their age, we help change their conditions. Many of our students not only able to stop snoring but also overcome sleep apnea and start sleeping without their SPAPs. When over-breathing is eradicated, the body does not have a need for compensatory mechanisms and, as a result, sleeping disorders disappear.