From Grof to Buteyko: Health, Spirituality, and Breathing

A Conversation Between Karey Pohn, JD Ph.D., Secretary of Association for Holotropic Breathwork and Sasha Yakovleva, Co-Founder of

I recently had the opportunity to interview Sasha Yakovleva, Advanced Buteyko Breathing Specialist. Her company, the Buteyko Breathing Center, is the official representation of Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, and it focuses on helping people to normalize their breathing. I have found this work to be profound and fascinating and felt that anyone would benefit from knowing about it, especially AHBI members.

Karey: Sasha, could you please give us a bit of background about yourself and how you came to know Holotropic Breathwork and its founder Stan Grof?

Sasha: I’m Russian, and I spent most of my life in Moscow. I was educated as a journalist and at the beginning of the 1990s started publishing Inward Path magazine, which became the first Russian publication about spirituality, the holistic movement, and alternative healing techniques. Within a few years, Inward Path turned into a national publication with more than one hundred thousand subscribers. The magazine also became a doorway to my personal development since it gave me a chance to attend many psychological and spiritual workshops, and learn about alternative approaches. This is how I came across the work of Dr. Stanislav Grof. I attended his workshop, read his books, and later interviewed him for the magazine.

Karey: What was your experience when you actually did Holotropic Breathwork?

Sasha: It was revolutionary. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, unaware of yoga and other spiritual traditions. The fall of the Soviet Union provided me with the freedom to search for my own truth, and I was eager to try everything. I was still in my twenties; for my generation, perestroika was an exciting and somewhat wild time comparable to the Sixties in the States.

During my first session of holotropic breathing, I saw myself as a little boy playing with a kite in the remote mountains of Tibet. You need to understand that at that time, the concept of past lives was unknown to me. I was also unaware of Tibet and its rich spiritual tradition.

Holotropic Breathwork helped me to step out of my personality and greatly widened my view on human life.

Karey: I know that you are a serious student of Tibetan Buddhism. When did you begin practicing it, relative to your breathwork experience?

Sasha: About a year later, I met a lama who told me that I had a long-lasting connection with Tibetan Buddhism. It sounded weird; however, time proved that he was right: I have been practicing dharma since then.

The Buteyko Breathing Method Reconsidered: An Effective Cure For Asthma

Karey: So now let’s talk about Dr. Buteyko’s work. How did you come across it?

Sasha: When I worked as the editor-in-chief of Inward Path magazine, someone submitted an article about the work of K.P. Buteyko, M.D. The author stated that Buteyko’s breathing method was capable of curing more than a hundred widespread diseases. After reading about it, I thought: I am not buying it! I would believe that a breathing technique is capable of stopping some breathing difficulties, but how could it possibly cure so many diseases? I decided not to publish the article.

About twenty years later, when I was residing in the United States, the circumstances of my life forced me to reconsider my opinion. My husband, Thomas, became severely ill with asthma: He was quickly turning into an invalid, and it was obvious to both of us that if we could not find a cure, he would die. He saw many doctors and alternative practitioners; however, no one was able to stop his asthma. Several physicians advised him to accept this situation since asthma was on the list of incurable diseases.

Then, a friend of mine from Russia reminded me about Dr. Buteyko, whose work was mostly known as a drug-free cure for asthma. I called Clinica Buteyko in Moscow and was connected to Dr. Buteyko’s widow. She reassured me that my husband’s asthma could be stopped by Dr. Buteyko’s method. So we traveled to Moscow hoping that what she said was true.

While we were in Moscow, I had to translate everything for Thomas, who is American and does not speak Russian; because of that, we went through the whole program at Clinica Buteyko together. By the end of it, I realized that what we learned was not just a breathing technique – it was a new philosophy of health and a unifying factor for all holistic modalities I was already familiar with! I was fascinated with Dr. Buteyko’s work and began applying his breathing method together with Thomas.

My Husband’s Asthma and Allergies Were Stopped By This Holistic Treatment

The results were amazing: My husband’s asthma and allergies were stopped, and he became drug-free. My health also significantly improved. Unlike Thomas, I wasn’t severely ill but experienced some health problems, which I was attributing to aging. At that time, I was 44 and experienced chronic pain in my kidneys and joints, as well as migraines, not to mention many minor health issues. When I changed my breathing patterns and established gentle nasal breathing, these symptoms disappeared.

Karey: That’s amazing! And how did you and your husband end up representing Clinica Buteyko?

Sasha: At the end of our visit, Dr. Buteyko’s widow, Ludmila, and the Medical Director of Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, Dr. Novozhilov, asked us to represent this method in the West. This request was made out of concern that the Buteyko method was not presented correctly in the United States, Canada, and some other countries. Despite the fact that the Buteyko method was becoming more and more popular there, it was often diminished to nose pinches, leaving aside the most precious part—its philosophy—similar to what happened to yoga when it became popular in the West.

Following this request, we opened the Buteyko Center USA, which later was renamed to the Buteyko Breathing Center. We developed Buteyko Breathing Normalization programs for adults and children to help tame asthma and various breathing difficulties, as well as other health issues.

Levels of Buteyko Breathing Method

Karey: Can you describe Buteyko Breathing Method programs in more detail?

Sasha: Sure. The Breathing Center offers four levels of Buteyko Breathing Normalization Method programs for individuals, families, or small groups. All programs can be taken in person or by using Skype; in fact, 90 percent of our clients attend their sessions online. Buteyko Breathing Method specialists work with people all over the world. For example, among my current clients are a 4-year-old girl in Dubai (Arabic Emirates), a 5-year-old boy from Nigeria, a man from Australia, several people from different states in the United States, and only one person from Boulder, Colorado where our main office is located.

The goal of the Level 1 , Buteyko Breathing Normalization Training course is personal health improvement. The participants of this training are mostly people who have asthma, allergies, sleep apnea, anxiety, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, nasal polyps, hypertension, and other health issues. We also have an Adenoids Without Surgery program for children with enlarged adenoids and tonsils. Level 1 programs help participants to establish healthy, meditation-like breathing patterns, which then they use for the rest of their lives. This reduces or stops their symptoms, and significantly improves their overall health. Many people who had been seriously ill consider this program to be a lifesaver.

The main focus of the Level 2 program, is collective health; this course widens people’s perspective on what is going on with human beings and modern civilization. In addition, this program instructs participants how to continue working on their own breathing to achieve optimal health and well-being.

Then, during the Level 3 program, students learn how to help others, which is very important, since a core element of Dr. Buteyko’s philosophy is altruism. After this program, participants become certified as Buteyko Breathing Method specialists.

The 4th level is the Teachers Training, an advanced program, open for specialists only.

Modern People Consume More Air Than They Need, Causing Hyperventilation

Karey: Most people believe that there is nothing wrong with their breathing. I would think that unless people have serious breathing difficulties, they would be puzzled: Why do I need to improve my breathing? Isn’t it supposed to be natural?

Sasha: Breathing patterns are affected by lifestyle. The lifestyle of modern homo sapiens is highly unnatural: Most people spend their time sitting in a comfortable chair, and then try to compensate for this sedentary existence by doing an intense workout; we eat processed, cooked food, which has been genetically modified, bombarded by pesticides, and often shipped from another part of the planet; we cover our skin and protect our feet; we enjoy hot showers and air conditioners; we use various electric and electronic devices; and on top of it all, we put chemical drugs into our bodies every time we experience any physical or mental discomfort. Compare this to the lifestyle of any other mammal. We humans have moved far away from what I would call our original design. As a result, breathing patterns have become compromised, and people have turned into hyperventilators.

Dr. Buteyko found that modern people consume more air than their bodies need. Hyperventilation decreases the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the lungs, consequently reducing the amount of oxygen delivered by hemoglobin to various organs of the body (the Bohr Effect). Oxygen deficit negatively affects various bodily functions, gradually rendering them dysfunctional. In general, hyperventilation offsets the balance of the body and provokes various health problems. Unfortunately, over-breathing has become an epidemic, especially in well-developed countries.

Karey: If I understand you correctly, by hyperventilating, or breathing too much, we end up not getting enough oxygen. If the situation is so bad, why don’t most people die from hyperventilation?

Sasha: Many people do. Hyperventilation is very dangerous and could be lethal. Fortunately, our highly intelligent bodies generate compensatory mechanisms to reduce it. When breathing becomes excessive, a healthy body will try taming it by narrowing airways through generating mucus, creating a bronchial spasm, growing nasal polyps, or increasing the size of tonsils and adenoids. If this does not solve the problem, according to Dr. Buteyko, the body will continue struggling to maintain its homeostasis by changing various parameters such as the PH balance and blood pressure.

The Buteyko Breathing Method Addresses The Cause Of The Symptom, Not Just The Symptom

Doctors call these compensatory mechanisms symptoms and try to remove them. Dr. Buteyko determined that this often worsens people’s health; so, he developed a method to eliminate the cause of the symptoms: over-breathing. When breathing patterns becomes normal – similar to that of wild animals – compensatory reactions disappear since they are not needed anymore.

Overall, hyperventilation depletes the immune system and weakens health. Over-breathing is like taking subtle venom on a daily basis. You can use medical drugs or holistic modalities to reduce the damage it creates; however, unless a person stops taking poison, they cannot be healthy. There is no health without healthy breathing.

Karey: It seems to me that our ancestors were aware of the power of breathing, but in the modern world, it remains greatly underestimated.

Sasha: I agree. Dr. Buteyko compared the power of breathing with nuclear power. He said: By breathing incorrectly, one can quickly destroy his or her health; by establishing healthy breathing, one can gain perfect health and longevity.

Many authentic, unadulterated cultures possessed knowledge on how to manipulate breathing patterns for spiritual and healing purposes. Their techniques are precious; nevertheless, they often become ineffective and even dangerous for modern man. A few hundred or a thousand years ago, people’s lifestyles were much more natural compared to ours; consequently, their breathing patterns were much healthier. You see, the same breathing technique affects people with different breathing patterns differently. Let’s use an analogy: Jogging is conducive to health, isn’t it? And yet it could worsen the health of a person whose leg is broken. It’s the same for people with broken breathing.

Are the Buteyko Breathing Method And Holotropic Breathwork Compatible?

Karey: I believe people engage in Holotropic Breathwork for a different purpose compared to why people learn the Buteyko Breathing Method. Mostly, people do Holotropic Breathwork to take a journey to the depths of their consciousness. Is this safe from the perspective of the method you teach?

Sasha: I believe that a journey to the depths of consciousness cannot be risk-free: It is the same as diving in a muddy pond without knowing what hides at the bottom. Nevertheless, Dr. Buteyko’s work could make any type of breathwork safer. It applies not only to Holotropic Breathwork but to various other breathing techniques, especially those that originated in the past.

I remember that in one of his books, Dr. Grof described a ritual when people in ancient cultures gathered in large groups to alter their breathing patterns in order to experience altered states of consciousness. I believe this was safe for the people of ancient Greece but could be risky for today’s Americans. To experience the same safely, I would recommend normalizing breathing first.

Karey: I understand that people mostly start the Buteyko Breathing Method in order to improve their health, but what about people who are already healthy? Will they benefit from this method as well?

Sasha: Buteyko’s standards are rather high. A lot of people who think that they are healthy, in actuality, are not. I was one of them, but to answer your question: yes, of course, healthy people benefit from this method.

Many cultures acknowledged breathing as a door to personal evolution. Becoming healthy is just a first step, which allows a person to move up to another level, which Dr. Buteyko called yogic. This state is characterized by emotional stability and the ability to help others. Also, people often become very aware of the presence of divinity. Normally, at this point, people’s intuition becomes stronger, their inner dialog quieter; and sometimes other unusual abilities start flourishing. This is a reason why Dr. Buteyko’s method is sometimes called Russian Yoga.

A Lot Of People Think They Are Healthy But Are Not

Karey: In preparation for this interview, I was on your website and noticed Ram Dass’s testimonial. How did you come to work with Ram Dass, and did the Buteyko Breathing Method help him?

Sasha: A founder of Omega Institute, Stephan Rechtschaffen M.D., asked me to help Ram Dass, who was experiencing breathing difficulties. Ram Dass was skeptical about it; however, Stephan convinced him, since the Breathing Center helped his son to tame his asthma. That is how I came to work with Ram Dass.

As you know, Ram Dass is a meditation master who practiced various yoga techniques; among them was pranayma, the yoga of breathing. One would think that his breathing and health should be perfect… and yet he had many health issues. Actually, Ram Dass’s story is a great illustration for our discussion. You see, traditionally, pranayama was introduced to yogis after they mastered all asanas, which means that at that point their breathing was extremely strong. When a person who over-breathes applies the same techniques, they might experience serious side effects.

When I met Ram Dass, his breathing was heavy, and he was constantly breathing through his mouth. This constant over-breathing resulted in oxygen starvation, which negatively affected his whole body. Despite the fact that a whole team of doctors and alternative practitioners were trying to help him, his health was not improving. The Buteyko Breathing Method helped him to stop his breathing difficulties and strengthen his overall health.

How Can You Know If You Over-Breathe?

Karey: Mouth-breathing is a problem? And also, how would people know if they over-breathe?

Sasha: It’s natural for humans to breathe through the nose. The nose filters air and conditions it for our consumption – similar to the mouth, which prepares food for digestion. However, compared to eating, breathing is utterly important since we can survive without food for a month but without air, we die within minutes. For this reason, we have a secondary option for breathing, and that is breathing through the mouth. Mouth-breathing, if only used for a short time, does not generate negative effects, but it’s supposed to be for emergencies only.

Everyone who breathes through his or her mouth regularly (even when one is asleep, physically active, or talking) is hyperventilating. Dr. Buteyko said: A mouth-breather cannot be healthy.

To check if you over-breathe and to what degree, I suggest taking the self-test available on our website.

What Happens During Holotropic Breathing?

Karey: During holotropic breathing, we actually increase the breathing rate for a limited period of time. Normally, sessions of Holotropic Breathwork occur a few times a year in a specific setting supervised by trained facilitators. This should reduce possible negative effects that over-breathing can cause, don’t you think?

Sasha: When I was introduced to holotropic breathing, I was instructed to breathe a little bit deeper and a little bit faster to begin the process, and of course, many people breathe through their mouths when they do this. This triggers hyperventilation but, as you know, a body comes up with compensatory mechanisms. I remember that during these sessions, my breathing would often stop for a few seconds or even minutes. This breath-holding effect is how my body reacted to over-breathing; people often experience the same effect while practicing techniques requiring excessive breathing. Why does breath-holding happen? According to Dr. Buteyko, when we over-breathe, the level of CO2 in the alveoli of the lungs becomes dangerously low; in this case, breathing goes on hold, which raises CO2. When the CO2 level becomes acceptable, breathing resumes. People who have sleep apnea experience the same effect at night.

To summarize, mouth-breathing (if it occurs for a limited time) could negatively affect people whose CO2 level is low, but it is fine for people with a normal level.

Kerry: Could the Buteyko Breathing Method offer an explanation as to why people often have visions during Holotropic Breathwork while they are breathing in this more concentrated manner, often through their mouth?

Sasha: Based on what I learned from doctors at Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, I can try to come up with an explanation. Hyperventilation creates oxygen deficiency in the body, including the brain. This forms a new mental environment, which might be called an altered state, or non-ordinary state of consciousness. Perhaps this condition makes the information hidden in the depths of our consciousness more accessible.

Besides that, excessive mouth-breathing is always associated with traumatic events. When people are stressed, they switch to mouth-breathing, since their bodies perceive the circumstances as an emergency. For example, when my clients tell me about their divorce or the death of a relative, their breathing always deepens. At that moment, they often lose awareness of nasal breathing and start breathing through their mouth.

On the other hand, deliberately practicing this type of breathing helps people to reconnect with stressful events from the past. I believe this is a possible explanation for the fact that people often re-experience their past traumas during their sessions of Holotropic Breathwork.

Stress And Breathing

Karey: You said that mouth-breathing is always associated with stress, but contrarily, I often see people whose breathing becomes more peaceful after doing Holotropic Breathwork.

Sasha: There is no contradiction. You see, breathing patterns are affected by emotions. Strong negative emotions trigger hyperventilation, which, if not stopped, could last for a long time. Let’s say that a child was sexually abused, and this psychological trauma altered his or her breathing patterns, creating over-breathing. This condition might continue for a whole life, constantly offsetting the balance of the body and causing various health problems. On the other hand, if this person (now being an adult) accesses the traumatic events of childhood through Holotropic Breathwork, he or she has a chance to release suppressed emotions and integrate them into his or her psyche. This will positively affect breathing and could stop hyperventilation.

The Power Of Breathing

Karey: We, too, realize the power of the breath, and that is the reason that we always caution people to only do Holotropic Breathwork with a certified facilitator. I guess breathing is really quite complicated and requires thorough knowledge.

Sasha: Yes. That’s why Clinica Buteyko in Moscow initiated the formation of the Breathing Center: to make comprehensive knowledge about breathing available to people outside Russia. The method, which Buteyko Breathing Method specialists teach, sometimes is casually called the Buteyko method, but it is important to understand that it is not a product of only one man’s work. It took almost sixty years for Russian medical doctors and scientists to develop this method under the supervision of Dr. Buteyko; in the 1960s, the Soviet government supported this research by granting almost unlimited funds. Surprisingly for the medical establishment, this colossal work produced a drug-free and holistic method, and for that reason, it has not been fully accepted by the healthcare bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the method was preserved by Clinica Buteyko in Moscow and Dr. Buteyko’s family, along with individuals who have benefitted immensely from this method, and now it is fully available for people all over the world.

Karey: Thanks, Sasha for your time and also for giving more insight into the power of the breath and how we can use it more effectively for our health in our ordinary states of consciousness. I have learned so much about being aware and breathing less, and how can help us normalize our breathing when we do engage in various kinds of different breathing methods that take us into nonordinary states of consciousness, or anytime where we breathe. I have already gained many benefits from your beginning course, and am eager to learn more.

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