Buteyko Breathing Unpacked: Calm Your Anxiety Using This Powerful Technique

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Next time you’re on public transport, take a minute to listen to the breath of those around you.

You’ll notice that everyone breathes differently – some deeply, some quickly and shallowly, some slowly, some superficially, some with pauses in between, some without…

The Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT), developed by Ukrainian doctor Dr. Konstantin Buteyko in the 1950s, has provided thousands of people with the tools and knowledge to take control over the way they breathe and optimize their mental and physical wellbeing.

This ground-breaking technique helps improve breath awareness, encourage nostril breathing, and limit over-breathing (excessive deep breathing or hyperventilation). The beneficiaries of this technique include sufferers of asthma, anxiety, insomnia, and much more.

In this article, we’ll be exploring:

  • What is the Buteyko Breathing Technique?
  • What’s so important about breathing?
  • Benefits of the Buteyko Breathing Technique
  • How to do the Buteyko Breathing Technique
  • Potential Dangers

So, take a second to sit down, relax, and connect with your breath.

Are you ready?

Let’s go!

woman doing buteyko breathing technique

What is the Buteyko Breathing Technique?

In the 1950s, Ukrainian doctor Dr. Konstantin Buteyko identified over 100 medical disorders which he believed could be partially (if not wholly) resolved through careful breath training.

Dr. Buteyko spent 3 decades conducting research on the relationship between a diverse range of chronic diseases and breathing pattern and developed a therapeutic method known as the Buteyko Breathing Technique (pronounced Bu-tay-ko).

The technique gained popularity in Australia and the UK in the early 1990s and is used today to treat various respiratory and neurological issues.

BBT consists of breath retention exercises to manage the speed and volume of the breath. The ultimate aim is to enhance breath control, which is proven to help improve a variety of conditions, including asthma, anxiety, and sleep disorders, as well as decrease medicine usage.

a man in a field doing the buteyko breathing technique surrounded by grass

What’s so important about breathing?

Think of oxygen as fuel for your muscles. The more efficiently you deliver oxygen to your muscles, the easier you’ll be able to go about your day-to-day life. Not only this, but correct breathing helps decrease your heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, and more.

Whether you’re exercising or at rest, you should be using diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm is a muscle located between your thoracic cavity (chest) and abdominal cavity. However, most of us don’t fully engage this muscle when we breathe and instead take shorter, shallow breaths, putting the body under unnecessary stress.

The optimal breathing rate is 12-16 breaths per minute.

This offers the best conditions for efficient blood gas exchange, whereby your cells and muscles become oxygenated. A low rate of breaths per minute encourages the use of the diaphragm and reduces over-breathing.

a woman on the beach doing the buteyko breathing technique. shes wearing yoga clothes and is kneeling down.

4 Benefits of the Buteyko Breathing Technique

#1: Regulates breathing

BBT primarily modifies the pattern of breathing by lowering your tidal volume and respiratory rate to reduce hyperventilation, resulting in reduced carbon dioxide levels, reduced bronchospasm (tightening of the airways), and thus reduced breathlessness.

A 2018 study found that participants who practiced Buteyko immediately saw positive effects in their cardio-respiratory health, such as decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and reduced perceived exertion.

#2: Improves asthma symptoms

In asthma management, complementary and alternative medicine is enjoying a growing popularity worldwide. As a result, people are increasingly turning to the Buteyko Breathing Technique to manage their symptoms.

In 2000, researchers conducted a clinical trial on the effectiveness of the Buteyko Breathing Technique in reducing asthma inhaler usage. The study involved 36 adult participants with mild to moderate asthma who were randomly assigned to two groups.

The first group was instructed to follow a Buteyko video tutorial twice a day for 4 weeks, whilst the second group followed a placebo video. Effectiveness was measured by comparing participants’ asthma-related quality of life, peak expiratory flow, symptoms, and asthma medication intake before and after the 4-week intervention.

a woman sitting cross legged in meditation on a carpet

The study concluded that BBT significantly improved quality of life and significantly reduced inhaler usage.

These findings are consistent with other trials on BBT and asthma, such as a 2008 study conducted in Canada. After a 6-month Buteyko intervention, the number of participants who felt they had asthma control increased from 40% to 79%. The Buteyko group also significantly reduced their inhaled corticosteroid therapy compared with the control group.

#3: Decreases symptoms of anxiety

There are three main types of breathing:

1. Clavicular breathing

  • A breath that comes from high up in the shoulders and collarbones

2. Chest breathing

  • A breath that comes from the chest

3. Abdominal breathing

a pregnant woman doing a breathing exercise sitting cross legged

But which type is best?

Ready to dive into some science?

Engaging in abdominal breathing is vital to decreasing symptoms of stress or anxiety due to its influence on the vagus nerve, which extends from the brainstem all the way to the abdomen via the heart, esophagus, and lungs.

The vagus nerve plays a key role in managing anxiety as it controls the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which ultimately controls our ability to calm down and relax the body. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers our fight-or-flight response.

By engaging in slow, abdominal breathing, you can stimulate the vagus nerve and trigger a relaxation response via the PNS, balancing out the activity between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system and increasing resilience against stress.

You’ll notice that people suffering from an anxiety attack or panic attack engage in clavicular breathing and use the collarbone to move air.

a stressed woman taking deep breaths

#4: Improves sleep disorders

The Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT) has also been linked to improving sleep quality and providing relief to sufferers of sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia.

Many researchers believe that insomnia is partly characterized by chronic sympathetic hyperactivation (an overactive SNS) and parasympathetic hypoactivation (an underactive PSN), which disrupts normal sleep onset latency, sleep quality, and sleep duration.

An interesting 2019 study explored the impact of self-regulated slow breathing practice and its benefits for insomniacs. The researchers suggested that slow, diaphragmatic breathing is the most commonly used technique for insomnia due to the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and sleep physiology.

As discussed above, slow breathing from the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, helping to balance activity between the PSN and the SNS and trigger a relaxation response. Logically, this would improve sleep quality as well as decrease feelings of anxiety.

a woman in nature breathes deeply and places hands on chest

The study concluded that slow breathing techniques, combined with sleep-hygiene techniques, have the potential to be a highly powerful alternative to pharmaceutical interventions.

This is supported by the findings of a 2020 study which concluded that breathing retraining and regular practice of breath control activities are helpful for sleep apnoea, a relatively common sleep breath pattern disorder. Moreover, researchers have observed a high prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing amongst those with insomnia, leading some to suggest that insomnia may in fact be a breathing pattern disorder.

Ultimately, whilst the Buteyko breathing technique has demonstrated its ability to significantly improve sleep quality, more research is needed in this area.

How to do the Buteyko Breathing Technique

The two main Buteyko Breathing exercises are known as the Control Pause and the Maximum Pause.

The simple exercises that form the Buteyko Technique will teach you to breathe slowly, lightly, and deeply through your nose, improving your everyday breathing patterns, anxiety levels, and sleep quality.

three people meditate in front of the river ganges

To try these exercises at home, follow the simple steps below:

The Control Pause

  1. Gently exhale and hold your breath
  2. Close your nostrils using your index finger and thumb
  3. Hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe, and then inhale
  4. Breathe normally for at least 10 seconds, inhaling and exhaling through the nose
  5. Repeat several times

The Maximum Pause

  1. Gently exhale and hold your breath
  2. Close your nostrils using your index finger and thumb
  3. Hold your breath for as long as you can, aiming for twice the length of time of the Control Pause
  4. Once you’ve reached the point of moderate discomfort, inhale
  5. Breathe normally for at least 10 seconds, inhaling and exhaling through the nose
  6. Repeat several times
a woman doing a breathing exercise in her living room

Keep in mind that you’re only doing these exercises correctly if you feel like you’re not getting enough air – so don’t panic!

The best time to practice the BTT is either before eating or at least two hours after you’ve eaten. Be sure to find a place that’s quiet, comfortable, and distraction-free in order to see the best results.

If at any time you experience anxiety or discomfort, stop doing the exercise and let your breath return to its normal rate.

If you’re a beginner, we recommend watching a Buteyko Breathing Exercise tutorial for an informative, guided experience.

This easy-to-follow 20-minute YouTube tutorial is our favorite:

Potential Dangers 

Although the BBT is generally considered a safe and beneficial practice, it’s worth noting that some people may have underlying health conditions that make them unsuited to the method.

It’s important to avoid BBT if you suffer from:

  • hypertension
  • heart disease
  • epilepsy
  • a serious medical concern

Always consult your doctor before beginning any breathing exercise interventions.

Final Thoughts 

Hopefully, you’ve now got a clear idea of what Buteyko Breathing is, how it works, why you should do it, who should do it, and how to do it. Phew!

BBT is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do for your health in under 5 minutes.

For more quick ways to optimize your physical and mental wellbeing, check out our article on ‘7 Yoga Poses For Stress Relief – Instant And Effective‘.

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Lola is an Ayurveda practitioner based in London with a passion for yoga, nature and people.

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