Is Buteyko a Good Alternative to Pranayama?
Pranayama Alternative Buteyko – let’s explore if it makes sense to replace yogic pranayama with Buteyko breathing.
More recently, I have been looking for ways to reduce the daily time I use to practice sitting meditation (vipassana) and yoga (asanas and pranayama).
There are phases in life when it makes sense to dedicate a lot if not all, time to your spiritual practice. This extensive dedication of time might be due to a situation of crises. Or an intense longing for change, or because this is what you have decided to do with your life.
And especially when you start with any spiritual practice, it is a good idea to be strict with yourself until a new habit forms. Also, prolonged, intense training opens you up to the benefits and possibilities of a method.
That said, regular short session trump occasional, longer sessions.
You need to train your mind to accept a new practice as a habit. You have to create this mental acceptance particularly true for methods that can be physically unpleasant or challenging.
Sitting meditation and breath retention in any breathwork are practices that can evoke adverse feelings. And they quite literally corner your mind. So you will need persistence, which best finds its expression in regular repetition.
Aiming at Spending Less Time Working with Your Breath
But once you have been practicing for a while and you feel you have made progress, there is nothing wrong with adjusting your practice. In my case, I wanted to go out into life again. I believe that one of the deeper purposes of going inwards and introspect for a while is to turn outwards back eventually. Be with other people. Possibly work, be of service.
After practicing for several years, at times in solitude in remote areas in the Himalayas, it was time for me to go out into life again. And when you do that, you can’t spend 5 – 6 hours per day in meditation, practicing asanas and pranayama.
You will need to reduce or find alternatives.
Buteyko as Alternative Pranayama
As for my pranayama practice, I was intrigued by the Buteyko method of breathing.
Pranayama had become a substantial part of my practice. With more than 1o years of asana practice under my belt at the time, my focus had shifted more towards pranayama and meditation.
Purpose and Practice pf Pranayama Breathing
Pranayama is commonly referred to as breath control, though this only partly captures the full meaning of this ancient practice. The term pranayama is a combination of ‘ prana’ and ‘ayama.’ Prana here is ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’ and belongs to the astral body. Ayama translates to an extension of expansion.
Each of the numerous pranayama breathing techniques creates different feelings, for example, cooling, heating, calming, lightheadedness, or alertness. But the underlying purpose of pranayama is to open blocked pathways to the brain and the nervous system as a preparation to experience pure consciousness. Regular practice of pranayama boosts energy in the body, balances the emotions, and better focusses the mind. While there are proven physical benefits, pranayama aims at enabling higher consciousness.
Many yoga teachers include only very basic pranayama in their classes, mostly to even out breathing patterns and to adjust breathing when holding yoga postures. Traditionally teachers will only reveal teachings on pranayama if they deem the student ready for it. After all, pranayama works directly on the nervous system, which comes with certain risks. And many yoga teachers tell the story of the student who ‘fried his nervous system’ by too early practicing too advances pranayama.
Generally speaking, pranayama breathing techniques can consist of four parts. The parts are inhalation, exhalation, breath retention after inhalation, and breath retention after exhaling.
The most definite impact has retention after exhalation. Breath is life, and when you retain your breath after exhaling and working on extending that time, you will need to deal with influencing the urge to breathe and surrender to your mortality.
Enter Buteyko, the Ukrainian Doctor Who Set out To Fix Asthma
I learned about Buteyko from a friend who addresses his hyperventilation using this breathing method.
The Buteyko method applies various breathing exercises and techniques to relieve peoples’ respiratory issues. Buteyko breathing improves the conditions of people with asthma, smoking-related conditions, sleep apnea (breathing problems while sleeping) as well as hay fever.
As with any ‘free’ practice that improves health and cures diseases, there will be a debate about its effectiveness and validity. Partly lobbying parties of paid alternatives will question the viability of a free replacement. And then, of course, it is healthy to have a skeptical distance to any claims and to make an educated decision by yourself.
Here at Vita Illuminata Dotcom, I have to refrain from giving any medical advice. So it is ultimately always your call. Don’t believe anything, always take an educated decision that you own.
The most common Buteyko techniques include nose breathing instead of breathing through your mouth, relaxed breathing, the ‘control pause,’ and the ‘stop cough.’
The underlying assumption for Buteyko’s breathing method was the insight that when humans have an optimal level of carbon dioxide, they never suffer from any chronic disease. Wrong breathing, especially breathing through the mouth and hyperventilation can cause decreased carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
Here is a robust video introduction to the Buteyko breathing method. And since the Buteyko breathing method is quite potent, it would make sense to approach it with care and possibly seek professional instruction.
So How Do the Pranayama and Buteyko Compare as Breathing Methods?
At first sight, the similarities between the Buteyko method and standard practices of pranayama are striking.
Buteyko appears to be a scientifically backed breathing method addressing the critical benefits of pranayama head-on, namely breath retention after exhalation.
The eventual goal of pranayama is to increase periods of breath retention, as this has the most potent physiological effects.
Do you want to experience this first hand? Just breathe in and out deeply three times, and after the third exhalation, hold your breath as long as you comfortably can. Don’t gasp for air after the breath retention but, but return to your normal breathing.
Most likely, you will have experienced an immediate opening of your sinuses, and possibly you feel like having to get some phlegm out of your lungs. The build-up of carbon dioxide expands your blood vessels, creating the sensation of increased space. When you breathe again, your blood is eager to take up fresh oxygen, leaving you refreshed.
As physiologically exciting as this affects this, as mentally challenging it can be at the same. You are pretending to suffocate when you hold your breath for an extended time.
In pranayama, you learn that you will need an attitude of surrender to go into this state.
Iyengar talks in his book ‘Light on Life’ about working with the breath and the vital force like cajoling a wild horse. You cannot only outright compel it, but you also will need to entice it into control.
Restraining your breath by force can be highly unpleasant as you tickle physiological survival instincts. You need to be relaxed, accepting, and persistent at the same time.
Pranayama is More Subtle than Buteyko and Has a Richer Philosophical Framing
As for pranayama alternative Buteyko, here lies the salient difference between the two breathing systems. Pranayama gently prepares you for the challenge of breath retention is as much a mental as a physiological challenge.
The breath is the bridge between your body and your mind. And there is a lot to experience on that journey when working with your breath. Hence the reminders of caution about pranayama in the ashtanga yoga system.
Buteyko, in turn, tackles breath retention head-on. It bypasses the ‘spiritual’ aspects of working with your breath as its orientation is medical. Buteyko practitioners stress the need for patients and beginners of the method to seek professional help. Being under supervision seems highly advisable as breath retention challenges the mind and, therefore, can cause intense mental reactions.
Buteyko Delivers Impressive Results Fast
If you have been practicing pranayama for a while, it’s likely to have become natural to your life. You will practice conscious breathing after waking up, before going to sleep, balancing inhalation and exhalation in hectic situations.
Perhaps you even use pranayama techniques to give yourself a push of energy when you are tired. Or warm you up in the cold or cool yourself down in the heat. All these benefits are available to the experienced practitioner.
And at that stage, it is fascinating to dive into the medical insights of the Buteyko method. So I did find Buteyko an intriguing alternative and certainly much less time-consuming. But pranayama alternative Buteyko? I would not want to miss the much richer variety of breathing techniques of pranayama. And above all, its inclusion into the overall philosophy of yoga as a living system.