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A method worth exploring?

A man is sitting in a grainfield practicing breathing techniques.

It’s been a strange irony that I, lying in my bed, should stum­ble upon a book that deals so inti­mate­ly with the very thing that had brought me low. Covid had robbed me of my strength and left me short of breath, and yet it was in the midst of this strug­gle that I found dis­trac­tion and, yes, a tune up.

For as I laid there, scrolling through the inter­net, I chanced upon a review of Patrick McK­e­own’s «The Oxy­gen Advan­tage». A book, it would seem, that promis­es to unlock the secrets of the breath and pro­vide a path to bet­ter health and fitness.

«It’s like­ly there will be uses for breath­ing tech­niques in a vari­ety of med­ical set­tings, but it’s not a mag­ic bul­let.» (Mike Thomas)

At first, I scoffed at the notion. Sure­ly, I thought, there can be no easy answers to a prob­lem as com­plex as breath­ing. And yet, as I read on, I found myself intrigued. And so I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty, since I had plen­ty of time any­way, and got the audiobook.

McK­e­own’s approach is not a quick fix or a fad, it’s not one of mag­ic or mys­tery. He draws upon years of research and prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence to offer a sys­tem that can help us all breathe bet­ter and achieve more in our lives. His method involves a com­bi­na­tion of breath­ing exer­cis­es and train­ing tech­niques to enhance the body’s oxy­gen uti­liza­tion. The book is filled with anec­dotes of ath­letes who have expe­ri­enced improve­ments in their per­for­mance, includ­ing endurance, speed, and recov­ery time.

As some­one who has always relied on med­ica­tion to man­age my asth­ma dur­ing exer­cise, McK­e­own’s prospect of a drug-free approach was fas­ci­nat­ing. But, as a skep­tic, I was cau­tious about it from the start. McK­e­own’s promis­es seemed too good to be true, and some of his tech­niques appeared almost too sim­ple to be effec­tive. Despite my doubts, I found myself drawn in by McK­e­own’s per­sua­sive argu­ments and his easy-to-fol­low instruc­tions. His style is clear and con­cise, mak­ing the book acces­si­ble to both ath­letes and laypeo­ple alike.

Overblown claims are frustrating for scientists

I often strug­gled to keep up with my non-asth­mat­ic peers on the track or the field, and so the idea of being able to train with­out the aid of med­ica­tion is noth­ing short of lib­er­at­ing, as this dis­ease has more than once been lim­it­ing my poten­tial and rob­bing me of the joy of exer­cise. In «The Oxy­gen Advan­tage,» McK­e­own offers a way out of this vicious cycle. By improv­ing our breath­ing pat­terns and train­ing our bod­ies to uti­lize oxy­gen more effi­cient­ly, he gives us the tools to unlock our full ath­let­ic potential.

«The prob­lem is that in most human stud­ies any effects of slow, deep breath­ing seem to be iso­lat­ed to the lab con­di­tions in which they are mea­sured.» (Don Noble)

While «The Oxy­gen Advan­tage» offers a promis­ing new approach, it is impor­tant to acknowl­edge that not all experts are con­vinced of its ben­e­fits. Some argue that breath­ing tech­niques, espe­cial­ly when pro­mot­ed as a cure-all for var­i­ous health issues, may be noth­ing more than a pass­ing trend. In a 2020 arti­cle for The Guardian, jour­nal­ist Emine San­er notes that there is lim­it­ed sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to sup­port many of the claims made by pro­po­nents of breath­ing exer­cis­es. Addi­tion­al­ly, some experts cau­tion that cer­tain tech­niques, such as hyper­ven­ti­la­tion, may actu­al­ly be harm­ful if not prac­ticed properly.

How­ev­er, this is not to say that all breath­ing exer­cis­es should be dis­missed out­right. As San­er writes: «Many peo­ple undoubt­ed­ly ben­e­fit from breath­ing exer­cis­es. How­ev­er, overblown claims about these pow­ers are frus­trat­ing for sci­en­tists who believe they do have poten­tial for more wide­spread use, but that this should be sup­port­ed by good-qual­i­ty research and trials.»

At this point it is worth men­tion­ing that McK­e­own’s approach is part­ly based on the breath­ing exer­cis­es pro­mot­ed by Dr. Kon­stan­tin Pavlovich Buteyko, a Sovi­et physi­cian and pro­fes­sor. Buteyko was a strong advo­cate of nasal breath­ing and believed that many dis­eases, includ­ing can­cer and AIDS, could be cured by prac­tic­ing prop­er breath­ing tech­niques. Some of Buteyko’s claims have been wide­ly crit­i­cized and are con­sid­ered by many in sci­en­tif­ic cir­cles to be pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic and too simplistic.

A useful starting point

Nonethe­less in recent years, sev­er­al stud­ies have been con­duct­ed to inves­ti­gate the effec­tive­ness of the Buteyko breath­ing tech­nique. While one study pub­lished in the Jour­nal Res­pi­ra­to­ry Med­i­cine found that the Buteyko tech­nique appears to have a pos­i­tive impact on asth­ma con­trol, and that patients using that tech­nique were able to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce their dai­ly dos­es of inhaled cor­ti­cos­teroid, oth­er stud­ies have found no evi­dence for its effectiveness.

«Nasal breath­ing pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages over mouth breath­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for ath­letes who want to improve per­for­mance as well as recov­er more effi­cient­ly» (Michael Flanell)

But there’s more when it comes to breath train­ing in gen­er­al. One study, pub­lished in April 2022, found that breath work helped recov­er­ing Covid-19 patients return to healthy res­pi­ra­to­ry rates. And anoth­er study, pub­lished in Novem­ber 2022, found that breath­ing exer­cis­es — among oth­er mind­ful­ness prac­tices — were as effec­tive as drugs to treat anx­i­ety disorders.

More­over, stud­ies indi­cate that a focus on breath­ing can reduce stress by increas­ing parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem activ­i­ty. And one of Buteyko’s prin­ci­ples, nasal breath­ing, is find­ing more and more advo­cates in sci­ence and med­i­cine. A review paper by Michael Flanell, Pro­fes­sor for Health­care Man­age­ment at St. Joseph’s Col­lege in Patchogue, New York, con­cludes that «nasal breath­ing pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages over mouth breath­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for ath­letes who want to improve per­for­mance as well as recov­er more efficiently.»

Despite the lack of con­crete sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence sup­port­ing McK­e­own’s approach­es and the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing some of the breath­ing tech­niques, I find myself intrigued by the poten­tial ben­e­fits of his method. The idea of improv­ing my over­all well-being and poten­tial­ly even enhanc­ing my ath­let­ic per­for­mance through sim­ple breath­ing exer­cis­es is cer­tain­ly appealing.

While I approach McK­e­own’s method with cau­tion and do not plan to use it as a sole means of treat­ing any med­ical con­di­tions I may have, I am excit­ed to exper­i­ment with his tech­niques and see if they can tru­ly make a dif­fer­ence in my life. While McK­e­own’s method may not work for every­one, his book pro­vides a use­ful start­ing point for those look­ing to explore alter­na­tive meth­ods for man­ag­ing breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and improv­ing ath­let­ic per­for­mance. Ulti­mate­ly, I believe that any method that pro­motes a health­i­er lifestyle is worth explor­ing, pro­vid­ed that it is under­tak­en in a safe and respon­si­ble way. So here I am, wel­com­ing the force of mind­ful­ness into my live, one breath at a time.

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