At a Woodstock clinic, an alternative treatment aims to make asthma disappear into thin air
Illustration by Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock
To a person in the throes of an asthma attack, there is nothing on Earth more precious than oxygen. The muscles around the bronchial tubes tighten. The airways swell and clog with mucus. The panicked sufferer coughs and wheezes, desperate to fill the lungs’ narrowing channels with air.
Tell an asthmatic that his problem is too much oxygen, then, and you think you’d risk an inhaler to the head. But that’s the diagnosis that Thomas and Sasha Yakovlev-Fredricksen, founders of Buteyko Center USA, impart every day to visitors at their Woodstock clinic.
The breathing technique that the couple teaches, known as the Buteyko method, is almost insultingly simple: Breathe less, and breathe through the nose. Yet even the prickliest skeptic would be hard-pressed to dispute some of the results. Many patients — whom for decades depended on the strongest asthma treatments — find that, after a few months, they no longer need their medications. Respected medical journals, including Respiratory Medicine Journal and Thorax International Journal of Respiratory Medicine, have published articles detailing remarkable recoveries, complete with the data to back them up.
As Buteyko — a method born in Russia and popularized in Europe and Australia — begins to take hold in the United States, it finds at its epicenter the Yakovlev-Fredricksens and Buteyko Center USA, the official North American representative of the Buteyko headquarters in Moscow.
The Buteyko method was developed mid-century by a Ukrainian physician named Konstantin Buteyko, who fingered an unlikely culprit as the cause of asthma: hyperventilation, or too much breathing. The reasons for over-breathing are varied: they include stress, a lack of exercise, and a protein-heavy diet, according to the Yakovlev-Fredricksens. But nearly all of the reasons reflect a modern, harried lifestyle. “Hyperventilation almost didn’t exist a few centuries ago,” Sasha says.
Once the cycle of hyperventilation is set in motion, people inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide at a perilously high rate. This creates an imbalance in the body, the theory goes. To address that imbalance, our body adopts asthma as a defense mechanism to limit our breathing, but in so doing a host of other health problems are triggered.
The Yakovlev-Fredricksens and other followers of Buteyko believe that breathing slowly through the nose rebalances oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, disarms the body’s defense mechanisms, and eliminates conditions such as hypertension, migraines, and asthma. At the clinic in Woodstock, the couple first determines if and why a person is over-breathing. They then teach students exercises that help them retrain themselves to breathe more slowly. Five one-hour sessions at the clinic cost $525. The 12-hour main instructional course, which includes both breathing and lifestyle counseling, runs $2,225.
While the Internet abounds with instructional videos on Buteyko, the Yakovlev-Fredricksens insist in-person visits are the best way to learn the method. “The theory is easy to understand, but the application is complex,” Thomas says. “We teach you how to gently change your breathing patterns. If you force it, you trigger hyperventilation.” He compares the sessions to working out with a personal trainer at a gym. “The structure and the discipline really helps people lock in the change,” he says.
Easy breathin’: The Buteyko Center’s husband-and-wife team of certified specialists, Thomas and Sasha Yakovlev-Fredricksen, teach the holistic practice to help treat asthma. In 2008, Thomas successfully conquered his own severe asthma using the Buteyko method
Photograph courtesy of Buteyko Center USA
Thomas speaks from his own experience when it comes to the method’s efficacy. Diagnosed with asthma while in his 20s, he saw his condition worsen two years ago. “I went from a rescue inhaler to one preventative medication to the strongest of the preventative medications, and then on to steroids,” he says. “Then I went on to a prescription for my stomach ailments caused by the use of steroids.” He scoured the Internet for alternative treatments and discovered Buteyko. Within two weeks of practicing the exercises, he says, his asthma attacks were gone. Soon after that, the couple — he worked as a psychologist and she was a spirituality writer — spent six months at the Buteyko Clinic in Moscow in order to gain teaching licenses in the method. They opened the center in Woodstock last year.
Thomas is confident his students will see results as dramatic as those he experienced. “We have a 100-percent success rate,” he says. The Buteyko Center’s Web site is full of testimonials from current and former students relating the symptoms they’ve seen improve and the medications they no longer use. “It’s an elite method. You need to be disciplined, you need to be intelligent, and you need to be motivated,” Thomas says. “The only people who have not succeeded with this are people not willing to give it time.”
The Yakovlev-Fredricksens’ claim that Buteyko is a surefire cure-all doesn’t completely stand up to studies published in medical journals, but results do show that asthma patients experience genuine improvement when they use the method. In a 2008 study by a group of Canadian doctors, a six-month Buteyko intervention doubled the percentage of participants who had their asthma symptoms under control, from 40 to 79 percent. A 2003 British study pitted the Buteyko method against pranayama, a breathing exercise based on yoga principles. While pranayama elicited no benefits for the study’s participants, those participants who practiced Buteyko showed a decrease in asthma symptoms and a reduced reliance on their steroid inhalers.
Another, more curious finding has also established itself across the medical literature: The participants’ symptoms improve under the method, but the quality of their airways, physiologically speaking, remains poor. The Yakovlev-Fredricksens say that, given more time, the lungs’ physical condition will improve as well. Some doctors aren’t so sure. “The breathing method, quite honestly, controls symptoms, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem,” says Dr. Clement Osei, a pulmonologist at Rockland Pulmonary and Medical Associates in West Nyack. Medication, Osei says, is an asthma sufferer’s lifeline. He tells patients that practicing an alternative remedy for asthma is fine — as long as it is used in conjunction with traditional treatments.
For their part, the Yakovlev-Fredricksens recommend remaining on medication while practicing Buteyko. “We’re not medical doctors; we are educators,” Sasha says. “We don’t cure anyone. We just explain to people the possible cause of their health problem, and we teach them to normalize their breathing. All of our clients cure themselves.”
One of the Yakovlev-Fredricksens’ clients is Ilene Schabot, a 48-year-old Kingston resident. Schabot has had asthma since she was three years old. Using some of the most potent medications available, she was able to keep her lung health in check, but found other problems popped up: an autoimmune disease, kidney stones, an extreme sensitivity to cold. “I drew the parallel that it must be my medication that’s causing me to be ill,” she says.
Last August, Schabot attended a month’s worth of sessions at the Buteyko Center. The results have been dramatic. At this time last year, Schabot couldn’t hold her breath for longer than two seconds; she can now hold it for more than 30. She no longer needs her steroid inhaler, she says, although she still uses the asthma drug Singulair. Her other health problems have also decreased significantly.
“It gives people hope,” Schabot says about Buteyko. “Asthma is one of those diseases where you’re terrified of everything. You don’t lead a normal life because you’re wondering if this person’s cat is going to jump on you, or if you’re going to walk into a smoke-filled room and have an asthma attack.
“Buteyko really gives you the control that you need. If you’re in a situation like that, you can do a couple of breath holds and get yourself back on track.”
Check this out:
Buteyko Center USA in Woodstock is holding a two-day “Natural Asthma Cure” workshop on March 13-14. Thomas and Sasha Yakovlev-Fredricksen will conduct the workshop. The cost of attendance is $325. For more information, call 845-684-5456 or visit www.buteykocenterusa.com.