Forcing your lungs to breathe less when you are gasping requires discipline. Professor Buteyko was brutal, taping patients' mouths shut so they had to breathe through their noses. That's how they did things in Soviet Russia.
At the Hale Clinic near Harley St., Chris Drake, who learned the Buteyko method in Russia and practised it in Australia, tells patients to breathe through their noses whenever possible. and to tape their mouths up at night. He advises a minimum of exercise, to avoid heavy breathing, and moderate eating and drinking - large meals make asthmatics breathless.
TV Presenter and mother-of-five Sally Magnusson, who went on the 290 (UK pounds) week's Buteyko course with her eight-year-old son Siggy, said: "It has been very encouraging so far but time will tell." You start with some shallow breathing. "It's not easy or relaxing, it's difficult, horrible," says Drake. "If it's joyful, you're doing it wrong."
Worse is to follow. It is called the pause. You breathe out gently, then hold your breath. You should be able to do this for a minute or more. In our group of nine. Kevin ,the Rastafarian poet managed 10 seconds, and a three-year-old boy couldn't manage to do it at all. I did 25 seconds, not good enough for Drake.
"You are breathing for four people," he said. "You don't need so much oxygen. We breathe 10 times more oxygen than we need, and 200 times too little carbon dioxide."
On the second day pauses were getting longer, pulses slower. Blood vessels had expanded, Drake explained, and appetites had diminished. The routine is 4 maximum pauses and 2 medium ones, separated by 3 minute intervals of shallow breathing, doing this 4 times a day. The purpose is to retrain the respiratory centre, the part of the brain which controls breathing.
On the third day the father of the small boy complained that Drake had disrupted his entire family's sleeping pattern. He took his wife and son away and didn't come back. "That boy is being condemned to a life on drugs". Drake protested.
Valerie, a psychotherapist fellow sufferer, and I were doing pauses of more than a minute by this time, holding our noses, pacing the room to distract ourselves from the pain and had given up symptomatic medication, Serevent in her case. Ventolin in mine. Kevin managed half a minute and was using 3 puffs of ventolin a day instead of 10.
On the 5th day Kevin who was sceptical and still hadn't taped his mouth shut at night, confessed he felt much better. "It's been a success. This is usually a bad time of year for me. I often end up in hospital it gets so bad."
Valerie was much better, but rather nervous of going back to see her doctor. "It's been a big success. I expected to be very wheezy when I gave up all the drugs but I'm not."
Sally Magnusson adds: "As a sceptical journalist I feel there must be a catch but I can't see it yet. Siggy is feeling much better, using fewer inhalers."