From meditation to Buteyko Breathing: Ram Dass leads the way as explorer of spiritual, then medical frontiers
I recently read a news story that Ram Dass, contemporary spiritual teacher and author of the 1970s seminal book “Be Here Now” recently learned and benefitted greatly from Buteyko Breathing after only three months of practice! Ram Dass is one of the first Americans who went to India in the 1960s and brought Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques back.
From Harvard professor to spiritual pilgrim, then guru and philanthropist, Ram Dass, 82, has lived a full life In 1997 he suffered a stroke. It’s not surprising that this experiential pioneer eventually looked to a breathing method for his physical rehabilitation. In fact, I'm hoping this might become a typical leap of understanding -- meditators realizing they can use the breath for physical healing as well as spiritual growth.
That's what happened to me. Almost 20 years ago, I also learned to meditate in India. Having arrived on a sight-seeing trip right before a skirmish between Hindus and Muslims that quickly turned into civil war, I luckily found myself in the calm, peaceful village of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is said to have become enlightened sitting under a tree. For safety’s sake, I stayed there six weeks and the only thing to do in this town was learn to meditate!
Unlike Ram Dass, I had asthma and allergies. Physically it was tough to be there. Bodh Gaya is very dusty. The Dalai Lama used to travel there every year and I read once that his allergies also acted up. I regularly visited the Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine shops for relief. Six months later, I finally saw a Western doctor on Embassy Row in New Delhi and was diagnosed with walking pneumonia.
Upon my return to San Francisco I plugged in to the burgeoning, vibrant Bay Area meditation community. For years I did regular 10-day silent meditation retreats, practicing Vipassana awareness meditation, my reliever inhaler usually reliably in my right pocket. I observed a lot of strong emotions and often needed to take a puff when my breathing got tight.
I’m surprised I didn’t consider the possibility of healing my breathing more naturally earlier, although Buteyko Breathing wasn’t very well known outside the Soviet Union at that time. My acupuncturist told me about Buteyko Breathing a few years ago.
Multiple Ways of Working With the Breath
Breathing expert Dennis Lewis counts seven ways of working with breath. He recommends starting with "conscious breathing", otherwise known as breath awareness or meditation.
“Since most of us are almost totally unaware of our breathing, conscious breathing should be the first step in any self-directed program of breathing work, “Lewis writes in Free Your Breath, Free Your Life.
As a spiritual practice, the purpose of conscious breathing is to experience that thinking is only one of our many senses, and in a nutshell to get beyond our thoughts to access a much bigger reality.
The Buteyko Breathing Method and other breathing-retraining techniques come under the category of "controlled breathing", in which we are breathing a certain way to get a certain result. There are hundreds of breath-control exercises offered, from fast rebirthing and Yogic firebreath styles that transform a person’s consciousness into an altered state through overbreathing, to a style like the Buteyko Breathing Method’s reduced-breathing exercises.
Dr. Konstantin Buteyko developed his breathing method after observing that people with breathing-related illnesses like asthma, allergies, anxiety and sleep apnea breathe two to three times more than normal or necessary. His techniques gradually reduce breathing volume over time until a student’s respiratory center is reset back to a healthy breathing pattern.
Lewis, in recognizing the current age of stress and anxiety, notes that breath-control exercises are being used increasingly by the medical establishment, since they can “sometimes function like medications in bringing about specific chemical, hormonal and physiological changes.”Ram Dass Explores Controlled Breathing
Some 14 years after Ram Dass’ stroke, earlier this year he was still suffering from its consequences, with breathing difficulties, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and other health issues, according to Sasha Yakovleva-Fredricksen, executive director of the Breathing Center in upstate New York, who worked with him over Skype.
After three months of practice, “He was able to sleep without his sleep-apnea machine, his blood pressure became more normal, and his anxiety regarding his breathing was completely gone,” Yakovleva-Fredricksen writes. “Perhaps even more importantly for him was the fact that his speech became much more fluent and his memory improved considerably. All of this just because he reduced his over-breathing…”Here's a link to Ram Dass talking about his experience with Buteyko Breathing. He mentions over and over how the technique calmed his anxiety over being short of breath, and eventually eliminated being short of breath at all:
If his example as an old man is followed as much as when he was a young man, we might have a health revolution!
In : Ram Dass
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