Breathing Easier: Yoga for Asthmatics

Asthma is defined as inflammation and constriction of the airways in your lungs. But as anyone with asthma will tell you, that definition doesn’t come close to describing the strangling, terrifying experience of a full-blown asthma attack.

According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, around 20 million Americans suffer from asthma. What’s even more disturbing is that this condition is growing increasingly more common and more severe. Most people turn to medications or inhalers, while some reach out to alternative medicine like homeopathy, acupuncture and Ayurveda. But these treatments tend to focus on the symptoms of asthma, rather than the cause of the problem. Yoga therapy for asthma tries to prevent attacks from happening by addressing the physiological and emotional triggers, as well as fundamentally changing the way we breathe.

How, exactly, does this work? Some yoga therapists believe that by becoming more aware of our bronchial process, we can learn to control the way the bronchial organs function. Much like hypnotherapy or biofeedback, yoga helps the body to run smoother using relaxation techniques.

But there is an additional benefit to yoga: the deep breathing, or pranayama, taught in the practice can actually improve lung function. Since improper breathing may be part of why certain people suffer from such severe asthma, learning how to breathe might provide a precious key to cutting back on attacks.

“(Asthmatics) tend to chronically breathe at a rate two to three times faster than normal,” says yoga instructor Barbara Benagh in an article for YogaJournal.com. Benagh suffers from severe asthma, and found relief from her symptoms after discovering a link between this “overbreathing” common in asthmatics, and the attacks themselves.

Breathing too fast causes us to breathe out too much carbon dioxide, which in turn starves our bodies of oxygen. Benagh explains how “eventually, starved for oxygen, the body takes drastic measures to slow breathing so CO2 can build back up to safe levels. These measures produce the classic symptoms of an asthma attack: Smooth muscles tighten around the airways, the body further constricts them by producing mucus and histamine (which causes swelling)—and we’re left gasping for breath.”

Besides pranayama (proper breathing technique), there are a variety of different theories on treating asthma with yoga – some focus on quieting the mind during an attack, to help the bronchial passages relax (the fear present in an asthma attack can cause a sort of “fight of flight” response that actually tenses our muscles, worsening the constriction of airways – basically, our bodies do the exact opposite of what they need to do to resolve the problem). Other practitioners extol the virtues of specific asanas that help asthmatics by cleansing and clearing certain organs and body systems (kriya, or cleansing technique).

Some of the poses and exercises that help asthma include:

  • Shoulder Lifts/Neck Muscle Relaxation to relieve tension in the neck and shoulder
  • Ardha Chakrasana (Half Moon Pose), which shuts down one lung at a time and transfers the workload to the other lung, clearing blockages and improving lung capacity.
  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist), which strengthens not only the spine, but also the adrenal glands, liver and kidneys.
  • Anuloma Viloma, an exercise where you breathe alternately through each nostril. This slows and controls the breathing, teaching your body a better inhale/exhale rhythm. In addition, the air you breathe through your nose is moist, warm, and filtered – far easier for sensitive, asthma-prone airways to handle.

It’s important to talk to your doctor before starting any program designed to treat or prevent a medical problem like asthma. It can take some time to see significant results from an anti-asthma yoga program, and you may still need inhalers or medication to control your symptoms. However, for most people there is no harm in trying yoga as a complementary treatment for asthma. By learning relaxation and breathing techniques, improving posture, and clearing bodily organs, yoga may help you breathe a little easier. And for an asthmatic, that may be the greatest gift of all.

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