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Yoga, breathing exercises for asthma care

Yoga, breathing exercises, pranayama help reverse asthma and related lung diseases. Yoga and the related modalities, when used with medical management, can significantly improve pulmonary function in patients experiencing asthma attacks and other breath related respiratory disorders.

About 2% of population suffers from asthma and asthma related symptoms.

As per the latest WHO report between 100 and 150 million people around the globe suffer from asthma and this number is rising. India has an estimated 15-20 million asthmatics. Worldwide, deaths from asthma have reached over 180,000 annually.

Asthma has a multidimensional etiology which comprises of allergic, infective, climatic, endocrine and emotional factors. Medications like adrenaline, salbutamol, corticosteroids etc are given to relieve bronchiolar obstruction, which may provide instant and short-term relief from the symptoms, but can increase mortality and morbidity when used for a long time.

Yoga cures asthma in holistic way. It incorporates 4 major techniques…
  1. Yoga asana (exercises)
  2. Yoga breathing exercises (Pranayama)
  3. Meditation
  4. Hatha yoga shat karma
Yoga significantly reduces respiratory rate of asthmatics

Most asthmatics tend to breathe at a rate 2-3 times faster than normal, due to which we expel too much CO2 from our system. What we don’t know that right amount of CO2 is critical for healthy breathing. When CO2 levels goes down body takes drastic measures to slow down breathing by producing classic symptoms of asthma attack.

Regular yoga practice can stimulate release of endorphins in the brain which significantly reduces respiratory rate.

Yoga increases adreno-cortical functions

It helps to produce varying degree of stress competence and modulates immune inflammatory processes. With increase in corticosteroid release, there is marked decrease in asthmatic attacks.

Yoga can decrease efferent vagal reactivity.

Stress can contribute to sympathetic over activity which in turn causes broncho-constriction and increase in airway resistance-classical signs of asthma. Yoga can decrease sympathetic tone and decrease level of adrenalin, noradrenalin and increase level of opioid neuropeptides, which can modulate tone of bronchial smooth muscles and can reverse the symptoms of asthma attacks.

Yoga decreases metabolic rate.

Yoga relieves asthma by reducing metabolic rate by decreasing catecholamine secretion and depressing sympathetic function.

Yoga decreases ventilation volume

Usually breathing is not a conscious event; it is regulated automatically by respiratory centers. With daily practice of Pranayama the activity of respiratory center is modified in such a way as to slow down the rhythm by voluntarily prolonging inhalation and exhalation phase. It has a positive broncho-protective and bronco-relaxing effect and significantly reduces work of breathing.

1. Yoga asana to help asthma patients

1. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Sitting Half Spinal twist). The Sitting half spinal twist pose helps to opens the chest and improves the supply of oxygen to the lungs, so by improving the total lung capacity it reduces the probability of asthma restricting you.

2. Virabhadra Asana 2 (Warrior Pose 2). This yoga asana is good for people with asthma as it improves breathing capacity by expanding lungs. Do not practice if you have uncontrolled cardiac condition, diarrhea and women with menorrhagia

3. Danda Asana (Staff Pose). It helps to relieve breathlessness, chocking, throat congestion in asthmatics. During severe asthma attack practice this asana with back supported against a wall. It also increases your will power and enhances emotional stability.

4. Salamba Sarvanga Asana (shoulder stand). This posture helps to alleviates asthma, bronchitis and throat ailments. It also relieves breathlessness and palpitations, but should not be done by hypentensives’ and during menstruation

5. Ustra Asana (Camel Pose). It helps to correct posture and increase lung capacity. If you have cardiac problems you should practice it with the help of props.

6. Savasana (Corpse Pose). This asana helps to experience inner silence, studies showed that it can reduce sympathetic dominance and thus has a calming effect on the body. Asthmatics should practice it with head and chest raised on bolster

7. Adhomukha Svanasana (Downward facing dog stretch). This posture helps to cure breathlessness, palpitations and extreme fatigue. For asthmatics variations like hand against a wall, head on bolster and heels against a wall can be used.

8. Setu Bandh Aasana (Bridge pose). The Bridge pose opens up the thorax and lungs and also reduces thyroid problem. It also improves digestion and is very effective for ameliorating asthma symptoms.

9. Bhujang Asana (Cobra pose). The Cobra pose expands the chest, improves blood circulation, stretches muscles of neck and is highly recommended for people with asthma.

10. Badhakon Asana (Butterfly pose). The Butterfly pose stimulates and improves the blood circulation, relieves fatigue and has therapeutic effect on asthma by opening up the chest, practice it against a wall if you feel difficult otherwise.

11. Poorvottan Asana (Upward plank pose). The Upward plank pose improves the lung capacity, stimulates the thyroid gland and also strengthens wrists, arms, back and spine.

Note: Please do not over strain yourself, remember to exercise breath control in each asana and if you find your symptoms becoming worse or persisting please visit a doctor immediately.

2. Yoga breathing exercises and pranayama for asthma cure

This is where Yoga can offer the most help to asthmatic patients, because yoga understands prana (life energy).

Yoga helps you not only to generate prana but to conserve it and to use it whenever you want to, with awareness and conscious control.

Yoga Breathing exercises (Pranayama) improves control over respiratory muscles, and the more control you have over your muscles, the more control you can have over an attack so you will not panic.

Asthma triggers cause over breathing

Due to chronic over breathing, CO2 level is always low in asthmatics. When a “trigger” is encountered, they over-breathe. This causes the CO2 levels to plummet; lungs to spasm, secretion of mucous constrict the airways — a defense to stop CO2 loss.

Gentle Sine wave Diaphragmatic breathing exercises brings the Carbon Dioxide levels back to balance, resulting in hyperventilation breathing pattern to normalize. Regular Breathing exercises help relieve asthma symptoms; asthma attack will diminish and/or disappear altogether.

Benefits of yoga breathing and pranayama for asthmatics
  • It Increases flow of oxygen to all parts of the body
  • It helps to induce relaxation and calmness by releasing tension
  • It Increases concentration, creativity and cognitive brain functions
  • It helps to improve mind and body control, helping control emotions and relieve tension.
  • It eases asthmatic symptoms as it exercises respiratory muscles and by its influence on respiratory centers.
  • It can also increase lung capacity; makes lung tissue more elastic and surrounding muscles more flexible
  • Kapalabhati and bhastrika can strengthen respiratory muscles especially diaphragm, this can help in delaying exhaustion in asthma attacks
How does yoga breathing works?

It is studied that regular breathing exercises can stretch lung tissue which produces inhibitory signals from action of slowly adapting receptors and hyperpolarizing currents. These inhibitory signals are believed to synchronize neural elements in the brain and causes changes in autonomic nervous system; leading to reduced metabolism and parasympathetic dominance.

Asthma sufferers who who practice breathing exercises, can reduce preventer medication levels by up to 50% and reliever use by up to 86%.

It also modifies various inflatory and expiratory lung reflexes and interacts with central neural element to bring homeostasis in the body.

One can perform following breathing exercises to alleviate asthma symptoms

1. Deep Relaxation. You should start the program with this technique. Which helps to establish a calm state and to establish an easy rhythm, which will settle in as your state of relaxation deepens

2. The Wave. This exercise is called so because of the soothing movement that ripples up and down the body when your body settles into your natural breath. This movement helps to establish healthy breathing by unlocking the diaphragm and massages the abdomen, chest, spine and by releasing tension in them

Poor breathing patterns may confuse you and cause you to reverse the coordination of breathing cycle, so pay close attention. If at any time you feel tense, take few normal relaxing breaths between the cycles.

3. Softening the Inhalation. This type of exercise is designed to reduce the effort you use to inhale, and helps to decrease the length of inhalation until it becomes almost of half duration as that of exhalation. Initially you may feel urgency to inhale more, but put all efforts to reduce over breathing which can perpetuates your asthma.

4. Complete Diaphragmatic Exhalations. As described previously patients with asthma find difficulty in exhalation. So try to prolong this by pursing your lips with each exhalation. Just avoid to push it too far otherwise it wil be difficult for you to take a pause after exhalation and next inhalation will be strained.

5. Extended Pause. This exercise helps to maintain co2 levels in your body. Try to take a pause after each exhalation, which is initially very difficult for an over breather. Regular practice can help in extending this pause.

Note: Consult your physician before doing these yoga breathing exercises if you have diabetes, kidney disease, low blood pressure, had recent abdominal surgery or are pregnant.

How often should you practice yoga breathing exercises?

There is no exact dosage here. But like everything, practice, practice and practice is what produces results. Its better to spend at least 15 minutes a day focused on connecting to the breath. It should be done in the morning before you get out of bed. Or, in the evening before falling asleep, but even with as low as 3 times a week, one will see results.

These breathing exercises can be divided into three groups

(i) Exercises aimed at Breathing Retraining (Natural Sine Wave Diaphragm Breathing Rhythm)

(ii) Exercises aimed at increasing the strength of the Primary Respiratory Muscles (Diaphragm Muscle Training)

(iii) Exercises aimed at increasing the flexibility of the Thoracic Cage and Improving Posture (Musculoskeletal training).

Yoga breathing exercises can actually trigger an asthma attack in retention of breath. It is important that breathing exercises be done under the guidance of an expert who has specific knowledge, training and experience in this practice.

3. Meditation helps cure asthma related stress

Meditation affects the psychological and emotional sides of the personality it is designed to make a person positive or benevolent towards oneself and others.

It can lower levels of stress hormones and reduces sympathetic over activity. It prepares mind and body for responding to stressful situations.

The deep breathing practiced with meditation improves airflow to lungs, and helps you to control your breathing during next attack. The increased flow of oxygen and relaxation can help your mind and body heal rapidly than it would in normal state of consciousness.

Meditation produces calming effect on body and is beneficial for asthmatics in particular because they are sometimes unable to stop a panic-induced attack.

Evidence suggests that there is increase in alpha symphony in EEG taken during meditation, which points to its stabilizing effect on nervous system.

Many studies show reduced airway resistance and decreased severity of symptoms when meditation is used as an adjuvant to conventional treatment for bronchial asthma, which showed profound improvement in lung functions and decreased need for medicines.

Awareness is an important aspect of meditation. It helps you to be in control during the attack. At the onset of attack if you get into meditative state, you will try to acknowledge that yes, you are having an attack, it too will pass and easy breathing will be restored soon. This prevents panic which can make situation worse.

4. The Hatha yoga shat karmas

Shat karmas or Kriyas of Hatha yoga are powerful tool to cleanse mucus from the body and also have a potent effect on human personality. Shat karmas  removes mucus from nose by practicing Neti and from stomach by kunjal, which has a reflex effect on lungs. You will feel relief immediately after practicing these. Shat karmas also reduces inflammation of the mucosa in short term.

Yoga and related modalities like yoga breathing exercises might not be the sole treatment for asthma, but where the disease has crept in; it serves as a powerful ally in control of disease along with medication.

To conclude we can say that yoga can be useful for symptomatic asthma patients who express interest in non pharmacological therapies but may not be applicable for those who are antipathetic to this form of treatment approach.

Most of the Doctors, nowadays, are recommending yogic breathing exercises for asthma rehabilitation. Please consult a related professional for your needs… Attend asthma rehabilitation classes, lectures, workshops or courses, whenever possible.

A writers note: I have kept these specific articles very generic and basic. I strongly advise you to meet a related expert to understand your needs, limits and what can work for you. In the meantime, if you find any breathing workshops, pranayama training programs, specific yoga classes or retreats, do attend whenever possible. All the Best!

Internal Links

[1] Yoga for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease)

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