Asthma is a serious condition that causes the airways of the lungs to constrict. This chronic condition causes coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, and difficulty breathing. When suffering an attack, those with asthma may feel like they are suffocating or unable to catch their breath. Urgency to breathe can then further constrict the lungs. Inflammation of the airways can become chronic, but it can also be reversed.
Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergies, stress, anxiety, and emotional disturbances. All of these provocations, though, can be eased through regulated breathing techniques and relaxation practices —such as the ones you learn in yoga. Yoga practice can reduce your dependence on inhalers (which many people overuse, masking chronic inflammation) and help you resolve the underlying stimuli that trigger your attacks.
The body requires 88 pounds of oxygen per day!
Inefficient Breathing Habits
Breathing is a unique body function because it is both voluntary and involuntary. When you inhale, you activate your diaphragm — the sheet of muscle separating your heart and lungs from your abdomen. Inhaling flattens the diaphragm, allowing your lower ribs to expand, making room for your lungs to inflate. This helps you to pull air into your lower lungs. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, causing your lungs to contract and expel air. Strong abdominal and intercostal (between-the-ribs) muscles can help you exhale even more fully.
A healthy breathing cycle is 6-14 times per minute at rest. However, people with asthma often have ineffective breathing habits. This can increase this cycle exponentially, causing increased strain on the heart and lungs. Common dysfunctional breathing habits include:
- Chest breathing: Air enters the upper chest and very little enters the lower chest. This causes a lack of oxygen to the blood vessels.
- Strong inhalations and weak exhalations: Inhaling more deeply than you exhale can constrict your lungs and cause stale air to remain in your lungs while mucus accumulates in the airways. Breathing becomes difficult and inefficient.
- Holding the breath: This creates pressure that can strain your heart and lungs.
- Mouth breathing: Breathing through your mouth can cause more rapid breaths and dry mouth and throat. Without the warming benefits of the nose’s passageway, mouth breathing can also shock the lungs with air that is too cold.
- "Reverse" breathing: This occurs when the diaphragm rises on the inhalation and drops with the exhalation, resulting in inefficient breaths and a lack of oxygen.
- Overbreathing: This is the tendency to breathe rapidly at a rate of 24 or more cycles per minute.
Yoga Techniques to Retrain Your Breathing
Learning proper breathing techniques is important for anyone with irregular respiration habits, and can be potentially lifesaving for those with asthma. Improving your breathing patterns will increase your oxygen supply and help you reduce stress and anxiety levels. Yoga can help through three ways:
- Breathing exercises, called "pranayama"
- Body postures, called "asanas"
- Meditation practice
Your diaphragm can become stronger, just like any muscle. Pranayama develops the diaphragm’s ability to fully descend, allowing your lungs to fill to a greater capacity.
Yoga asanas strengthen your abdominal muscles and open your chest. This encourages deeper exhalations, and it improves your posture. As you gain the ability to sit or stand up straight and fully exhale, your breathing becomes deeper and more efficient.
In meditation, you learn to bring awareness to your breath. This allows you to notice, reduce, and discard inefficient breathing patterns and habits, like breath-holding and mouth breathing. The slow, deep breathing in yoga relaxes your mind and calms your nerves — which can be helpful at the onset of an attack.
Breathe Easy with Yoga
Below is a deeper exploration of yogic breathing techniques and relaxation practices that will further the awareness of your breathing. If you have asthma, be sure to check with your doctor before starting yoga.
Breathing Exercise: Three-Part Breath
Known commonly as Three-Part Breath — Dirga Pranayama (DEER-gah prah-nah-YAH-mah) — is usually the first breathing technique taught to new practitioners. It brings awareness to the present moment and calms the mind. It’s often used at the very beginning of a yoga practice to put yourself at ease and prepare for practice and meditation.
This technique is particularly beneficial in everyday life because it doesn’t require any special sound or position to achieve a grounded and relaxed state of awareness.
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, or lie on your back.
- Rest one hand on your belly and one hand on your rib cage.
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply, but naturally.
- Begin to focus your awareness on the breath as it moves in and out of your body.
- Feel the lift of your belly and the expansion of your ribs as you inhale and the slight compression of your ribs and drop of your belly as you exhale.
- Next, bring your bottom hand from your belly to your chest, just below your collarbone. Breathe and allow your chest to rise slightly. Then, exhale and let it go.
- As you inhale, feel your belly lift, ribs expand, and chest lift. On your exhalations, notice how your chest drops, ribs contract, and belly lowers.
- Release your arms and focus your mind on your breath, inhaling and exhaling fully.
Upper Body Strengthener: Staff Pose
Staff Pose — Dandasana (dahn-DAHS-uh-nuh) — may look easy, but it’s an intense strength-builder for the upper back, chest, and abdomen. It also stretches the shoulders and chest, and it improves posture.
- Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs extended out in front of you. If your hamstrings are tight, sit on a bolster or blanket so your torso can be upright and vertical. You can also sit with your back against a wall with your shoulder blades touching it, but leave a space between the wall and your low back.
- Sit forward on your sit bones and draw your thighs to the floor. Flex your feet and press out through your heels.
- Place your hands on the floor alongside your hips, pressing through your palms.
- Keep your torso perpendicular to the floor, and lift the crown of your head to the ceiling. Hold for up to one minute.
Awareness Exercise: Mindfulness Meditation
"Mindfulness" is a state of awareness that is nonreactive and non-attached. This meditation brings calm and focused attention to the endless stream of thoughts floating through your mind. Many beginners find it easier to learn mindfulness meditation by focusing attention on only one sensation, object, or thought — such as your breath, a candle, or the concept of forgiveness. Set aside a quiet place to practice and wear comfortable, nonrestrictive clothes.
- Start in a comfortable, seated position, such as Easy Pose on a block or bolster (Salamba Sukhasana). Adjust your position so your spine is erect. Sit with your head, neck, and spine in one straight line. You may also sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, arms and legs uncrossed.
- Close your eyes.
- Begin to regulate your breathing, inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for five. After a few deep breaths, breathe naturally again. Notice the sensation of the air as it travels in and out of your nose. Continue to bring your awareness back to your breath, in and out, in and out.
- Do not force yourself to concentrate. Simply notice when your mind wanders, then gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Consistently returning to the present moment takes patience and dedication. Be careful not to punish yourself for wandering thoughts.
- Now bring your awareness to the object of your focus. This might still be your breath. If it’s a visual object, like a candle, soften your gaze.
- Maintain your awareness. When your thoughts start to wander, gently guide them back to the object of your focus. Don’t fight the thoughts. Simply acknowledge them and let them pass, like clouds floating by in a summer sky.
- Do this exercise for 10 minutes a day, gradually extending your sessions to 20 or 30 minutes.
Exhale & Release
Yoga isn’t a miracle cure, but it can help you find balance within the stresses of everyday life, especially your asthma. Take these tips to heart, but also talk with your instructor before class about your state of health and well-being. He or she may recommend specific breathing or relaxation techniques to keep you focused before an asthma attack even happens. With practice, the benefits of yoga will extend to all areas of your life.