Considering that yoga has gotten its share of bad press earlier this
year, a study
confirming yoga’s beneficial effects on asthma was encouraging news. However,
weeks later, the NIH released a
video stating that while yoga
has been proven to help with low back pain and arthritis, “research
suggests” it is not helpful for asthma sufferers.
Okay, helpful for asthma, not helpful for asthma. What gives?
Yoga is, in the words of the NIH scientist in
the video, “under researched.” In addition, the human organism is a complex
web of systems, involving factors that are often hard to quantify or measure
even by the most rigorous scientific study.
Still, doesn’t it seem logical that yoga would
help asthma sufferers? Asthma
is a chronic inflammation of the airways, with periodic spasms and swelling
that lead to wheezing or gasping for air. Triggers for spasms include cold air,
exercise, pollutants or allergens, and stress. This is a bit like saying that
asthma is triggered by stress, stress, stress, and stress. We think of stress
as something psychological, but in medical terms, a “stressor” is anything that
might stimulate the body’s protective responses.
When we are stressed physically or emotionally, we tend to breath from
the upper chest, taking rapid, short inhalations. This type of breathing
actually compounds the fight-or-flight response, adding fuel to the fire. For
someone already struggling to breathe because of asthma, the stress-relieving
aspects of yoga are even more critical.
In 2007, at a conference sponsored by the International
Association of Yoga Therapists, a yoga teacher presented her studies
showing yoga practice reduced salivary cortisol—a hormone released during
periods of stress. A recent study suggests that yoga
integrated with spiritual practices (vs. strictly “athletic yoga”) is the
key to taming stress.
Prolonged stress has a hidden, cellular-level effect that doctors are
only beginning to understand—inflammation.
The body’s inflammatory response is designed to protect us, but when the immune
system is overactive or sensitized, chronic inflammation can result, and
protective substances like cytokines and interleukins may start attacking
healthy cells. Some doctors now view chronic inflammation as a contributing
factor in nearly all
degenerative conditions, from asthma to diabetes to heart disease.
In a 2010 Ohio State study, women
lowered their blood levels of cytokine and interleukin after a regular yoga
practice incorporating mantra and meditation. A recent UCLA study showed
weeks of yoga meditation reduced blood proteins linked to increased
Aha, you may be thinking! This is why yoga improves so many conditions,
because it reduces stress and therefore inflammation. But while you may not
need another study to prove that yoga works, many doctors—and insurance
companies—do. With one of nine insured asthma
sufferers unable to afford medication (and two of
five uninsured—40 percent!), it makes sense to promote yoga as an adjunct
pranayama, or meditation helped you or anyone you know find relief from