Asthma sufferers can now take an extra breath. A recent study published by the Cochrane Airways Group determined that a consistent yoga practice that incorporates meditation, pranayama (breathing exercises), and asana (physical postures) may provide relief to those suffering from asthma.
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The study examined fifteen controlled trials with 1,048 participants. Five of the trials exhibited moderate increases in quality of life for participants. A similar study published in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science examined 24 participants who all showed improvement in lung function and quality of life after practicing yoga for four weeks.
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects around 300 million people worldwide. Some projections estimate that this number will increase by more than 100 million by 2025. The most common symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest. The symptoms are a result of constricting or swelling bronchial tubes and are accompanied by an increase in mucus production. It is unclear what causes asthma, and most medical professionals attribute it to a number of factors, ranging from genetics to environmental pollutants. Allergies are also another key suspect.
So, how is asthma treated if the causes are unknown? Conventional treatment generally involves the use of bronchodilators and steroid medications. Usually used as an inhaler, bronchodilators are a quick fix option to rapidly open swollen bronchial tubes. Steroid medication is used as an inhaler or in more severe cases taken in pill form. This is now the most popular treatment option as steroids reduce inflammation in the lungs. These treatments are not without serious side effects (ranging from sore mouth and thrush to suppressed immune system and nausea) nor do they provide a holistic approach that takes into account the well-being of the entire body.
Luckily, yoga provides an alternative method for treating asthma symptoms. In Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, Barbara Benagh, a well-respected yoga teacher, discusses her lifelong struggle with asthma and the way it served as a catalyst for her exploration into yoga as a means of achieving lasting wellness. One of the first factors that she identified in herself and others is the tendency to engage in dysfunctional breathing habits such as: mouth breathing (inhaling and exhaling through the mouth), overbreathing (short, fast inhales and exhales), and stronger inhalations vs. exhalations.
She suggests practicing pranayama exercises that focus on cultivating deep, even inhales and exhales and making sure the diaphragm is fully engaged on each exhale. Over time, by paying careful attention to the breath, people will begin to notice changes in their breathing patterns and will be better equipped to catch symptoms before they expand into a full-fledged attack.
In addition to pranayama exercises, Benagh suggests engaging in a gentle asana practice that incorporates supported forward folds, using a bolster or chair as support for the neck and head. Gentle backbends such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge) and Supta Baddha Konasana (Supported Cobblers Pose) can open the chest and promote greater lung capacity. Inversions such as Salambra Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Ardha Shirshasana (Headstand) are also beneficial as they help clear the lungs and sinuses and reverse the flow of blood and lymph fluid, which can help boost the immune system. Explore more poses specific to the alleviation of asthma symptoms.
If you have asthma, what poses have you found especially beneficial in your own practice?