Yoga for asthmatics
Asthma attacks may last for a few minutes or for hours or days. During an attack, the air passages on the way to the lungs tighten and become inflamed while the smooth muscle of the bronchioles contracts, reducing the diameter of the airways.
Air moving in and out of the lungs becomes constricted, making it difficult to breathe. Not only do the body cells not get enough oxygen, but excess carbon dioxide remains in the body. As there is no supporting cartilage, the muscle spasms can potentially close off the airways, inducing a life-threatening situation.
Affecting between 100 and 150 million people world wide, asthma is found among people of all age groups, but mostly in young children. The majority of absentee slips in schools relate to asthma. In the 1995 National Health Survey (NHS) it was estimated that more than two million Australians had asthma and prevalence rates were highest among five to 14-year-olds.
The number of people who suffer from asthma has doubled in Australia during the last 20 years and, although the risk of dying from asthma is low and continues to decline, asthma is an increasing concern.
The Western approach
An asthmatic episode features persistent cough, recurrent episodes of dyspnoea (shortness of breath or laboured breathing), wheezing, tightness of the chest and a loss of energy due to excessive exertion on inhalation.
According to Western medicine, any of the following, either in combination or on their own, can result in inflamed respiratory airways and cause or trigger asthma:
- Exposure to allergens (eg house dust mites, animal dander, moulds, pollen, flowers, grass, cockroaches, latex, food additives, soap powders, tobacco smoke and medications)
- Weather conditions (eg cold air in winter and rainy seasons)
- Environmental irritants such as air-conditioning
- Psychological issues (asthma often develops after an experience of loss, rejection or major threat to one’s personal security; eg, the loss of a loved one)
- Constipation (a common complaint among asthmatics which either leads to or exacerbates their condition).
Feeling desperate and helpless, asthmatics frequently come to rely heavily on medication. So far, Australia’s commonest approach to asthma has been the use of orthodox medications.
Treating symptoms this way is a temporary solution and medications often have negative side-effects. Inhaling steroids can cause yeast infections in the mouth, cataracts in the eyes and brittleness of the bones. So, rather than form a dependence on medication and drugs, how can you empower yourself?
Yoga for asthmatics
In Chinese medicine, asthma is seen to be the result of phlegm (a by-product of a weak lung, spleen or kidneys). Similarly, in Ayurveda, asthma is considered to be essentially a kapha (mucous element) syndrome.
Although exercise can actually trigger asthma, asthmatics needn’t avoid exercise but must approach it with awareness and sensitivity, seeking professional advice before they undertake any program.
Whereas more strenuous forms of exercise may open up the airways too suddenly and worsen the problem, yoga, performed gently and mindfully, with awareness on the breath, opens up the airways to the lungs slowly and gradually.
As mental tension and asthma are interlinked, an asthmatic who learns to keep his mind relaxed can reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. This is why yoga, breathing techniques and meditation practices are so beneficial.
The yogic practice of neti kriya is highly recommended for asthmatics to help develop resistance against allergens and clears mucus from the system. Neti kriya involves pouring warm salt water into each nostril with the use of a spouted pot and should be practised, on an empty stomach, before yoga asanas. It’s important to learn this practice under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher.
Your yoga practice
- Avoid wearing bright clothes or perfume: both could attract insects and which could aggravate or trigger an attack.
- Although drinking water it isn’t usually recommended during yoga, you may sip small amounts to keep your air passages hydrated.
- Practise indoors during winter months as cooler air can aggravate asthma.
- Warm up before and relax after your practice to avoid drastic temperature changes in the lungs.
Chosen for their ability to drain mucus from the lungs, relax the lung muscles and restore the health of the lungs and respiratory system, the following yoga asanas, practised slowly and mindfully, with awareness on the breath, are beneficial for asthmatics.
Hasta uttanasana (hand raising pose)
Stand with your feet together and your arms in front of your abdomen, crossing over each other just above the wrists. As you inhale, keep the arms crossed and raise them above your head, simultaneously bending your head back slightly. As you bring your arms down until parallel to the ground, keep the palms of your hands facing the sky and exhale slowly. Inhale as you reverse the movement, bringing the arms back up and crossing them just above the wrists. To complete the round, exhale as you bring your arms straight down in front of the body. Standing still, rest for a few moments and focus on your breath. Complete 5 to 10 rounds.
Dwikonasana (double angle pose)
Stand up straight with your feet one foot apart and interlock your fingers behind your back. Take a deep breath in and then, as you breathe out, bend forward from the hips and raise your arms behind you without straining. Keep looking forward. Hold the pose for 3 breaths and then, as you inhale, return to standing. Complete up to 5 rounds. Note: If you have lower back problems or find this asana is too intense for you, either avoid it altogether or practise it with your legs bent. Dwikonasana strengthens the spine, chest and lungs.
Utthita lolasana (swinging while standing pose)
Stand with your feet one metre apart and knees softly bent, not locked. Inhale through your nose as you raise your arms above your head, keeping the elbows straight and wrists bent so that the hands are flopping forwards like a rag doll. Exhale through the mouth, making a ha sound, and simultaneously allow the torso to fall forwards and downwards, swinging the arms through the legs and keeping the body loose and rhythmic. On each upward movement, breathe in, raising the trunk of the body so that it’s parallel to the ground, looking forward with the arms reaching outwards. Then return to standing position, keeping the back straight. Repeat 5 swings.
Note: This asana should not be practised by people with vertigo, high blood pressure or a weak neck.
Utthita Lolasana speeds up lymphatic flow in the major ducts, improves drainage especially from the abdomen and the base of the lungs and opens up all the alveoli.
Ushtrasana (camel pose)
Sit on your heels. Open your legs slightly so you can sit between them. Reach back and take hold of your ankles. Slowly begin to arch your back and push your hips forwards. If you feel confident your neck is strong enough, gently allow your head to relax backwards until it’s heavy and loose. Breathe deeply in this position and hold for as long as is comfortable. Slowly move out of camel pose by gently releasing the hands one at a time.
Ushtrasana activates the nasal passage, the pharynx and the lungs.
Shashankasanana (child’s pose)
Rest in shashankasanana or child’s pose for a short time, keeping your forehead on the floor, arms resting beside your body.
Pranamasana (bowing pose)
Sit in vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Holding onto your lower calves, inhale deeply and then exhale gradually as you gently bend forward, placing the crown of your head on the ground in front of you, preferably on a folded blanket. Raise your buttocks as high as you can and allow your chin to press into your chest. Hold this final position for between 5 and 20 seconds, then lower your buttocks down to your heels and rest in shashankasana. Practise 5 rounds.
Note: Pranamasana should not be practised by people with vertigo, high blood pressure or a weak neck.
Gomukhasana (cow face pose)
Sit in vajrasana. Raise your right arm as you inhale and then, bending it as you exhale, place your right hand as far down along the spine as you can. Taking your left arm behind you, elbow pointing downwards, lift the left hand to meet the right. Keeping the spine straight and head in a central and neutral position, eyes closed, hold the position for up to 2 minutes and then repeat on the other side.
Gomukhasana strengthens the lungs, promotes relaxation and improves posture by opening up the chest area.
Rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing
With the shallow pattern of breathing many of us have acquired, we hardly use the diaphragm when we breathe. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is simple and effective and can be practised when an asthma attack is imminent.
Lie comfortably on your back with your head supported on a folded towel or small cushion. With closed eyes, place your hands on your abdomen, palms of the hands facing downwards. Begin by taking a few normal breaths in and out through the nostrils, simply becoming aware of the breath. Gradually increase the length of the inhalation and exhalation. Now take your awareness into the belly and, as you inhale, focus on expanding the belly. With each inhalation the belly expands like a balloon; with each exhalation it relaxes. Complete 10 breaths then allow your breath to return to normal and rest with eyes closed.
Shavasana (corpse pose)
On completion of the yoga asanas, keeping your eyes closed, stretch your legs and lie down on your back in shavasana or corpse pose for 5-10 minutes, allowing time for the body to absorb the benefits. Keep the arms by the side of the body, palms facing the sky, and the feet a little wider than hip distance apart.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga
According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, we use about 30 per cent of our lung capacity, yet 90 per cent of the toxins in the body are released through the breath.
The breath is the link between the body and the mind. With each emotion there is a corresponding pattern of the breath.
For example, when you’re feeling anxious your breathing pattern changes, becoming shorter and harder. Similarly, when the mind is calm the breath is automatically slow, deep and easy.
By changing the pattern of our breath, we can change our emotional and mental state of being, increase our energy and our overall wellbeing.
During an asthma attack the breath becomes short and hard. The shorter it becomes the more the person panics; the more they panic the shorter their breath becomes. Gaining a few breathing skills helps asthmatics to help themselves. Asthmatics around the world have benefited hugely from the practice of the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) breathing technique, taught in Sri Sri’s Art of Living courses.
What else can I do?
Become aware of your environment:
- Reduce allergens and irritants at work and at home: eg, animals, smokers and dust mites. (Asthma occurs about twice as often in those children who live with parents who smoke.)
- Keep the environment well ventilated and as free as possible from humidity.
- If your child is asthmatic, avoid sending him or her to overcrowded day-care centres.
Keep a journal:
To help you become aware of what triggers your attacks, keep a journal, recording when asthmatic episodes occur (date and time of day), where you were when they happened, what you were doing, what the weather was like and your symptoms.
Food and nutrition tips
Ayurveda (the Indian science of life) recommends an anti-kapha diet for asthmatics. In other words, avoid all mucus-forming foods, including
- sour fruit
- foods prepared with cold milk
- dried foods, eg biscuits and bread
A balanced diet including salad, fresh fruits, vegetables, sprouts and leafy vegetables should be an essential part of an asthmatic’s daily meals.
Honey is very effective for asthmatic patients as it absorbs moisture and has a fatal effect on germs.
Vinegar or cider vinegar are both wonderful for healing lung infections.
Grape juice effectively eliminates excess mucus and phlegm from the system.
Turmeric has numerous beneficial effects and can be mixed with honey or warm milk to make a drink. Alternatively, it can be warmed in butter with raw sugar and taken frequently in teaspoonful doses during acute attacks.
Peppermint tea helps eliminate hardening mucus.
Pineapple juice also helps dissolve mucus.
Spices: In the winter months, when kapha is high, include more of the “spicy” spices in your diet to reduce kapha: eg chilli, pepper, garlic and ginger, cayenne and mustard.
Western herbs: Include mullein, bayberry, sage and thyme in your diet.
Herbal teas: Astringent teas such as thyme and ajwain are best.
Avoid cold drink: Drink a small amount of warm water with your meals, but no more, as liquid taken with meals dilutes the digestive enzymes and weakens the digestive system.
Increase the liquid in your diet: have more soups (which can be eaten with well-cooked rice) and gruels.
Remedy: Lay very thick slices of raw onion and garlic on a plate and spread honey on each slice. Cover with an inverted plate and let the mixture stand all night. Take a spoonful of the resultant syrup four times a day.
Other natural tips for asthma relief
- Stop eating as soon as an attack appears to be imminent.
- Remove rugs and carpets from your bedroom.
- Avoid lung tonics like ginseng, as they close the energy of the lungs.
- Implement routine in your life: go to bed and wake up at the same time, eat your meals at regular times and maintain regularity in your daily work routine.
- Have a light breakfast (one piece of fruit, fruit juice or herbal tea), a heavier lunch and a small dinner.
- Drink lots of water between meals. Asthmatics lose a lot of water through fast and laboured breathing during attacks.
- Developing physical fitness and losing excess weight will reduce respiratory difficulty. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise for asthmatics.
- Take a cold shower every morning, paying particular attention to your shoulder and neck region.
For references see the WellBeing website www.wellbeing.com.au. Meggan Brummer is a teacher of Art of Living Courses, www.artofliving.org.au
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