Melanie, an asthma sufferer since childhood, had no idea her breathing was topsy-turvy until she found herself in a yoga class years later. When her yoga teacher instructed her to observe the belly rising on each inhalation and falling on each exhalation, Melanie discovered her abdomen was moving the opposite way. “I had to learn how to breathe more efficiently,” she says.
Practising this simple breathing technique and working with Ujjayi breathing in class has changed how Melanie, 33, an office manager from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, breathes off the mat, too. “I think there are times when I still slip back into old patterns,” Melanie admits, “But my breathing reverses less often now.”
During an asthma attack, the breathing airways narrow, creating symptoms like wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath. Prior to starting yoga, Melanie had experienced periods of needing her inhaler three or four times a week. “It’s like breathing through a straw,” is how Melanie describes the urgency of an attack. “I have been hospitalised once or twice and put on oxygen.”
Asthma is Australia’s most widespread chronic health problem, affecting more than two million Australians. Between 10 and 15 percent of children are asthma sufferers, and that rate only drops down to 12 percent in adulthood. While the asthma mortality rate is relatively low at 400 a year, the ongoing and persistent nature of asthma places a toll on our health resources, including doctor’s visits and hospitalisations, not to mention the time taken off work. With cold air a common trigger, winter is a more challenging time for asthmatics.
Dr Swami Shankardev Saraswati from Big Shakti is a practising GP and yoga therapist in Sydney and the author of Yogic Management of Asthma and Diabetes. He believes asthma arises due to an imbalance in the body’s elements and finds yoga useful as a treatment.
Dr Saraswati treats clients using a combination of meditation, asana, pranayama and, when required, allopathic medicine. As an ex-asthma sufferer himself, he’s seen many patients benefit to some degree but says that treating asthma requires a serious approach and sufferers need to work at a deep level. “Yoga is not a pill,” Dr Saraswati cautions. “People who enjoy yoga get a lot out of it. It depends on how much work they want to do. Often it’s a slow thing that takes a number of years.”
Mark Breadner, from Yoga Coach in Sydney, has taught yoga to many asthma sufferers and is more upbeat about his results. In all cases his clients have been able to reduce their frequency of inhaler use, and in some cases have come completely off it.
“With yoga we work from the outside in, so we work with the body first,” Breadner says of his approach. For asthma sufferers this means relaxing the primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm, which tends to be chronically contracted. Often the secondary breathing muscles–those between the ribs and the internal shoulder rotators are overused. These hypertonic muscles need to be relaxed to better mobilise the rib cage.
Asthmatics are often mouth breathers so training is required for nasal breathing to become habitual. Learning to slow the breath and focus on the exhalation can also calm the system and lessen the frequency of attacks.
Breadner agrees with Dr Saraswati on the need to address more than just the physical level, and believes yoga practice offers the tools to address the needs of his clients as multi-layered beings. “We are physical, mental and energy,” Breadner says. “If you want to get lasting success you have to work on all those levels.”
Breadner also emphasises the importance of meditation as a doorway to discovering any emotional links to the illness. “When we do our meditative practices, we are training the mind to a one-pointed focus. Once this occurs, the unconscious will come forward.” He adds that asthmatics can then address unhelpful attitudes as they arise, so a more life-affirming attitude is established.
The best results, says Breadner, come with consistency. “The yoga texts are clear about consistency and regularity of practice,” he says. Dr Saraswati concurs. His own asthma ceased with dedicated yoga practice during a long stay in an ashram in India. “I had a deep psychic emotional breakthrough and from that day my asthma stopped,” he reveals.
And for Melanie, while she is hesitant to use the word ‘cure’, her improved breathing pattern means she is no longer bound to her ventolin inhaler and enjoys a new sense of freedom.
Christina Brown is the author of The Yoga Bible: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Postures. She teaches yoga in Sydney and runs teacher trainings and retreats.
Yoga for asthmatics
Try this 15-minute sequence every day to promote better breathing patterns and boost relaxation.
Unlock the rib cage
Practise passive Back Bends by lying over a rolled-up blanket. Build up from using lower supports like soft blankets to foam rollers for stronger openings. Do this for up to 5 minutes.
Release the shoulders and neck
Hold a yoga belt between your outstretched arms about 80cm apart. Breathing through the nose, inhale to a count of four as you raise both arms overhead. Exhale to a count of 4 as you complete the arch to take both arms behind your back. Inhale as you bring them back over your head and exhale to return to starting position. Repeat 10 times. Finish by dropping the left ear to the left shoulder for several breaths. Adjust the chin position to find the best release. Repeat on the right side.
Free the diaphragm
Place your hands on your abdomen and practise deep abdominal breathing. Let go with each exhalation and focus on the sense of letting down. Remember to breathe through the nostrils rather than the mouth. Continue for up to 4 minutes.
Relax and let go
Repeat a gentle mantra, such as Om (either aloud or mentally). As you do this get a sense of vibration in the entire lung and chest area so it feels like the cells are receiving a gentle massage. Continue for up to 4 minutes.