Yoga Treatment for Asthma

Asthma symptoms include a variety of challenges with breathing, chest tightness and/or coughing or wheezing.

Because Yoga is specifically a way of managing and controlling your breath, it can be extremely effective for sufferers of asthma in reducing both the emotional impacts of asthma (fear and anxiety) as well as in alleviating the symptoms of an asthma attack (problems breathing) and in reducing the number of asthma attacks (by retraining the pulmonary/strengthening system). There are even specific breathing techniques that are useful for asthma as they specifically help exercise the lungs and regulate breathing.

Regular Yoga practice can help people with asthma relax and breath more easily, which then helps the lungs work better and enhances the airflow. Yoga does not relieve the underlying conditions that cause a person to have asthma, but it can be effective in reducing the symptoms of Asthma and in improving quality of live while reducing the frequency of attacks.

Because Yoga cultivates the ability to maintain a relaxed and controlled breath, it can prevent or reduce asthma attacks. There are different types of Pranayama (breathing) exercises for different type of asthma attacks (emotional versus mucus congestion versus breathing irregularity triggers). There have been several studies that validate the use of yoga for asthma patients, but yoga should be used in combination with, and not instead of, traditional medical care for asthma.

What You Can Do Right Now

Frequently Asked Question about Yoga

How Does Yoga Fit in with Health Insurance?

Many health insurance providers may cover some portion of fitness memberships, and a yoga membership may be included in that. You will need to verify this with your individual provider to see what is covered.

Yoga may also be covered by insurance if it is part of a physical therapy program

Many people also have some type of Health Spending Account or Flexible (flex) Spending Account. The rules vary, but if the yoga has been recommended by a doctor or is considered part of a treatment plan for your condition, it may be covered, or if it is considered to be a ‘healthy living expense’. Definitely check the rules of your particular plan. Sometimes Yoga will be covered if you buy a membership but not if you are paying for individual classes, and some plans will even cover your yoga mat!

How Much Does Yoga Cost?

Yoga prices vary widely. You can pay anywhere from 50-100$+ per hour for private yoga classes. Some large employers will offer yoga classes for their employees as part of a corporate wellness program. Many yoga studios allow you to pay for an individual class (often 15-25$ per) or to buy a set of tickets (often called passcards) for x many classes at a discounted rate. Many studios also offer memberships which can range from 30-200$ per month, depending on what they offer and what limitations there are on your membership. You will usually pay less per class if you buy a membership, and the longer you are willing to commit to, the less expensive the membership will usually be per class. However, make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully. Many studios offer significantly discounted introductory classes (10 classes for 10$, for example) to allow you to get a taste of yoga and see whether it is for you before you make a commitment.

What is a Yoga Class Like?

Yoga classes can vary widely depending on the style of yoga. Some are done in a heated room; others in a regular room. Almost always, you will have a yoga mat (which can often be rented at the studio to start with), and the instructor will be at the front of the class demonstrating the poses and providing instruction in how to do them. It is generally a good idea to be very clear about what style of yoga you will be trying, as they can range from extremely physical and challenging all the way to gentle yoga classes for people with physical impairments or a lack or range of motion. Select a style of yoga that works for you. Yoga classes range from 30 minutes to 90 minutes in length, and most studios offer a variety of styles at different times, although some will offer only one style over and over throughout the day. Many yoga studios recommend that you not eat for two hours before coming to class, but try to make sure that you are well hydrated before you start the class (particularly if you are doing a more intensive type of yoga class). You want your clothes for the class to be comfortable and relatively close fitting (so the instructor can see your form and offer suggestions to correct/improve it as necessary). Avoid wearing perfume to the yoga class if you possibly can. If it is your first class, you can often arrive early and chat briefly with the instructor to let them know that you are just starting out.

When you start yoga, a lot of new stuff is coming at you fast; so if you’re new to yoga, start with a beginner or introductory class. You want to be able to absorb all the newness and learn it thoroughly before you start getting fancy. Learn how to do each pose with the correct alignment before you start moving through the poses quickly so that you’re spot on with each pose as you do it. The faster you move through the poses, the more risk of injury if you’re not doing them with confidence. Start slow and listen to your body, above all else.

What To Do at Your First Class

We asked Theresa Conroy, who offers classes in therapeutic yoga in Philadelphia, to tell us a bit about what to do and not do for your first class if you want to try yoga and you have asthma. She said the biggest thing is to tell the instructor that you have asthma. A good instructor will then ask you some questions (whether you know how that impacts your practice, what you do to control the asthma, how the asthma impacts your daily life, what risk factors are for you in triggering an attack, etc). The teacher needs to know if the class is appropriate for you (for example, if it’s a fast moving class and you’re not used to that type of physical exertion or you have exercise induced asthma, then they may recommend a different class).

Theresa also said that in yoga, the breathing exercises (pranayama) are very strong; it can taike time and a really good instructor to help you get used to that, and there can be side effects from breathing in a different way. “Pranayama can cause a sense of agitation or fear at times, because it’s very powerful. There is light at the end of the tunnel and a whole new world can open up as you learn new skills, but do be aware that it’s powerful and do it with a trained instructor.”

It’s also important to be as comfortable as you can before your first class. “It’s scary to go to a yoga class even when you’re 100% young and healthy and strong; it can be really intimidating to go into that room for the first time. Then add in that you’re dealing with a health issue and not being able to breath is a very scary thing; by the time you go into that studio, you want to feel as comfortable as you can.” Theresa is a big advocate of talking with your doctor if you’re at all unsure or nervous about doing yoga with asthma, and says she is even happy to talk with doctors herself about her ideas and approaches if they want to know more because of a patient’s concerns. “Get all your questions answered and take away as much anxiety as you can before you get on the mat. We can put you in some physical positions that get you off balance enough that you don’t want other stuff hanging around getting in the way ?.”

Lastly, but not least “listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right or doesn't feel safe, don’t do it. No one knows your body as you do.”

How to Select a Good Yoga Teacher

You can do yoga either at a studio or through private instruction. Cost may be a factor in which one you select, but you will probably also want to determine what you care most about. For example, is it critical to you to have an individual teacher that you are comfortable with? Or are you happy to go to a studio where all the teachers have some type of similar training or credentials but you will have different teachers at different classes? Some smaller studios will have one instructor for each type of yoga, so in that case, the individual instructor may again be more important.

Some questions you may want to consider include

  • The style of yoga – You probably want to start by considering one of the more classical styles of Yoga (i.e. Hatha, Iyengar, which incorporate the postures and breathing and meditation/relaxation all together) or one of the gentler/therapeutically focused styles (like Kripalu Yoga, Viniyoga, Sivananda Yoga, Forrest Yoga or Restorative Yoga. If you are new to yoga, you may want to try several until you find a mix that suits you. It is extremely important to not go beyond your comfort level or suffer any physical pain.
  • The fitness/spirituality mix of the studio or practitioner (some focus more on the physical aspects, others on the spiritual or metaphysical and some will combine both – you need to decide where your comfort level is)
  • What credentials / training / experience the yoga teacher or school’s teachers have? Make sure you ask this, particularly where the instructor trained (this is even more important than how long they have been teaching) and what degree of formal training they have had in anatomy. Also, watch for how many questions the instructor asks you. The best instructors will ask you lots of questions to determine what you know about your body and your condition – they are aware that they may know about your condition (i.e. asthma) in the abstract, but you want them to be asking lots of questions about your symptoms and how the condition impacts you. No teacher will have experience with every physical condition, and a teacher doesn’t necessarily need to have experience with asthma to teach you safely, but they do need to be able to ask you a lot of questions so you can teach them about your body and your condition; you don’t want a teacher who thinks they know everything, but a teacher who is willing to ask the questions to best help you.
  • Safety – how do they ensure your safety during the yoga classes? Do they have training to be able to teach you adjustments to the standard postures if necessary? Do they practice therapeutic yoga (if that matters to you)? Do they encourage you to push through pain or to listen to your body?
  • Comfort level – do you feel comfortable with the teacher and or the studio’s style? If not and if you want that learning experience, that may be fine. But if it doesn’t feel like a fit, try another instructor or studio. Yoga should not be a chore, although it may at times be a workout!

There are a variety of styles of yoga and it needs some careful consideration of your type of asthma and the different styles of yoga to determine the best fit for you.

Do consider carefully the pros and cons of practicing asthma in a heated room. While some say that the humidity and heat combined can be a trigger for asthma (particularly if you are considering trying Bikram Yoga, Power Yoga or Hot Yoga), others say that they do have asthma and do practice these styles of yoga with no ill effects. You definitely want to be careful and consult your medical practitioner before trying one of these styles of yoga.

Equally if you have exercise induced asthma, it is imperative to talk with your medical practitioner before trying one of the more vigorous forms of yoga (i.e. Vinyasa Flow, Vigourous Vinyasa).

Other styles like Hatha Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Viniyoga, Sivananda Yoga, Forrest Yoga or Restorative Yoga can be a gentler way to start. You can browse our descriptions of each of these styles to see which one feels like the best fit for you.

History of Yoga

Yoga itself is a complex topic. There are many different styles of Yoga (on vitalitylink.com alone we have 40 different styles of yoga listed and even that is not exhaustive). Yoga has been around for well over 5,000 years. It originated in the Vedas (the scripture that is the basis of modern day Hinduism – although Yoga is said to predate the existence of the Hindu religion).

Yoga is seen by some as a spiritual practice, and by others as a physical discipline, and by yet others as a combination of the physical and spiritual. Yoga has become popular in the western world over the last century and particularly since the 60s. This caused a vast multiplication of the available ‘styles’ of yoga, as many different practitioners brought over a long existing style from India and then modified it and branded it as their own. Most Yoga that we are familiar with comes from the Hatha style of Yoga, via various lineages (a yoga lineage describes the list of teachers who learned from other teachers who learned for other teachers), with the two largest branches being “Ashtanga Yoga” as taught by Patabhi Jois, and Iygengar Yoga as taught by BKS Iyengar. For serious students of yoga, the lineage is very important and tells you a lot about their particular practice of yoga. However, for someone just looking to get started, the lineage is probably not your biggest concern.

Digging into the history of yoga and who learned from who can rapidly get very complicated. If you want to see the details of which styles of yoga come from which other ones, have a look at Alison Hink’s amazing infographic that shows the relationships and dependencies between most of the various styles of yoga: http://www.yogadork.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/yoga-history-flowchart-0411.jpg

Theory behind Asthma Treatment using Yoga

Yoga comes from the word ‘union’ in Sanskrit, and is about the coming together of mind, body and spirit. Yoga is generally practiced as a series of poses (or asanas). In India, many of the branches of yoga are much more focused on the mind and spirit, while in the West, Yoga tends to focus more on the physical aspects of one’s practice.

Yoga is a combination of stretching and developing strength and flexibility. Each pose has particular physical benefits. Yoga is based on the three pillars of exercise, breathing and meditation. Because breath is the source of life, breathing and breathing techniques are a fundamental part of one’s yoga practice. Yoga also teaches you to bring your mind into focus and harmony. All three aspects; the exercise, the breathing and the meditation can benefit people with asthma. Yoga involves great respect for the body and for learning how to take care of it and strengthen it gradually over time.

Yoga is not a religion as such, but is a system of techniques that help one to develop an awareness and control of your mind and body. Main practitioners come from a variety of religious traditions.

Yoga can be effective as a treatment for asthma on multiple levels. First, by training and calming the mind, it can help you to reduce stress, which can often trigger asthma attacks. Second, through the practice of pranayama (breathing techniques) you can learn to better control and regularize and be aware of your breathing. Third, through the physical exercises, your lung function can actually improve and the strengthening of pulmonary capacity and of your muscles can significantly reduce the severity of any asthma attacks.

As long as you are careful in your selection of a yoga style and of a teacher or studio, the risks of practicing yoga as a complementary/preventative treatment for asthma are very small. It is, however, important to discuss your yoga with your medical practitioner and to be sensible and listen to your body while practicing yoga.

Regular Yoga practice can help people with asthma relax and breath more easily, which then helps the lungs work better and enhances the airflow. Yoga does not relieve the underlying conditions that cause a person to have asthma, but it can be effective in reducing the symptoms of Asthma and in improving quality of live while reducing the frequency of attacks.

Research of Asthma Treatment using Yoga

There is moderate research evidence related to yoga as a treatment for asthma. Yoga is definitely not viewed as a substitute for traditional medical treatment, but there is research indicating that yoga can help reduce the symptoms and the severity of asthma attacks. It also can improve quality of life and result in measureable improvements in subjective as well as objective outcomes, particularly for bronchial asthma. Some of the research studies are fairly dense to read, but for those who like to research in depth, here are some useful links.

Stories of Asthma Treatment using Yoga

How Yoga Can Benefit People with Asthma – a conversation with Theresa Conroy

My outlook is that I don’t ever tell people not to use an inhaler or their asthma medication – there is definitely value in western medicine and no serious yoga practitioner will want to put you at risk. I don’t see yoga as an alternative to medical treatment, but as a complement to it.

Yoga can be very powerful for asthma and indeed any type of respiratory illness or disease. The basic premise is that the depth and quality of your breath is completely dependent on how deeply you can breath, and people with asthma definitely have some restrictions with that. What yoga can do brilliantly is to help alleviate some of the common problems that restrict breath. Here’s what I mean by that:

There are a lot of muscles that support the breathing apparatus and the mechanism of breath in the human body. If those are tight, you won’t be physically able to take a deep breath. I often see people with really tight ‘breathing’ muscles; when I ask them to take a deep breath, what I see them do physically is lift up their shoulders in order to make room for that breath; the chest, belly, side ribs and back are not expanding out to give room for the breathing apparatus to function. There are muscles between each rib and muscles in your back that tend to be tight. Common posture also tends to tighten your chest muscles, especially if you are slightly hunched over. The result of these tight muscles and shortened muscles (from everyday habits) is that when you want to take a deep breath, you’re restricted – not just from your lungs, but by your muscles. In addition, the body tends to tighten against injury or pain, as a protective mechanism. So to allow for easier breathing, the first step is to loosen those muscles and get muscle problems out of the picture as a problem for your breathing.

In our classes, we do fixed movements of the spine; cat and dog pose; side bending to each side, spinal bends to each side; downward facing dog; anything that will help open the muscles. Then we take a blanket and roll it up and do a supported fish pose (you have the rolled blanket perpendicular to your spine, right around the heart, and then you lie over that with your arms out and let gravity and your breath really open your chest and loosen all those breathing muscles.

When you give the diaphragm room to function at its best, then it strengthens and over time allows you to take deeper breaths, and all the muscles loosen and open out when then allows your rib cage to expand. With yoga, I can’t affect your lungs per say, but I can help you learn to use breathing and stretching to eliminate some of the restrictions that are being put on your breathing. In addition; your posture has a huge impact – if you round your shoulders and stick your chin out, you simply can’t physically take a deep breath.

There’s a saying I heard somewhere; “Yoga really works, but you have to do it.” It’s challenging to do, especially when it gets boring. At the beginning you will see huge improvements, and then it will level off and seem boring, and it can stay boring for years, but you've got to keep at it – consistent practice is the key. Find a good teacher; someone you can trust, and them commit to a consistent practice.

The most heartening thing as a yoga teacher is seeing people come back over and over again. I always ask people about their fears and their goals. I can’t tell you that yoga will cure your asthma, but I think that together we might be able to help it. With yoga, it’s a team experience. As a teacher, I’m working with a yoga student (especially if it’s a private session), and that person needs to be empowered to impact their own health through their own practice. It’s their practice, not mine, and it’s the yoga that’s helping them, not me. But it’s always exciting to see someone with serious health issues and when they learn that they can impact their own health with the practice, and eventually don’t even need the yoga teacher to do it, that gives me a lot of hope. And strengthening those muscles that support your breathing, and learning to stand tall, and loosen your muscles, and stretching and strengthening together can do a brilliant job of alleviating many of the common problems that restrict your breathing.

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