Have you ever had a great yoga class? One of those classes where you walk out sweaty and smiling? Perhaps you even went into the class in a less than stellar mood, but when you walked out you felt like the world was a bit brighter and your outlook a lot more positive? I have. Sometimes when I’m in a funk I know that a good workout will do me wonders. When it comes to cleansing myself emotionally yoga is one of the best workouts.
Another thing I notice is just how much better I breathe after I do yoga. My breath is slower and deeper and feels like it flows easier. My lungs seem to expand more and I can take in more air with less effort. I have battled asthma over the years. I had inhalers for a short while, but I quickly decided that the more I used them, the more I seemed to need them. Luckily I got off before my body adapted to them too much. I have learned to do breathing exercises, monitor my diet and mood and otherwise regulate my breathing without drugs. To be honest, I have a history of ignoring the prevailing medical wisdom and simply experimenting on myself. Most are not this cavalier with their health. Most modern people like to see scientific evidence lead to widespread medical community acceptance of alternative treatments before trying things on their own.
Lucky for most, scientists are now studying the effects of non-pharmacological approaches to treating conditions such as asthma. In a recent study published in the National Journal of Medical Research three scientists examined “the concept that yoga is helpful for the treatment of bronchial asthma.” Their findings are hopeful, but first a bit of background. The prevailing medical wisdom attempts to relieve asthmas bronchiolar obstruction by prescribing adrenaline, salbutamol, aminophylline and administering steroid therapy. The side effects can be many and patients tend to become more reliant on medicine over time, not less. The authors note, as I was lucky to find on my own, that “long term therapy with these drugs is successful but the patient comes to depend on these drugs.”
It is largely accepted that asthma is not simply a physical condition. Also from the authors, “Asthma is considered to have a multi-dimensional etiology which includes allergic, infective, climatic, endocrine, and emotional factors. In most patients with asthma there is a strong psychological aspect. Indeed many regard asthma as a psychoneurosis and the allergy manifestation as secondary to psychoneurosis. Psychological stress is known to trigger asthma via the vagus nerve.” The authors go as far as to say that asthma is increasingly being considered a psychosomatic condition.
Because of the complex, multi-faceted nature of a condition such as asthma it makes sense to treat it in ways that are more comprehensive than administering chemicals. The authors note, “Yoga helps to slow down an overactive mind while, at the same time toning up the body, removing toxins and relieving pains, backache and injuries.” Yoga is a whole system method for balancing mind/body/spirit. So, did the authors find measurable health benefits for those suffering from asthma?
Prior to this study all participants “were on medications for a prolonged period with no relief and their drug usage was increasing day by day.” During this study “the number of attacks of asthma and drug intake was decreased” in those practicing yoga. But why?
The authors not that “there was a significant decrease in respiratory rate in asthmatic patients after yoga therapy.” If you are familiar with another asthma treatment called The Buteyko Method than you are aware that one of the issues with asthmatics is actually over breathing. People with asthma tend to breath too much, not to little. This hyperventilation creates an imbalance in the CO2 in the body leaving the bodies cells oxygen starved. Much like Buteyko, during yoga the authors note that “the subject may change his ordinary rate of 15-18 to 1-2 resp/minute and reduce his ventilation volume a great deal.”
Participants were trained in yoga for “one hour for 15 days. The patients were then asked to do yoga practice, one hour daily at home and to keep a record of the practice done.” Three months later participants were assessed and compared to a control group. Statistically significant improvements were noted “in pulmonary functions; decrease in respiratory rate; decrease in pulse rate and body weight (not statistically significant); decrease in frequency of asthma attacks and decrease in frequency of use of inhalers. The disease status in controls deteriorated. “
Both yoga and the Buteyko Method give practicioners the ability to regulate their breathing consciously. The result in both cases is less reliance on medication. Anecdotally I have heard reports of Buteyko getting asthmatics off of medications altogether. As with many western treatments, inhalers and other asthma medications treat the symptoms and not the underlying condition. The authors state, “While modern medicine aims at immediate relief, yoga aims at removal of the basic cause. “
Most importantly, the side effects of yoga are little to none and you do not need to stop your medicine first (most would advise against this). It is a win-win situation. Yoga has helped me immensely, with everything from depression to my breathing to strength and flexibility. I’m having a hard time seeing a reason not to give it a shot.