By Gary Fitzgerald
Sierra Petersen sits upright, legs folded beneath her, arms outstretched as if welcoming air. Eyes closed, mind clear, she takes in a slow, deep breath through her nose.
“Hhhhhaaaaa,” she exhales a few seconds later.
This is Petersen’s favorite time of the day, when she can sit on the floor, any floor, and breathe easy.
It hasn’t always been that way. Living in Seattle, Petersen, 27, has asthma. Her symptoms are well controlled, but they still flare up when she’s around cigarette smoke. She keeps her bronchodilator inhaler in her purse.
Petersen felt drawn to yoga and its focus on breathing and relaxation.
“You get into a rhythm inhaling and exhaling, and it takes away stress,” she says. “It’s like you’re retraining yourself how to breathe.”
Yoga has long been touted as a way to improve physical and mental well-being and some people with asthma say it helps them better control symptoms. However, a recent study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the scientific journal of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), found little evidence that yoga improves asthma.
Chicago allergist and ACAAI past president Michael Foggs, MD, does suggest yoga is an appropriate complementary therapy for asthma.
“If yoga helps people with asthma feel better and breathe better, then they should by all means practice it,” Dr. Foggs says. “At the same time, we don’t advise that yoga be recommended as a treatment for asthma.”
Yoga for Better Breathing
Yoga practitioners extol its benefits, suggesting that it unifies movement with breathing.
The yoga breathing practice known as pranayama involves different breathing techniques to regulate the breath and calm and focus the mind, says Annette Rivlin-Gutman, a certified yoga instructor in Belmont, California.
Many yoga poses focus on breathing. Basic poses such as “sukahasana” (sitting upright, legs crossed, arms relaxed in lap or hands on knees) and “savasana” (lying on the back, arms at side at a 45 degree angle, legs and feet relaxed) encourage listening and being aware of one’s breathing.
This helps a person stay calm and focused, and to breathe freer, Rivlin-Gutman says.
“Belly breathing, where a person’s belly expands when inhaling and contracts when exhaling, is beneficial, too,” she adds.
Yoga can also alleviate stress – a common asthma trigger.
“Yoga produces a calming breath to keep the body and mind relaxed,” Rivlin-Gutman says. “It teaches you to use your breathing to return to a calm state, especially during a challenging time. I always tell my students in class, ‘Being aware allows you to make changes, if you choose to.’”
Call In the Experts
Before registering for a yoga class, consult with your doctor, Rivlin-Gutman says. Discuss whether yoga is appropriate for you and if it can be incorporated into your overall asthma management plan.
Even if yoga makes you feel better, continue to take your asthma medications as prescribed. Reducing or changing your medications without first checking with your doctor could lead to a potentially dangerous asthma flare. Only a doctor can decide when it’s time to stop or step down asthma medications.
Next, find a certified yoga instructor who has either knowledge of asthma and/or experience working with asthma patients. Yoga poses must be done correctly. Some may induce an asthma flare if there is constriction of the airways, or if a posture is so challenging that it does not allow for deep, controlled breaths.
Yoga poses that include “rapid breathing techniques or holding of the breath can facilitate an asthma flare and should be avoided,” Rivlin-Gutman says.
Francesco Chiappella, 78, believes yoga helps keep his mind and body active.
For the last two years, Chiappella has attended Rivlin-Gutman’s yoga classes twice a week. His asthma and allergies flare up when Northern California winds whip outdoor allergens such as pollen and mold. He takes an inhaled corticosteroid, two times a day, to help keep symptoms at bay.
Chiappella, diagnosed with asthma nine years ago, says yoga has taught him to adapt his breathing during different movements and stretches, including when he’s exercising under the direction of his personal trainer.
“Overall, physically, I feel so much better,” he says. “I love the stretching. I don’t wheeze as much and I’m doing a lot more than I was before. I don’t know if it’s because I’m doing yoga or if it’s the medication I’m taking, but I do know that if I don’t do yoga, or stay active, I won’t feel as well as I do now.”
Reviewed by Martha White, MD, Martha Hogan, MD and Andrea Jensen, CHES