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How Yoga Fosters Respiratory System Health

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

How Yoga Fosters Respiratory System Health

Big Sur Clouds by Melina Meza

In our post 6 Strategies for Using Yoga to Help with Medical Problems, Baxter and I identified six basic strategies that you can use on their own or in combination to address a wide variety of medical conditions. Today I’m going to conclude my recent series about these individual strategies with this overview how you can use yoga to foster respiratory system health. (See Friday Practical Pointers: Your Respiratory System is more than Just a Pair of Lungs for information about what your respiratory system is and the individual components that comprise it.)
First of all, you can use both asanas and breath practices to maintain the health of your respiratory system overall. In general, asanas that move your spine in all directions of movement, and that stretch and strengthen the muscles all around your upper torso, will help support your respiratory system by keeping respiratory muscles strong and flexible. And breath practices that lengthen your inhalation and exhalation, such as gradual lengthening of equal breath, or that include rapid inhalations and exhalations, like Skull Shining breath, can exercise your breathing muscles even more. 
Yoga asanas, breath awareness, and pranayama can help with mild asthma and COPD by improving breathing efficiency and decreasing inflammation. Baxter’s, students report that their regular yoga practice has been helpful for exercise-induced asthma, which can affect younger adults, but can also arise in older adults.  
CAUTION: Yoga has mixed reviews on its benefits for moderate to severe asthma. For this specific condition, we recommend working with a very experienced teacher.  
In addition to keeping your respiratory muscles strong and flexible, you can use your asana practice to reverse changes to your body due to aging, physical habits, injuries, and scoliosis, that negatively impact your ability to breath. These include structural changes to both muscles and fascia of your chest as well as the chest wall bones and thoracic spine. 
In general, you can reverse changes by: 
1. Improving your posture by strengthening back spinal muscles.
2. Increasing movement in your chest and spine by regularly stretching your chest muscles all directions.
3. Improving the flexibility and strength of your respiratory muscles and fascia by regularly practicing a combination of well-balanced asana sequences and breath practices. 

You can also use asanas to target specific problem areas. For example, if you are developing more rounding of the thoracic spine, adding more dynamic and static back bending postures into your practice can help reduce the rounding. You can also use asanas to strengthen weak chest muscles around your lungs. For example, you can use Plank, Side Plank, and Upward Plank poses to strengthen the muscles around your chest wall and active back bending poses, such as Cobra or Upward-Facing Dog pose, to strengthen your back and front chest muscles.
Breath Awareness 
Your ability to breathe in a healthy way can be compromised by unhealthy breathing patterns, such holding excessive tension in your abdominal muscles. However, by practicing breath awareness with special attention to the movements of your chest and belly, you can learn about your particular breathing patterns and potentially identify any problems. 
In normal, healthy breathing, as you inhale, your chest and ribs will expand slightly and your belly will rise up or bulge forward, and as you exhale, your belly will relax back and your chest and ribs will relax back toward center. Although not common, there are two different breathing patterns that occur in some people that can be problematic:  
Chest Breathing. Instead of your belly expanding on your inhalation and relaxing back on your exhalation, there is no movement in your belly at all. All the movement during respiration is in your chest alone.  
Reverse Breathing. Instead of your belly expanding on your inhalation, it actually sucks in during the inhalation and your chest expands dramatically. And on your exhalation, your belly rises as your chest relaxes.
To observe your own breathing patterns:
  1. Start by setting yourself up in a comfortable reclined pose, such as Savasana or Reclined Cobbler’s pose, or a comfortable supported seated pose, such as Easy Sitting pose with your back against the wall.
  2. Take a moment to relax completely and breathe naturally, with an easy, relaxed breath.
  3. Keeping your breath easy and relaxed, turn your awareness to your chest and belly as you inhale and exhale. Just watch. Is your belly rising/expanding/bulging with your inhalation and relaxing back with your exhalation? Or is something else going on?
If you do identify a problematic breathing pattern—or think that you have—unless you are a very experienced practitioner of pranayama, it’s best for you to work with your yoga teacher or yoga therapist to change your breathing habits. Your present pattern of breathing is likely to be a well-established one. And an expert will not only be able to observe your breathing with a trained eye but will also have techniques available to effectively coach you to change your ingrained habits.
Breath Practices 
A well-rounded breath practice, that includes calming, balancing, and simulating practices, can promote the health of your respiratory system by improving the strength and flexibility or your chest muscles and fascia as well as improving the alignment of your ribs and spine. In general, you’ll benefit from actively challenging your diaphragm with practices that extend the length of the inhalations and exhalations, and that include inhalation and exhalation pausing. 
In addition, recent studies have shown that pranayama is effective in improving lung function in those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD. For this condition, equal lengthening of the inhalation and exhalation is recommended. 
Finally, breathing practices that calm your nervous system, such as extending the exhalation or pausing at the end of it, add the benefit of lowering overall stress, which can be particularly helpful to people who are challenged by a respiratory condition.
See Calming Breath Practices We Recommend, Stimulating Breath Practices We Recommend, and Breath Practices for Balance.

Stress Management 

Like the rest of your body, your lungs and the rest of your respiratory system need downtime to rest and repair. In the Rest and Digest state, your respiratory system will get a good rest because you don’t need as much oxygen in this state, so lungs and respiratory system won’t need to work as hard! And, of course, spending time in the Rest and Digest state provides the optimal setting for the system to heal from problems and repair itself. 
So spending time in the Rest and Digest state provides an important break that will foster the health of the entire system. In addition, reducing stress also has positive effect on your immune system, which could lower your chances of getting infections of the respiratory tract, from your nose and mouth all the way into the deep part of your lungs. 
Because many people with chronic respiratory conditions experience ongoing anxiety or other negative emotions related their condition, those who have breathing problems can improve the quality of their lives by practicing stress management. This will help quiet your mind and calm your emotions as well as resting your respiratory system. However, if you have respiratory system problems, meditating on your breath can actually cause stress if you worry about breathing. So if this is the case for you and you want to meditate, we recommend either choosing a different type of focus, such as a mantra, or using a simple guided meditation. 
See Techniques for Supportiing Your Respiratory System for specific recommendations on how to practice.
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