If you’ve been to a yoga class, you’ve probably been instructed to focus on your breath. With so much emphasis on inhaling and exhaling, it would seem logical that a regular yoga practice would have benefits for people who have problems with their airways, right? For years, researchers have been trying to understand if there are benefits of yoga for asthma, and a recent roundup of these studies shows promising evidence that the practice might bring some relief.
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Asthma and Yoga: What Science Says
In a recent Cochrane Review, researchers in Hong Kong analyzed 15 randomized controlled trials that looked into the effects of breathing, yoga poses and/or meditation on 1,048 people living with mild to moderate asthma in India, Europe and the U.S. (The studies were conducted over a period of two weeks to four years, with most lasting around six months.) They found moderate evidence from five studies that yoga improves the overall quality of life in people with asthma, but there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the practice can improve lung function and reduce the need for medication.
“There is more uncertainty about potential adverse effects of yoga and its impact on lung function and medication usage,” the researchers write. “[Randomized controlled trials] with a large sample size and high methodological and reporting quality are needed to confirm the effects of yoga for asthma.”
However, certain yoga poses and breathing practices, called pranayama, might help release suppressed emotion, reduce anxiety and self-consciousness, and relax muscle tension, all of which help asthma sufferers breathe better.
Researchers also say that meditation may also help people with asthma improve their airways and respiratory muscles, which are adversely affected by asthma symptoms. Makes sense because when you’re chilled out, it’s easier to breathe.
Relieve Stress and Breathe Easier
Baxter Bell, MD, ERYT 500, a board member for the International Association of Yoga Therapists and author of the blog Yoga for Healthy Aging, says he has “guarded optimism” by the review’s findings. For starters, an “improvement” in the quality of life just means that people felt better than those who weren’t doing yoga, which might also apply whether you have asthma or not. A large study that tests for pulmonary (aka lung) function found that people eventually lower their medication usage would be a bigger deal, he says.
Still, anecdotally, he has found that some of his students find yoga helpful for their asthma. Poses that help to release muscular tension around the rib cage — side stretches, forward folds and backbends — can make breathing feel a little easier, but “won’t help the breathing tubes inside the lungs, which is where the problem is,” Bell says.
Aside from those poses, restorative styles of yoga, guided meditation and relaxation practices might help, he says. “Anything that’s going to quiet their nervous system might have a little influence on lowering their risk of an asthma attack.”