To Breathe Easier, Say ‘Om’

By Marygrace Taylor

Yoga has long been known as a way to improve health and mental well-being. What’s more, the ancient practice could be used as a tool to help you breathe easier, too.

While the evidence is mixed, some research suggests that asthma sufferers may find some relief in yoga. In a recent analysis published in theAnnals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, yoga was found to peak expiratory flow rate and quality of life among asthma sufferers, leading researchers to conclude that the practice could be a complementary therapy to other treatments.

There’s more. A 2012 review suggested that yoga breathing exercises may improve lung function and reduce asthma symptoms, while another small study found that adults who practiced yoga for 50 minutes daily had fewer asthma attacks, used less medication and had greater peak expiratory flow rate than those who didn’t practice yoga.

“Many asthma sufferers look to complementary therapies, such as yoga, to help relieve their symptoms,” said allergist Dr. Michael Foggs, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “If yoga helps them to feel better and breathe better, patients should by all means practice it. At the same time, we don’t advise that yoga be recommended to asthma sufferers as a treatment.”

In other words, you shouldn’t rely on yoga to solve all of your breathing problems. But maintaining a steady practice could be an effective way to support your other treatment efforts. “So much about yoga is about strengthening the muscles that you use for breathing,” said Shannon Hatfield, an Austin, Texas, yoga instructor.

Which poses are the most effective? Yoga experts recommend ones that help stretch the chest and bring attention to your breath, such as cobra pose or hero pose. Or, try ujjayi (pronounced ooh-jai-yee), a relaxing breathing exercise characterized by a quiet hissing sound. “It brings conscious awareness to your breath, and strengthens the diaphragm and lung muscles,” Hatfield said. Here’s how:

  1. In a comfortable seated position, inhale through your nose, then exhale slowly with your mouth wide open, making a “ha” sound.
  2. Repeat several times, then close your mouth.
  3. This time, inhale and exhale through your nose, exhaling your breath towards the back of your throat to make a soft hissing sound (sort of like Darth Vader breathing).
  4. Repeat for a total of 5 to 8 minutes, working up to sessions of 10 to 15 minutes.