4 Ways Yoga Fosters Respiratory System Health

Hatha Yoga is the combination of physical postures and yoga breathing practices that are designed to help the body and mind maintain overall equilibrium. The health of your respiratory system affects all the other systems of your body. Many of Hatha Yoga’s practices are especially helpful for maintaining the health of this vital system.

(Read Practical Pointers: Your Respiratory System is More than Just a Pair of Lungs for more information about the structure of your respiratory system.)

Yoga for Respiratory Health

Both yoga asanas and yoga breathing exercises 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 yoga breathing practices that lengthen your inhalation and exhalation, such as gradual lengthening of equal breath, or that include rapid inhalations and exhalations, like Kapalabhati (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. Yoga teacher Baxter Bell’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.  

Benefits of Yoga as Exercise 

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, yoga exercises can reverse changes by: 

1. Improving your posture by strengthening 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 yoga asanas to target specific problem areas. For example, if you are developing a rounded 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 Phalankasana (Plank), Side Plank, and Upward Plank poses to strengthen the muscles around your chest wall and active back bending poses, such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) or Urdva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), to strengthen your back and front chest muscles.

Yoga for 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.

How to Observe Your Breathing Patterns

  1. Set yourself up in a comfortable reclined pose, such as Savasana (Supine Relaxation Pose) or Supta Baddha Konasana (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. 

Yoga Breathing Practices 

 A well-rounded yoga breathing 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, yoga breathing exercises 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.

Stress Management with Yoga

Like the rest of your body, your lungs and the rest of your respiratory system need down time 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. Therefore, your 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 to 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. 

 This article originally published on yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com.   Reprinted with permission.

Nina ZolotowNina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional wellbeing, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author, with Rodney Yee, of two books on yoga: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance, both of which are widely available, and is currently writing a book with Baxter Bell on Yoga for Healthy Aging for publication in 2017.

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