According to a study on the effect of yoga on diffusion capacity in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, yogic breathing techniques improve diffusion capacity. The controlled trial concluded that yoga’s Pranayama techniques are beneficial to COPD patients and they can be practiced along with conventional medical therapy. Let's look at this in more detail.
What is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
COPD is a group of lung diseases that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, among others. Smoking, continuous exposure to polluted air, occupational exposure to dust and other chemicals, exposure to fumes and those with asthma are likely to develop COPD.
Benefits of Yoga for COPD
Yoga is an extremely impactful practice to improve emotional, physical and mental health. A mind-body practice, it lowers blood pressure, improves blood circulation, strengthens the muscles, improves flexibility, reduces stress and anxiety, improves focus and concentration, among others. It even helps strengthen willpower, which enables smokers to quit smoking. For those with COPD, yoga for the lungs and Pranayama practices help in the following ways:
Clearing the airways
Yoga’s breathing exercises and certain specific asanas work towards removing toxins and dust particles from the airways. Removing excess waste and toxins from the system helps keep the airways clear, preventing or reducing the chance of developing any conditions, and reducing the chances of getting affected by pollution.
Strengthens the muscles
Yoga asanas that work on lung strength and several Pranayama practices strengthen the muscles used in respiration. When muscles like the diaphragm are stronger and used better, your ability to breathe better improves.
Corrects breathing patterns
Due to the stressors of everyday life we very often don’t pay attention to how we breathe. Yoga improves mindfulness which helps us stay in the present. We become more conscious of how we breathe, taking deep breaths and breathing fully into the system rather than just shallow breathing.
Reduces stress and anxiety
For those with COPD, an attack during the day or in the middle of work can be stressful. It causes one to panic, affecting how you deal with the situation. Yoga helps you reduce this stress and anxiety, and enables you to manage the situation in a more effective way.
Yoga Practices for COPD
Exercises that are good for the respiratory system and lungs are helpful for COPD. Before joining a yoga session, consult your doctor to get clearance and get an understanding of what you should and should not do. It’s important to learn with a qualified and experienced teacher and inform your teacher beforehand, so you practice in a safe and injury-free way, and avoid practices that are harmful. A good teacher will also show you how you should breathe in each posture and the right cues. Practice in a gentle, easy and comfortable way. If you experience any discomfort, immediately pause the practice and relax for a little while.
Yoga Poses for COPD
Start with gentle stretching and bending exercises. This will gradually improve your fitness levels and flexibility. Pay attention to your breath, breathing deeply and mindfully throughout. Once you have eased into the practice, you can attempt yoga asanas which will open up the chest region, work on strengthening the lungs and improve breathing capacity.
You can begin with easier yoga asanas such as the Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and Standing Raised Arms Pose (Hasta Uttanasana). In both these postures the chest will open up along with the muscles in the region, providing a strengthening effect. Forward bends such as the Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress and anxiety. Side bends or lateral bends such as the Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) strengthen the diaphragm and improve flexibility of the rib cage.
Once you are comfortable with these postures, you can attempt backbends yoga asanas such as the Locust Pose (Shalabhasana), Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Camel Pose (Ustrasana) and the Bow Pose (Dhanurasana). Postures can be modified to help you breathe better and improve strength that is specifically important for COPD. That’s also where practicing in live yoga classes with a teacher is beneficial.
Breathing Techniques for COPD
This is the most important yoga practice for COPD. Pranayama will help you control your breathing and teach you how to use your lungs fully. Breathing exercises are also beneficial in managing symptoms of breathlessness as they strengthen your respiratory muscles. Practices such as Frontal Lobe Cleansing (Kapal Bhati) and Bellows Breathing (Bhastrika) are beneficial in expunging carbon dioxide along with toxins and dust particles from the system. Impurities from the blood are also removed.
Oceans breathing (Ujjayi Pranayama), Box breathing (Full Yogic Breathing) and Abdominal breathing are beneficial for bringing more oxygen into the system and bloodstream. They improve energy levels and the movement of Prana (life force). This also greatly helps calm the mind, reduce stress and anxiety. Pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are often used in pulmonary rehabilitation programs for patients with COPD.
With breathwork, as well, it is critical to practice gently and under a qualified teacher’s guidance. If you feel discomfort or breathlessness, immediately stop and relax. After practicing Pranayama regularly for a few weeks, you will gradually begin to notice a difference.
Precautions for Practicing Yoga for COPD
While yoga is generally safe, it is best to keep a few precautions in mind.
- Avoid yoga poses which put pressure on the diaphragm or compress the lungs.
- Keep your inhaler handy in case you need it while you are on the mat.
- Pause if you have any discomfort. Do not force yourself.
- Be gentle and slow. Listen to your mind and body at all times.
- Keep your doctor and teacher informed and updated at all times.
Living with COPD can sometimes slow you down or affect your lifestyle. Yoga is a tool which can help you manage your condition effectively. By joining a live yoga class you can create a routine that compliments your medication and existing lifestyle. Over time, you will notice improved breathing patterns, reduced anxiety, stronger lung capacity and more.