Yoga and Asthma


Yoga and Asthma

Page 12

Yoga and Asthma

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Rediscovering the Breath of Life

Barbara Benagh relied on traditional asthma medications for years. She avoided asthma triggers, but her attacks continued to escalate. Finally in 1995, she experienced such a severe attack she wound up on a ventilator.

After that experience, she researched asthma, determined to find help. The Boston woman discovered literature that described asthma as a breathing pattern disturbance. Considering this, she wondered whether stress was responsible for her attacks.

Benagh became conscious of episodes of mounting stress and corresponding breathing patterns. As a result, she began “breathing retraining” through yoga techniques. A yoga teacher for 27 years, she developed a successful regime to slow her respirations and reduce the severity of her asthma.

East Meets West
“Asthma is called a ‘adhivyadhi’ disease, or mind-body disease,” said registered yoga teacher Patricia Hansen, MA. “Westerners call asthma psychosomatic, which connotes something imaginary. But it’s not. The mind-body connection is so powerful the body expresses mental disharmony.”

Hansen, a founding member of the Yoga Teachers of Colorado, said yoga helps asthmatics breathe by regulating the life force or “pranayama.” When asthmatics come to the Rocky Mountain Yoga Institute, they learn yoga breathing techniques.

“The teacher’s voice should soothe the asthmatic,” said Hansen, a 34-year veteran of the profession. “Once relaxed, we work with concentration or ‘dharana.’ I use guided imagery to relax the patient. The breath will be erased like footprints in the sand.”

Emotions Contribute to Asthma
“Yoga does the exact opposite of pharmacology,” said Susana A. Galle, PhD, psychologist and naturopath. “Medications quiet wheezing and suppress what’s underneath; yoga helps get to the root of problems.”

Galle, a contributing author of the 1999 book Transpersonal Emotions, believes breath connects the heart “chakra.” Anything affecting emotion—fear, grief, love, rejection, criticism or acceptance—also affects breathing.

“People are disassociated from the heart-breath connection. Instead, they focus on medications. Also, chest pain keeps asthmatics from breathing deeply, but they need to connect with that pain.”

Asthmatics fit a particular personality type, according to Hansen. She believes introverts, who suppress emotion, develop asthma. Very sensitive children in controlling families who expect their parents to intuit their needs often develop asthma due to the build-up of toxins. This makes the child sensitive to asthmatic triggers “Particulates in the environment bother them and asthma begins.”

Taking Attention Away
It’s easy to help children because they do not have years of ingrained habits present, claimed Hansen. But they tend to hyperventilate and have excessive mucus. Hansen helps kids relax by getting them to practice “Ayurveda” yoga, meaning knowledge of life, freeing them from many asthma symptoms.

“We play puppet. Arms and shoulders dangle freely making it impossible for the lungs to spasm.” Hansen continued, “The ‘ama,’ or toxins, are gooey substances clogging the allergic child or adult’s lungs. We help them relax, reduce toxins and unclog those channels.”

Galle recalls one desperate asthmatic wanting to be freed from the prison of numerous asthma medications. Galle began by diverting her attention away from illness, using a three-step method: breath, locks and gaze. “The breath awakens the life force; the locks regulate life force and the gaze focuses attention and changes consciousness,” she explained.

Changing the asthmatic’s consciousness is similar to hypnosis because it alters brain wave activity, according to Galle. The gaze helps the brain’s neurons function more effectively, and as a result, breathing becomes evenly regulated. “Change their consciousness, and you’ve changed the breath.”

Yoga Movements
Once the patient’s consciousness is diverted, Galle teaches chest opening positions. From there, she engages patients in “ashtanga” yoga, which has specific health benefits.

Astanga yoga involves the use of back bends and vigorous “sun salutations.” The asthmatic is eased into these movements gradually in a warm room. “Heat helps burn out toxins stored in the body. This helps relaxation.” This, in turn, helps the muscles relax.

Hansen, involved in yoga research with National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, begins with gentle shoulder and arm lifts and calls attention to the patient’s breathing.

“Asthmatics are mouth breathers,” said Hansen “We try to change that into nose breathing. From there, we do movements to relax and open chest muscles.”

Air trapping can be eliminated through yoga breathing, according to Hansen. “Working with an asthmatic is like unraveling a ball of twine. The twine is knotted, and eventually we begin unwinding the twine. By the end of our exercises, they are doing beautiful, long exhalations.”

Diet is critical for asthmatics, according to Hansen. She recommends they remove dairy, wheat, caffeine, sodas and refined sugars. She tells patients not to eat when emotionally upset. “It creates toxins. Allergens do a seductive dance; they come from within and from without.”

Yoga helps people control their intense emotions. Particular poses or movements release stress, anxiety or anger, said Hansen. “These poses take attention away from the emotion, causing imbalanced breathing.”

Galle admitted pharmacology still has its place in the event of an acute attack. “It is unrealistic and criminal to deny patients medications if they can’t breathe. You don’t deny emergency care if someone’s lips turn blue. Yoga can be used later to rebuild health.”

Benagh recommends asthma patients should continue taking regular medications while receiving yoga training. Yoga may help reduce medication reliance, but common sense and regular doctor visits are necessary, she cautioned. But she can personally vouch for yoga’s favorable results. Benagh hasn’t been on a ventilator since 1995.

Katherine Lesperance is an ADVANCE assistant editor.

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