Can Yoga Help My Breathing?

Dear Dr. Mahler: I read with interest your recent blog in COPD News about the study comparing yoga and pulmonary rehabilitation. However, can you provide more information about how yoga can help my COPD? I am 63 years young, and am taking Spiriva and Advair for my “severe” COPD. I quit smoking for good  5 years ago, and walk my dog outdoors most days. I find that it is slowly getting harder to breathe with certain activities. Greta from Clermont, FL Dear Greta, Yoga is a form of physical movement and posture that includes meditation and spirituality that originated in India. Texts of yoga date back to the 3rd century BC, but yoga only gained prominence in the West in the 20th century. Yoga means “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach.”
Yogi seated in a garden.

Yogi seated in a garden.

In addition, yoga is a technique for controlling the body and mind with breathing as an integral part.  A popular form is called Hatha yoga which focuses on physical and mental strength building exercises, breathing, and meditation. Apart from the spiritual goals, the physical postures of yoga are used to alleviate health problems, reduce stress and make the spine supple. Yoga is also used as a complete exercise program and physical therapy routine Pranayama is a traditional Yoga practice of slowing and extending the breath particularly during meditation.  Yoga emphasizes that when you breathe in, you bring in energy (you are literally inhaling oxygen) to your body; and when you breathe out, you allow stress to leave your body (you are literally exhaling carbon dioxide).  
Statue of Shiva perfoming meditation in Padmasana posture.

Statue of Shiva perfoming meditation in Padmasana posture.

Pay attention to your breathing right now.  You will note that you breathe fast if you are upset or angry and breathe slow if you are calm and relaxed.  This signifies that breathing is linked not only to the physical demands of the body, but also to the mind.  Stress and anxiety are major emotions that influence breathing.  The practice of yoga encourages paying attention to breathing so that you can bring your mind to a pleasant and peaceful state. In reviewing recently published medical articles on yoga, I found a review titled, “Yoga in the management of chronic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” This was published in the July 2015 issue of the journal Medical Care. The authors found 10 studies (total of 431 individuals with average age 56 years) which used yoga in those with heart disease, stroke, and COPD. Overall, those who performed yoga increased their exercise capacity as well as their quality of life. Anxiety was reduced in those with stroke, but not in individuals with COPD. The authors concluded that yoga programs may useful in addition to standard rehabilitation programs.
Yoga pose

Yoga pose

I encourage you to give yoga a try. Yoga has been used for centuries and provides another opportunity to improve overall health and reduce stress. Let me know how it goes if you give yoga a try. Donald A. Mahler, M.D.    

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.