How scary is an asthma attack?
Just the thought of it can send you to your pocket to check your inhaler is there, isn’t it? The symptoms of asthma are so horrible, so frightening.
That sensation when you can’t catch your breath, can’t take a deep enough inhalation, can’t breathe out, feel like your chest is being crushed slowly and painfully, the exhaustion that you are left with once it has passed.
I grew up, like many others, with this condition. I have spent so much time in A&E because I had lost my inhaler that I have often wondered how much of my asthma is physical, and how much of it is a stress response to the realisation that I don’t know where my inhaler is. You’d think that someone who was diagnosed with asthma at 7 years old would stay away from any form of smoking, but my finger was well and truly on the self destruct button, and I embraced smoking! The irony of walking out of the door with cigarettes and inhaler in the same pocket was usually ignored.
What is Asthma
Asthma is a long term condition that inflames and sensitises the airways of the lungs, making breathing difficult and painful. As might be expected, it is a condition that can and does kill.
Symptoms of asthma include
- inability to take in breath, or to release an effective out breath
- pain in the chest
- difficulty sleeping due to poor breath
Asthma has many causes and there are many things that can exacerbate it, including stress, allergy, exercise, pollution, childhood illness, tobacco smoke, alcohol. In my case, and I am sure I am not alone, enthusiastic laughter often sees me reaching for my inhaler as well!
Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Asthma is generally managed through medical treatments such as Ventolin and Becotide, although research has suggested that many people don’t use these effectively.
Asthma can be managed through lifestyle. Don’t smoke, don’t drink too much alcohol, reduce exposure to allergens, get plenty of fresh air are all sound advice for anyone, but especially for an asthma sufferer.
Easing asthma through Yoga
I first started attending regular yoga classes following an asthma attack that saw me needing emergency treatment. I was, at the time, a heavy smoker and drinker, but my ‘addict in denial’ brain needed to find another way to try to improve my health that didn’t involve giving up drinking or smoking. I had tried Yoga in the past, and knew I liked it, so thought that learning to breathe would help.
I was completely right in my assumption, but I didn’t learn to breathe. I got very into the postures but struggled to learn to breathe. A dust allergy meant that my nose was blocked a lot of the time and I came to dislike the breathing practices as I struggled so much with them.
Yoga teacher training changed all this, as I was given no choice but to learn the breathing practices, and came to understand just how important good breathing is. Within a very short space of time, I found I was having less asthma attacks, was less likely to panic when I didn’t have my inhaler, was able to breathe through the slight wheeziness that I used to treat with too much Ventolin, and, after years of mouth breathing, became able to breathe through my nose as the symptoms of allergy also reduced.
How does Yoga help ease asthma?
Yoga, and learning good breathing, does many things that reduces the symptoms of asthma
Increased lung capacity
Regularly practicing deep, full lung breathing exercises such as Vibhagha Pranayama helps to increase the capacity of the lungs so that deeper breaths are possible. When you know good breathing techniques, you can use these when you feel symptoms. This might not eradicate the symptoms completely, but you can certainly take control of your breathing and reduce the symptoms and be more comfortable.
There are many practices that strengthen the diaphragm. This is the muscle that influences how effective the breaths we take are. A strong diaphragm will ensure that we are taking good breaths. Practices such as Mukka Bastrika are very effective at strengthening this vital muscle. This practice also helps to release carbon dioxide, which builds up in the lungs when we don’t breathe out effectively and prevents the intake of sufficient oxygen.
Pranayama, Yogic breathing, leads to better breathing and improves the health and functioning of the respiratory system. When we start to increase the capacity and strength of the lungs, and the diaphragm, the quality of the breath increases.
Increased coping strategies to stay calm during asthmatic moments
Once an asthma attack starts, stress and panic run the show. Stress alters the flow of breath in a non asthmatic situation, and this exacerbates the attack as the stress levels rise and the ability to breathe decrease. Through Yoga, you can learn strategies to calm the mind at the moment of stress, and keep the panic at bay.
Greater control of emotions, less likelihood of panic
Connected to the point above, through Yoga we gain awareness of the connection between emotions, thoughts and the body, and learn to control our response to emotions, which again helps to keep the panic at bay and allows the logical brain to retain control. For example, when I can’t find my inhaler now, I take some deep breaths before I start to look for it, so I am not allowing the panic to get a foot in the door, and my logical brain is in charge of the search, which makes the search easier, and reduces the chance of me desperately needing the inhaler before I find it!
Increased state of calm
Asthma is, in a great many cases, stress related. The overall state of greater calm and relaxation that breathing practices creates in the practitioner helps to curb this stress and reduce the risk of stress related asthma.
The last time I needed emergency treatment for asthma was in the first few months of my training, when we had been learning very basic breathing practices. I was still a smoker at the time. I was able to wait a few hours to be able to go to the hospital, then I was able to walk there, albeit very slowly. Both those things would have been impossible before. The doctor who treated me told me that although I was hyperventilating, my oxygen levels were ‘normal’ (ie, at the level they would expect from someone not having an asthma attack), and agreed with me that this was probably down to my learning to breathe properly.
This was almost 3 years ago, I have not needed emergency treatment, and have drastically reduced my inhaler use since (admittedly, this will also be due to giving up smoking, but I was asthmatic long before I started smoking!). I have made other lifestyle changes which have also contributed to the improvement of my condition, most notably giving up alcohol, which is known to exacerbate the condition.
It is important to note that while these effects of learning to breathe correctly are very beneficial for the asthmatic, it is not a cure for asthma, and one must never become complacent about asthma. My own condition is much improved but I would never dream of leaving myself vulnerable to an attack – they can strike with little notice, and escalate quickly. We must never forget that it is a potentially fatal condition. Yoga can reduce the symptoms and greatly improve the quality of an asthmatic’s life, but it will never make the condition go away completely.
Breathe in a New You
If you would like to learn some basic breathing practices to increase lung capacity, strengthen the diaphragm and improve the breath, the 4 week Breath in a New You online course could be perfect for you. Delivered in a series of videos with handouts and relaxation mp3s, the course guides you through learning and practicing Vibhaga Pranayama which I mentioned above, which will train you to breathe into the whole lung, not just a small part of it, as you probably do now.
Find out more about the course here