Stress-related asthma: how yogic breathing can help

Woman in green dress doing the lotus position with a waterfall in the background

According to Asthma UK, one in five households has someone living with asthma. And as we mark World Asthma Day, it’s interesting to see that the charity also writes that ‘69% of people with asthma tell us that stress is an asthma trigger for them’.

Woman in green dress doing the lotus position with a waterfall in the backgroundPreviously, the link between stress and asthma has rarely been highlighted, but it’s becoming increasingly common.

The good news is, there’s a simple yogic breathing technique which can really help.

As a yoga teacher I always ask new students if they have any injuries or health conditions, including breathing issues, before we start class.

The most frequent responses in days gone by involved minor aches, pains, injuries or stiffness. Over the last few years though, I’ve been increasingly told about asthma and mild asthma. These newcomers have also mentioned feeling stressed or anxious, or that they find it hard to relax. Many have a demanding lifestyle.

Add to the mix this story I heard recently: an experienced practitioner was feeling the imminence of an asthma attack when extremely stressed about her children. She hadn’t had an attack for over 10 years and couldn’t remember where her inhaler was. In the event, she was able to focus inwards on her breathing to calm herself down and avoid its onset.

So what’s the connection between stress and asthma?

Many of us can relate to that uncomfortable feeling of a slight tightness in the chest, shallow, quicker breathing or breathlessness when we become tense. For an asthmatic, this stress response can be a trigger for more serious symptoms. Negative emotions and female hormones are also named triggers.

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When we become stressed, our body becomes engulfed in stress hormones that prepare us for the ‘fight or flight’ response i.e. to run from danger or to fight it. The symptoms include a quickening heart rate, muscular tension, a hold on digestion and elimination and shallow, fast breathing.

We may also become emotionally charged – angry, upset or overwhelmed. This change in our breathing pattern aggravates asthma. The airways become even more constricted and cannot cope with the increased oxygen they receive.

Both Asthma UK and the NHS refer to complementary practices including yoga, meditation and relaxation techniques as part of a self-care package to help those living with asthma. They are not suggested as an alternative to any necessary medical treatment, but to complement it.

Self care is essential as a preventive measure for sufferers to minimise symptoms, helping them live as fully as possible with the condition.

How yogic breathing can help

This is where a simple yogic breathing technique comes in. For centuries yogis have been using the breath to quiet the mind and calm the senses and emotions.

It’s referred to with different names – belly breathing, abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing (not to be confused with the diaphragmatic breathing practised in Pilates). It re-establishes the healthy breathing pattern we were born with but have forgotten or lost somewhere along the road of life. Fortunately, this type of slow, regular, deep breathing can be re-learned.

This natural, effortless and conscious form of breathing is part of the relaxation response that anchors us in homeostasis or physiological balance.

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Here’s how to practise it:

Lie on the floor or on your bed. Put on some soothing music if you prefer not to be in silence.

Elevate your head slightly with a folded blanket if you wish. With your body in a straight line, bring your legs together, then let them flop out to the sides.

Trevor doing yogic breathingPlace one palm gently on the centre of your chest and the other just below your navel. Breathe naturally, without trying to control or change the way you breathe. Spend some time – say 10 breaths in and out – noticing if you feel a rise on each in breath and a fall on each out breath beneath your palms in the chest area, or in the belly or both. Don’t worry about whether you are doing it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just be curious. This raises our awareness.

Carol Trevor doing yogic breathingNow place both palms on your navel with the fingers pointing downwards. Focus your attention here and notice how the belly rises and falls with each in and out breath. Stay here for up to five minutes – set a timer if you wish – keeping focused on the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of the breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to this focal point, as many times as necessary.

See how you feel afterwards. Calmer?

If you find it hard to connect with the sensation of breathing, try this first thing in the morning when you wake up. Chances are, you will already be breathing like this after a good night’s sleep.

Practise this daily, so you form a new habit. Also, see if you can harness this awareness during the day, especially if you feel stress looming. Focus inwards and direct your breath into the belly.

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As part of regular self care, abdominal breathing gradually re-establishes the healthy breathing pattern and calm necessary to mitigate the stress response. Even if you are fortunate enough to be free of asthma, it is so beneficial for everyday life, clarity and health.

If you have severe asthma or are unsure about your existing breathing pattern, it’s a good idea to speak to a yoga teacher in person.

A physical yoga practice will support this by creating space and releasing tension in the body and mind. Meditation or mindfulness will calm your mind further. Restorative yoga and yoga nidra (yogic sleep) are particularly effective in helping us to access the relaxation response.

Asthma is an unpleasant condition to live with. But practising this breathing technique can help you stay calm and manage the stress triggers more easily.

Find out more…

How to lower your stress levels

Living with… chronic brittle asthma

To relax deeply: a guided yoga nidra (yogic sleep) for beginners:

For self-care and to de-stress: two restorative yoga poses:

Where to find a yoga teacher:

Recommendations on yoga and asthma from a yoga teacher who experienced severe asthma:

World Asthma Day 3 May 2016

About Carol Trevor

I'm a yoga practitioner, teacher and teacher trainer based in Herts, half way between Cambridge and London. I specialise in the restorative, meditative practices of yoga and share tips and yoga nidra (yogic sleep) downloads on my website. I'm also qualified in sports massage. Do connect with me though my website.