In the next of our ‘Beginner’s Guide’ series, we turn our focus to the beneficial effects that Yoga has on the lungs.
In this edition, we’ve got some super intriguing stuff about how Yogic breathing can potentially extend your life and even alter your gene expression.
So read on for some rather surprising discoveries about the lungs and Yoga.
There are ten different muscle groups that enable the lungs to breathe.
The main muscle used for breathing is the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle consisting of different muscles. When you breathe, the muscles that make the ribcage go in and out are the intercostal muscles and are attached between each rib.
On the inhale, the diaphragm contracts and goes down. The intercostal muscles contract and force the ribcage to go upwards. The combined action of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles increase the chest cavity which allows the lungs to expand.
When breathing normally, we use around 25% of our lung capacity.
Belly breathing allows you to completely fill your lungs with air. With belly breathing, the total amount of air your lungs can hold is called total lung capacity. With training, you can use more of your lung capacity.
Lung Health and Fitness
Lung health is all about being able to breathe in enough air to supply the muscles with oxygen and nutrients. Full lung capacity is the maximum amount of air that your lungs can hold. Lung health is all about maintaining this ability to breathe fully.
Unfortunately, though, It’s easy to take our lungs for granted. Breathing is automatic and unconscious until we become faced with breathlessness caused by a condition such as smoking addiction, asthma, pneumonia or Covid.
If you’ve ever suffered from shortness of breath, you’ll know how debilitating and frightening it can be. Lung health is essential to the quality of life. The healthier your lungs are, the more you can physically achieve even into old age.
Pollution, airborne viruses, and smoking can all compromise our lung health. And, the lungs naturally start to degrade with old age even without illness.
As we age, lung capacity tends to decline as with other bodily functions. Certain lung problems also make it more difficult to breathe. Thankfully, Yoga breathing exercises such as pranayama can effectively help to maintain lung health.
Yoga and Lung Health
The good news is that Yoga can help those with lung problems such as COPD, long Covid, or even people who wish to improve their athletic performance.
If you suffer from asthma or COPD Yogic breathing exercises called Pranayama can retrain you to breathe easier. Also, many who suffer from long Covid may find relief from controlled breathing exercises.
And clinical research shows that if you’re a runner, adding Pranayama to your training schedule can drastically improve your cardiovascular performance.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is Sanskrit for “extension of the prana/breath” or more literally, “extension of the life force.”
Put simply, Pranayama also refers to a range of breathing exercises. There are many different types of pranayama. For example, Ashtanga Yoga has eight types of Pranayama.
In a previous blog titled Respiration and Pranayama, we explained that Pranayama is the name given to a range of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. The article also explains how diaphragmatic breathing can help to improve breathing.
If you ever decided to pursue Yoga Teacher Training, you’ll learn that Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga. The study of Pranayama or ‘life force’ is vital to fully appreciate the depth of Yoga tradition.
The Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama has attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community and is undeniably beneficial for the lungs.
Retrain Breathing Patterns
Pranayama can help you to learn to control your breathing and use your lungs to their optimum. Restores your breathing to its natural rhythm.
Without breathing exercises many tend to shallow breathe in the top of their lungs. Healthier breathing entails belly breathing using the diaphragm.
Improves Lung Function
A scientific review of studies on Yoga and pulmonary function concluded that Lung function improves with a minimum of 10 weeks of Yoga practice with Pranayama.
The less fit you are, the greater improvement you’ll see if you start practising Pranayama daily. You also see greater results when you practice pranayama for longer periods. The review doesn’t explain why Pranayama makes your lungs stronger and recommends more research to understand.
This is great news for those who suffer from the chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). This is a chronic condition that compromises the quality of life and restricts breathing.
A study of 40 patients with COPD showed that pranayama can improve tolerance of a six-minute walk. Other studies on people with COPD have reported similar findings.
Pranayama Extends The Breath, Which May Extend Your Life
These breathing styles don’t just move oxygen around the body. Regulated diaphragmatic breathing exercises trigger relaxation responses and slow the breath down. Research suggests there is a link between slower breathing and longevity due to stress reduction, although admittedly this area needs more study.
Pranayama and Gene Expression
You may not also be aware that regulated breathing can even change your gene expression (change cellular activity).
In his TED Talk, Sundar Balasubramanian explains how he became a cell biologist after practising Yoga and meditation his whole life. Sundar comes from Tamilnadu in India and always wondered why pranayama was so beneficial to health. He also wondered why after practising Pranayama, he produced more saliva. Sundar’s research discovered that 20 minutes of breathing exercises produce salivary nerve growth factor (NGF). Higher levels of NGF are linked to resilience to stress.
Strengthens the Lung Walls
You may or may not be aware that Yoga poses and Yogic breathing can strengthen the tissues of the lung walls when you breathe in or out with force, this is good news for those with lung problems.
Start Working On Those Lungs
Combining Pranayama exercises with asanas that open and stretch the lungs will provide the most benefits.
Poses such as cat and cow poses are ideal beginner poses if you suffer particularly with shortness of breath. Remember to take the pose slowly and gently so that you may reap the restorative benefits from these poses.
If you feel able, other chest opening poses that are a bit more challenging include upward-facing dog and the Warrior poses. Incorporate these poses regularly into daily practice and you can see some improvement in your breathing in a few weeks.