Written by Panorama resident, Charles Kasler. February 2018
If there’s one thing people love about yoga, it’s the breathing! Along with all of our movement, classes are an hour-long breathing practice. It feels great! We all have dysfunctional breathing from habit, bad posture, stress, osteoporosis. Yoga helps normalize our breathing. It’s both calming and energizing, bringing us into balance.
Yoga breathing is at once a physical-health practice, a mental-health practice, and a meditation. It is not just breath training – it’s mind training using breath as a vehicle. It enhances our entire life. We tend to breathe quickly most of the time – 14 to 20 breaths per minute, which is about three times faster than the 5 or 6 breaths per minute proven to help us feel our best. Yoga slows and deepens breathing. There is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system.
Studies on meditation have demonstrated there is overall improvement in respiratory function from just meditation alone: “Vital capacity, tidal volume and breath holding were significantly higher in meditators than non-meditators.” Of course we have a weekly sitting meditation group as part of the overall yoga program at Panorama.
Aging and the Respiratory System
The respiratory system undergoes various anatomical, physiological and immunological changes as we age. The structural changes include chest wall and thoracic spine deformities (Dowager’s Hump, or kyphosis, and also scoliosis), which can impair the total respiratory system compliance, leading to increased work in breathing. The internal lung tissue loses its supporting structure, which can lead to the air spaces dilating and getting bigger than normal, resulting in “senile emphysema.” This reduces the ability of oxygen to get into the bloodstream (though not the ability of carbon dioxide to exit the blood stream and return to the lungs). Respiratory muscle strength decreases with age and can impair effective coughing, which is important for airway clearance of mucus and phlegm, and can increase the risk from respiratory infections.
Interestingly, the lung matures by age 20–25 years, and thereafter aging is associated with progressive decline in lung function, although gradual. So younger adults need to be mindful of this, as well as older adults. The airway’s nerve receptors undergo functional changes with age and are less likely to respond to drugs used in younger adults to treat the same disorders. Older adults have decreased sensation of shortness of breath and decreased breathing response to low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels, making them more vulnerable to lung failure during high-demand situations, such as heart failure or pneumonia, that may lead to prolonged illness and even death. – Baxter Bell, M.D.
Yoga has many potential beneficial effects on our respiratory system. Structurally, regular practice can address changes to the chest wall bones and the thoracic spine to improve the boney alignment of these structures via postural improvement and increased movement. Specific postures can be used to target problem areas. Yoga can also address the issue of weak muscles around the lungs and strengthen the muscles around the chest wall. You can actively challenge the diaphragm via extending the length of the inhalations and exhalations.
Regular yoga practice can also reveal unusual or unhealthy breathing patterns, such as excessive tension of the abdominal muscles during breathing. You can then work with your teacher to re-establish a healthier pattern of respiration.
Recent studies have shown some yoga tools are effective in improving lung function in those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
And because yogic breathing exercises help to regulate the autonomic nervous system’s responses to stress, such as being able to dampen the sympathetic response (Fight or Flight), practicing yoga to improve respiratory function will have the added benefit of lowering overall stress, improving your sense of well-being, and even having positive effects on mental-emotional conditions, such as depression, anxiety and concentration, all of which can be present in those with breathing challenges. – Baxter Bell, M.D.
Improve your quality of life. Take advantage of the many therapeutic yoga classes and events at Panorama. Residents enjoyed the Winter Solstice gathering and the annual New Year’s Eve meditation. March events: Spring Meditation Retreat and Spring Equinox student gathering.