Incorporate Yoga Into Your Daily Routine for Some COPD Benefits
Last updated: January 2019
Staying active when you have COPD is important. It will help your body stay stronger and improve your overall quality of life in so many ways. But when you find it difficult to breathe just walking to the bathroom, it can be challenging to even consider an exercise program of any kind.
So, in this post, I wanted to discuss one of the gentlest, most adaptable ways that someone with COPD can get more active and perhaps even improve their ability to breathe: through the practice of yoga. In fact, yoga has the potential to significantly improve both physical and mental health.
What Is Yoga?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes yoga as a mind-body practice with its roots in ancient Indian philosophies.1 Although some practitioners of yoga consider it to be a spiritual practice, many people simply use it as a great form of exercise. You can decide how you want to use yoga.
Typically, yoga includes:
- Specific physical poses, called asanas that stretch or strengthen different parts of the body
- Focused breathing techniques, called pranayama
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Elements of self care and self love
There are different types of yoga. Hatha yoga, which primarily emphasizes asanas and pranayama, is the most common type practiced in the U.S. Yoga poses can be performed while sitting, standing or lying on the ground, and are mostly stationary.
General Benefits of Yoga
Yoga has many mental and physical benefits. Here are some of the physical benefits anyone might expect from a regular yoga practice:2
- Lower blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Improved muscle tone, range of motion, strength and flexibility
- Better balance
- Weight loss, if needed
- Stronger heart and better circulation
The mental/emotional benefits include:
- Less anxiety and depression
- Better ability to manage stress
- Mental clarity and calmness
- Improved self esteem
How Yoga Can Benefit People With COPD
It's easy to see how the benefits above would be great for anyone with COPD. But there are some additional benefits that can be especially helpful for people who have COPD. A number of small studies have examined what type of health improvements people with COPD who take a series of yoga classes might have. One study found that patients had real improvements in both quality of life and in lung function.3 Another looked specifically at what pranayama might do for people with COPD.4 They found that yoga:
- Improved the subjective experience of health
- Lessened disease severity
- Increased functional status
In that study, although participants felt better, their lung function tests showed no real improvement. However yoga breathing has been shown to better aerate the whole lung. Shallow breathing, in contrast, tends to only aerate the bases of your lungs.4
Finally, another study found that regular yoga exercises were just as effective as pulmonary rehabilitation.5 That study also found that people with COPD were more open to doing yoga than they were in participating in the rehab program. They also pointed out that yoga is quite cost-effective, requiring minimal equipment.
All of the researchers for these studies emphasized that more study is needed to better understand what yoga might do for people with COPD. However, I think it's clear that this is a gentle form of exercise that is fairly easy for someone with COPD to perform. With the benefits that help build physical strength are added to the breathing that can help control your breathlessness, it's a winning combination. Add to those benefits the improvements in mental health and well-being, plus the opportunity for social interaction and support if you attend a class.
Which Yoga Poses Are Best for COPD?
In general, people with COPD should probably avoid any poses that might restrict breathing, such as child pose or plow. Other than that, it will depend on your level of health and physical function. On the other hand, spinal extensions and twists, forward and side bends can be beneficial poses to practice.6
Working with a skilled yoga teacher can help you decide which poses are right for you at any given time. A skilled teacher can also teach you how to modify poses that are too difficult for you so that you still get the benefit.
Yoga Breathing for COPD
Using yoga breathing can help bring more oxygen into your body, boost your energy and calm your mind. There are various techniques. Here are two commonly used in both yoga and in pulmonary rehab.6
- Pursed lip breathing. With this breathing technique, you breathe in through your nose, and then breathe out through pursed lips, as though blowing out a candle. The out breath should be twice as long as the in breath.
- Abdominal, belly or diaphragmatic breathing. With this technique, you breathe in, letting your abdomen expand. Then, as you breathe in, you tense your stomach muscles to help push the air out while your stomach pushes in. Some yoga teachers have you hold your breath for a few seconds after you inhale.
With any yoga breathing technique, the idea is to be aware of your breath and to control it.
Tips and Precautions for Your Yoga Success
Before adding yoga to your routine, check with your doctor to be sure it is safe for you. It's unlikely the doctor will restrict you from yoga. But it's best to be safe. Here are a few other tips that can help make your yoga experience a positive one.
- Choose a teacher carefully. Although you can learn yoga from videos online or from DVDs, those digital teachers won't be able to help you learn how to modify the yoga practice to fit you and your needs. Learning the basics, at least, from a live teacher can ensure your success.
- Choose the right type of class for you. The teacher is important, but so is the class. Find one that resonates with you. There are beginner classes, chair yoga classes, and even yoga classes aimed at people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Do your research to find the right one for you.
- Come prepared. If you have a rescue inhaler, bring it and keep it close to your mat or your chair during the class. If you use supplemental oxygen, you can even do yoga while being attached to your oxygen.
- Listen to your body. This is something you learn in any yoga class, and it certainly is important if you have COPD. Never push yourself to the point of injury, pain or severe breathlessness. It's OK to stop until you feel better.
- Start small. Yoga may be gentle, but some of the poses are challenging. No one can do everything perfectly from the get go. Allow yourself to grow and get better at yoga over time. Be kind to yourself and celebrate your small successes.
- Be consistent. As with any exercise, the benefits disappear when you stop doing yoga. Try to be consistent with yoga 2 to 3 times a week to enjoy the greatest benefits.
And have fun!
Do you know the difference between a COPD exacerbation and lung function decline?
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