Eventually, starved for oxygen, the body takes drastic measures to slow breathing so CO2 can build back up to safe levels. These measures produce the classic symptoms of an asthma attack: Smooth muscles tighten around the airways, the body further constricts them by producing mucus and histamine (which causes swelling)—and we're left gasping for breath.
Catch Your Breath
Once I understood that breaking the cycle of overbreathing is essential to overcoming asthma naturally, I could draw on all my years of experience with pranayama. I experimented with breathing techniques to see what would restore my natural breath rhythm. Over time I settled on a handful of exercises that were both simple and effective at slowing my breath rate and reducing the incidence and severity of my asthma.
There are certain precautions to consider as you embark on this program. Please do not stop taking your medications. The program may ultimately reduce your dependence on medication or enable you to do away with it altogether, but this should not be done hastily or without the approval of a doctor. If you have diabetes, kidney disease, or chronic low blood pressure, have had recent abdominal surgery, or are pregnant, you should consult with your physician before doing these exercises. I also strongly suggest that asthmatics avoid additional breathing exercises which call for rapid breathing (kapalabhati/bhastrika), retention of the inhalation (antara kumbhaka), or tightening the throat (strong ujjayi). Asthmatics must realize that many breathing exercises which are quite beneficial for a normal breather may have a paradoxical impact on an asthmatic.
Let me stress that patience and perseverance are required in this program. The disrupted breathing patterns common among asthmatics are deeply ingrained and can take a while to change. The truth is, it can seem easier to take a pill or use an inhaler than to spend 15 minutes a day on exercises that confront these stubborn patterns and bring up the fears and emotions that often surround the disease. I know the frustrations firsthand.
But I also know, from my experience, that if you make these behavioral changes a daily regimen, you'll gain valuable tools for managing your asthma.
Breath Retraining Tips
Here are a number of practical guidelines that will help your efforts be more successful.
At first, practice the exercises in order. You may eventually find you prefer a different sequence, and that's fine. (You may also have other exercises that have helped you in the past. Feel free to include them.) But whatever you do, I recommend you start each session with the Deep Relaxation exercise.
Don't be too ambitious. Resist the urge to do more even if you feel you are ready. Wait a few months before increasing your efforts.
The exercises work best on an empty stomach, but you should sip water to help keep your airways moist.
For optimal results wear warm, loose-fitting clothing and practice in a comfortable place where you have room to lie down on the floor. In this position, less effort is required for your diaphragm to move well. However, if you are experiencing asthma symptoms, lying down may be uncomfortable. In that case, try sitting on the edge of a chair and leaning forward onto a table. Rest your head on folded arms and turn your head to one side. But you don't need such ideal conditions to practice; I encourage you to do exercises whenever and wherever they come to mind. I often practice while I am driving.