Can Yoga Alleviate Nicotine Fits?

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— Deanna, Washington

Baxter Bell's reply:

First, I want to congratulate you on this huge and pivotal shift in your relationship with your body. Because there is a clear connection between yoga and breath awareness, I believe that yoga is an excellent tool for remaining cigarette-free. Other tools that you may consider include support groups such as SmokeEnders, medication, cardiovascular exercise, and acupuncture. It's been shown that the more modalities you employ, creating your own "team," the greater your chance of success.

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There are several aspects of yoga practice that will support your efforts. The coordination of breath and movement that typifies Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), many forms of vinyasa flow (connecting the poses with movement and breath), and the Viniyoga style of practice are all helpful starting points. These types of practice link breath and movement in addition to providing some mild cardiovascular benefit. More specifically, practice chest-opening poses such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) . Open the upper back with the arm variation in Garudasana (Eagle Pose) , Bakasana (Crane Pose) , and Balasana (Child’s Pose) . To open the chest in all directions, finish with side-bending poses such as Parighasana (Gate Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) , and Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose).

Very simple Pranayama or breathwork—initially done lying on your back with your hands resting on the abdomen—will allow closer inspection of the role of the respiratory diaphragm (which separates the chest from the belly) in healthy, relaxed breathing. Especially if you’re working in the Iyengar tradition, I strongly recommend that you work with an experienced instructor, since pranayama can cause powerful changes in the body that extend beyond simply the breath.

Nicotine fits often result in an anxious feeling and are likely to stimulate the sympathetic half of the body’s autonomic nervous system, triggering what's commonly known as the "fight or flight response." With this in mind, you might want to begin your yoga practice with vinyasa and some challenging postures, and end with a more restorative style of practice. The restorative poses have been found to turn off the sympathetic response and turn on the relaxation response in the body. An excellent resource for playing with restorative poses is Judith Lasater's Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times (Rodmell, 1995).

Adding meditation to your routine may also help create some space between the thoughts of craving and the need to act on such thoughts. Ultimately, meditation can increase your will power, which is instrumental to your success. If at first you have trouble, don't give up. The more attempts you make at quitting, the more likely you are to eventually remain cigarette-free. All the best!


Baxter Bell, M.D., teaches public, corporate, and specialty back-care yoga classes in Northern California, and lectures to health care professionals around the country. A graduate of Piedmont Yoga Studio's Advanced Studies Program, he integrates the therapeutic applications of yoga with Western medicine.