Pick up a flower, hold it to your nose, and take a deep breath. What just happened? Through a simple
inhalation we receive and perceive the essence of the flower. What does this have to do with yogic
breathing, or Pranayama? Everything. In that moment our breath comes alive. Likewise, in our yoga
practice each asana is like a flower in which the breath nourishes and informs us of its nature.
Much attention is given to the quality of our breath during practice because of the enormous role it
plays. The breath is not only essential in the cultivation of prana (the ability of our body to
extract and acquire energy from the air), but it also grounds our nervous system and supports our
balance and focus. Any imbalance in the breathing mechanism reduces our ability to gain prana from the
breath and thus weakens our yoga practice.
The most common conditions that effect yogic breathing are weakness of the lungs due to overwork, lack
of rest, and poor cardiovascular tone; constrictive disorders that tighten the smooth muscles of the
airways, like stress or asthma; and some obstructive disorders due to excessive mucus caused by
mucus-producing foods, bronchial asthma, or acute bronchitis. Yet all of these can be remedied with
the use of herbal therapies.
Weakness of the lungs and the breathing mechanisms can occur when the body becomes tired, overworked,
and underrested. The strength of the lungs is directly linked to the strength of the adrenal glands.
(The adrenals produce the hormone epinephrine, which has the effect of dilating the airways and
increasing cardiac output.) A dry cough triggered by light exercise is one telltale sign of weakness
in the lungs and adrenals.
American ginseng, a North American relative of Asian ginseng, is well known as a restorative tonic to
the lungs and adrenals, strengthening weakness of the lungs due to chronic colds, cough, and general
exhaustion. Its cooling and moistening properties are ideal for dry coughs, hot and dry climates,
and those with overheating dispositions. Schizandra is another adaptogenic tonic herb, which when
used over long periods of time, strengthens both the lungs and the adrenals for deeper breathing.
Some antispasmodic herbs are used to release tension from the smooth muscles of the airways. Bala is a
popular Ayurvedic herb in this class and generally recognized as a tonic and rasayana (restorative)
to the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. It's also a gentle bronchodilator used for
bronchospasm and cough. Crampbark is another mild sedative and antispasmodic herb for breathing
difficulty due to stress or asthma, which works by gently relaxing the smooth muscles of the airways.
Excessive mucus production generally indicates a problem with either chronic infection, habitual
consumption of mucus-producing foods, or chronic allergies. Tulsi, or holy basil, one of the most
sacred plants in India, is rich in essential oils and used to cleanse the lungs and treat bronchitis.
As an adaptogenic herb with antioxidant, antibiotic, and antifungal properties, it also strengthens
the body's ability to cope with stress. Two Chinese herbs used to cleanse the lungs of excessive
mucus are Platycodon and aged citrus peel. Citrus peel is also used to harmonize and warm the
digestion, from which phlegm is said to originate.
Though we can use herbs to improve yogic breathing in both yoga asana and pranayama practices, for
moderate to severe breathing problems like asthma, seek professional help from a qualified Ayurvedic
practitioner or other medical professional. Also, if you're currently using steroidal or other
inhalants, do not suddenly stop. They should be gradually phased out with professional guidance.
James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H., Herbalist AHG, practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture,
herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga in Santa Monica, California.