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Q&A: What Are the Best Breathing Techniques for Asthma?

Breathing specialist and yoga therapist Leslie Kaminoff offers advice for asthmatic kids.

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mom and baby

Q: Can you recommend any specific breathing techniques for asthmatic kids?

—Kashmira Patel

Leslie Kaminoff’s reply:

When the airways are constricted, what’s needed is relaxed, shallow breathing. This seems to go against common sense—most people’s instinct would be to tell an asthmatic experiencing an attack to “breathe deep.” But this is the worst advice, because it just makes them more tense; after all, if they could breathe deeply, they wouldn’t be having an attack in the first place! Without training it’s very difficult to relax when having an attack because relaxed, shallow breathing is so counterintuitive when you feel like every cell in your body is starving for oxygen.

What does this training consist of? Slowly and systematically lengthening the exhalation and the periods of external retention. As my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar is fond of saying: “If you take care of the exhale, the inhale takes care of itself.” Non-forcefully holding an external retention puts your body in a similar situation to that of an asthma attack, because in both cases your body is deprived of oxygen. Remaining calm in this state is the key to being able to relax during an acute asthma attack. Gentle, non-forced external retention has shown to improve asthmatic symptoms so dramatically that an entire asthma-treatment system called the Buteyko method is based on it.

Kids can learn how to do this, but training is more easily accepted if it’s fun and engaging. I recommend singing, rhyming, and chanting, because the breathing pattern is similar to what’s needed during an asthma attack: Long, slow supported exhalations followed by relaxed, efficient inhalations. Practicing silence in between verses produces the necessary pause after the exhalations.

Make up games and create songs that incorporate increasingly longer phrases. Asthmatic kids, and kids in general, will benefit enormously from this, because such games will teach them how to relax in the face of discomfort—something most of us only learned in our first yoga classes as adults.

Leslie Kaminoff is a New York City breathing specialist and yoga therapist inspired by the teachings of T.K.V. Desikachar. He is the founder of the Breathing Project (, a nonprofit educational corporation. His 27 years of teaching experience are reflected in his forthcoming book, Yoga Anatomy.