How Yoga Helped One Yogi Overcome Asthma and How it Can Work for You Too

Gratitude to Doron Hanoch, author of The Yoga Lifestyle for sharing his story and tips for how to practice pranayama for asthma.

The Yoga Lifestyle cover

by Doron Hanoch

It was nighttime. A two-year-old baby could not breathe. He was wheezing and also had a fever. Mom took him to the hospital where he stayed for two months, going through a variety of practices to try and release his air passages.

I was this baby. I remember ice cold baths (probably trying to reduce the inflammation) and a nice robot toy my uncle gave me as a gift. Eventually I returned home to begin years of struggling with breathing. As a kid, I was not strong enough to use inhalers, so other modifications were provided. I slept in front of steaming vapors flying toward me from a round, green plastic container filled with water, and I ate aloe vera candies. Later in life I was told that humidity was bad for me, and I need the driest places on earth. These contradictory recommendations followed me throughout my life.

When I was five, the doctors said, “Don’t worry, this disappears for most kids by age seven.” I had my hopes high. The same happened later. “By age thirteen most children grow past this.” Then, “by age eighteen it will surely go away.”

It never did.

I spent most springs and falls in the hospital at least two nights a week. At night, my mom would walk into my bedroom to see me sitting in bed, breathing heavily. I could not lie down, as it was much harder for me to breathe when horizontal. When the inhaler did not help, it was time for the emergency room.

“Hello Mrs. Hanoch,” they would say. We were there so frequently they knew my mom by name.

In the summers, I would participate in experiments—riding a stationary bike while breathing cold air or sitting in a very cool room or trying other conditions to see how my asthma would react.

Many school trips were problematic, as crossing a field of wheat or other trees would trigger allergic reactions. Cats, dust, and an entire variety of items were on my allergic list. Actually pretty much everything was there. It was just a matter of how strong of an allergic reaction I had. It seemed hopeless.

In my twenties, I finally saw hospitals less, and things were slightly better, until one day about a month after September 11, 2001. We were having a little party at my photography studio in New York City. We danced and had a good time. Then, I felt a restriction in my chest. I went to my room to get an inhaler, but something felt wrong, and I knew the inhaler would not be enough.

I told my roommate to take me to the hospital. He knew I am not the type to go to the hospital if it is not a real emergency. We walked into the elevator. I saw a neighbor from upstairs, then collapsed and fell down. I was told they dragged me out to the sidewalk and did CPR on me. They saved my life. Another friend passed by and called an ambulance. Some electric shocks and my heart was beating again, but no breath. I was on a breathing machine for a few days.

My mom arrived from Israel after been told that her son was a vegetable and would not wake up again. My brother hopped on a flight from San Francisco. The doctor said if I did wake up, I would not be normal again, as my brain had gone too long with no oxygen.

Well, I did wake up after a few days, and once the breathing tubes were out, I was ready to go home. The doctor looked at me as if I had returned from the dead.

I went to see the most famous lung specialist in New York. Here it was again: medication, allergy tests, and removing all possible allergy-causing fabrics and other items from home.

I had been through this too often. It did not work.

It was time to make some bigger changes—a change from the inside. I was already practicing Asthanga yoga, pranayama and meditation, but now I decided to focus more on these tools to really get better.

It has been 15 years since I last visited a hospital.

What practices helped?

Ashtanga yoga emphasizes breath with movement. I practiced Mysore style so I could go at my own pace. I practiced breathing deeply and slowly with lots of focus on the breath. I learned that I needed to relax as I was breathing, especially as I was reaching the end of my exhalations. I learned to exhale more fully, and not rush the inhalation. There is enough air for everyone!

As I practiced sun salutations, I moved slower, allowing enough time to complete the breath with every movement. My breathing was growing deeper. What also helped a lot was learning to relax my mind. Allowing the mind to simply be with no worry or anxiety helped improve my breathing.

Later I added pranayama practices. It was not easy, but with practice it got better. Practicing kumbhakas (breath retention) was the hardest, especially during exhales, when I often felt that I had to take air again. But the calmer I remained, the easier it got.

I was practicing retention of breath mostly during the inhalations, as it was easier and what my teacher recommended. Pranayama, I thought, must be the best thing for me. It took some time to research and realize that the longer exhalations were very good. Together with calming the mind, longer exhalations activate the parasympathetic system—the relaxation response of the body—so my lungs and breath did not go into fight or flight mode, which can cause or exacerbate asthma symptoms.

However, I learned that when doing the inhale retentions or fast breathing techniques such as kapalabhati and bhastrika, I was creating heat, adding to the inflammation, and shortening the breath instead of deepening and calming it.

My new mantra became, “Don’t try too hard.” Practice is important, but surrendering, allowing the breath to deepen without forcing it, helped.

Practices that can help everyone, whether you suffer from asthma or not

Asthma can be triggered for different reasons, and different things will help different people, but some basic practices will help everyone, even those of us without asthma.

The practices and recommendations below are not a substitute for conventional medicine or a doctor, but they may help reduce the need for allopathic treatment. Please use wisdom and caution, and mostly, be patient.

Relaxing the Breath: One-to-Two breathing

Scientists as well as yogis have studied this breathing technique of one-to-two breathing. They found that when the exhalations are longer than the inhalations, the parasympathetic system is activated, which activates the immune system and calms the nervous system. Taking longer exhales also helps muscles relax, making it effective in stress management as well as in reducing asthma symptoms.

Method of Practice: This can be done sitting or lying down on your back. If you are on your back, you can place a rolled blanket or bolster under your knees for comfort. Breathe in through both nostrils at the same time for a count of four and then out for a count of eight. Note that any length of breath is fine as long as you keep the one-to-two ratio. Sometimes it is hard to elongate the exhalation; if this is the case, start with shorter inhalations. Over time, you will find you can lengthen both inhalations and exhalations while maintain the one-to-two ratio. (Exhales that are twice as long as inhales.)

Calming Meditation

Any time we can focus our awareness on a calming object of meditation, it helps us reduce stress, and allows the airway passages to relax and open. The one-to-two breathing technique will help with this. In addition, learning to keep the mind steady or softly focused on an object of meditation helps us gain better control of our mind. It is helpful to practice meditation in a calm environment so if you are later in a less desired situation, you can tap into that ease and calmness and return to a balanced state.

Method of Practice: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. I recommend sitting, as there is a tendency to fall asleep when lying down. Choose an object of meditation. Classic Zen practice is to focus on your breath. This is helpful as it teaches us to slow the breath. Maybe even begin to notice the short pauses that occur at the end of the exhalations. Simply by having our awareness on the breath and allowing ourselves to just be, we become calm. If the mind is racing, notice it, and return to the breath. Over time, you will manage to stay with the breath for longer periods.

You may prefer looking at a candle or a flower. You may even listen to a mantra or some relaxing music. However be sure you are not getting distracted by your object of meditation. It should be neutral enough that you can stay focused on it.

These are just a few examples of techniques that work great for most people. Other breathing techniques, such as viloma, sitali or nadi shodhana may help, as well as other meditation practices.  I expand on these techniques and many other beneficial lifestyle practices in my book.

Reducing Inflammation

Another lifestyle tip for better breathing is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. For example, add turmeric to dishes whenever possible and eat daikon and radishes. Reduce or eliminate dairy, sugar, and gluten as these foods promote inflammation.

Asthma tends to be defined by its symptoms, and most medicine is designed to alleviate the symptoms. However when we look at the entire mind, body, and spirit and learn to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle, many symptoms will disappear or at least be reduced. A yoga lifestyle is ideal for doing just that. Just make sure to take yoga as a holistic practice; remain soft and have patience. You may need to keep using allopathic medicine, but hopefully, like me, you will find you can use it less. As I mentioned, I have not been in the hospital since 2001. After being in the hospital numerous times yearly, 15 years and counting is a big improvement!

Doron Hanoch is a master yoga teacher and yoga lifestyle coach, a trained chef and certified nutritionist, and a longtime student of Zen. He is author of The Yoga Lifestyle: Using the Flexitarian Method to Ease Stress, Find Balance and Create a Healthy Life. Doron is currently building a yoga and Zen center in Guatemala.




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