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Yoga for Respiratory Disorders

By on January 13, 2016

Yoga for Respiratory Disorders

The respiratory system consists of the nose, pharynx, epiglottis, trachea, bronchi and lungs; also the ribcage that protects the lungs, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles which pump air in and out of the chest, and the nervous connections to the brain which activate and control these muscles.

For descriptive purposes, the respiratory system is divided into the upper and lower respiratory tracts. The arbitrary dividing line between the upper and lower tracts is considered to be in the larynx or upper windpipe, at the level of the Adam’s apple (thyroid cartilage) at the front of the neck.

The Respiratory System

The Respiratory System

However, this division should not be allowed to obscure the intimate relationship between disease of the upper respiratory tract and diseases of the bronchi and lungs in the chest. For example, an upper respiratory infection such as common cold or sinusitis may, under certain conditions, give rise to bronchitis, or even pneumonia in the lungs themselves.

The upper respiratory tract

The upper respiratory tract includes the nose, the nasal passages and sinuses (nasopharynx), and the voice-box (larynx). The nasal sinuses are hollow cavities which communicate with the nasal passages through narrow openings. The openings are frequently blocked in nasal infection such as colds and sinusitis. Adequate drainage of infected sinuses if often prevented by inflammatory swelling of their mucous membranes, so healing if often slow and incomplete.

As air is inhaled, it passes through the nostrils, the larynx and into the trachea (windpipe). The air we breathe must be changed before it enters the lungs because it is generally too dry and often too cold. Such air would quickly dry out the lung tissue. Furthermore, in the surrounding air there are many pollutants such as smoke and dust, as well as millions of germs. Many of these impurities must be removed before the air  enters the lungs, otherwise we would be easily susceptible to lung infection or the lungs would become hopelessly blocked with dust and dirt.

The Upper Respiratory Tract

The Upper Respiratory Tract

To counter these dangers, the body is provided with an air purifying and conditioning system. This begins in the nose, where hairs at the entrance to the nostrils screen out large particles of dust and debris. Deeper passages of the nose moisten and warm the descending air. Special bone structures are lying with a thick, spongy mucous membrane through which circulates a rich supply of blood. As air passes over these tissues it is warmed, like air passing over a radiator. On cold days the blood vessels dilate to produce more heat and on warm days they shrink.

Disorders of the upper respiratory tract include the common cold (acute coryza), sinusitis, hay fever, tonsillitis and swollen adenoids.

The mucous secreting mechanisms

Although the inhaled air has been filtered, it still contains a potentially lethal burden of fine dust particles. To help remove them, the airways are lined with glands which secrete a sticky film of mucus that traps the dust particles. This dust filled mucus would clog the air passages if it wasn’t for their remarkable self cleaning system. Microscopic hairs, called cilia, propel the mucus and debris upward by their sweeping motion towards the throat or larynx, where it is either swallowed, being harmless in the digestive tract, or coughed into the mouth to be spat out.

The cough reflex

At times we tax the capacity of our cleansing mechanisms, for example when the inhaled air contains irritating substances such as automobiles or industrial fumes or when we smoke too much. In a futile effort to trap countless millions smoke particles, the throat secretes excess mucus. The mucus itself become an irritant and must be coughed up. In a cough, air is trapped in the lungs by the glottis, the valve at the upper end of the trachea, which carries air to the lungs. When the valve opens suddenly, air rushes out with explosive force. Thus the cough, which we may consider a nuisance, is actually essential to life. It is an emergency cleaning measure which rids the body of toxic products.

The larynx prevents large inhaled particles from reaching the lower respiratory tract by means of the cough reflex, in addition to being the organ of voice production. It is a frequent site of infection and inflammation (laryngitis), resulting in symptoms of dry cough, hoarseness and sore throat.

The lower respiratory tract

The lower respiratory tract consists of the trachea, the bronchi and the lungs. The trachea of windpipe begins at the voice box and ends by dividing into two tubes, the right and left bronchi. Each bronchus, measuring about four inches (10 cms) in length, passes to a lung where it divides into successively smaller branches known as bronchioles. This branching network of respiratory passages is known as the ‘bronchial tree’. Its smallest branches communicate with a cluster of minute air sacs called alveoli. The broncho-pulmonary lobules so constituted form the basic structure of the lungs. These innumerable tiny air cells render the lung tissues spongy and elastic.

The Lower Respiratory Tract

The Lower Respiratory Tract

The alveoli look like the cells of a sponge or a honeycomb. Each alveolus has a cobweb-like covering of capillaries, so tiny that red blood cells must pass through them in a single file. Through their gossamer walls the blood gives up waste carbon dioxide and takes on refreshing oxygen. The oxygen is then distributed to all parts of the body via the heart, and the carbon dioxide is simultaneously expelled from the lungs and body during exhalation. Every few minutes the body’s entire supply of blood must pass through the pulmonary capillaries, and in the process its color changes from dark blue to bright red. Day and night this all important work proceeds without interruption, providing the energy which sustains all of the life processes of the body.

Disorders of the lower respiratory tract include such diseases as bronchitis, asthma, croup, whooping cough, pneumonia, emphysema, lung cancer, tuberculosis, pleural effusion, pleurisy and pneumothorax.

The breathing process

Normally we breathe about fifteen times per minute, inhaling about half a liter of air each time. During exercise, when cells are hungry for oxygen, the rate and depth of respiration increases and the lungs take in ten or more times the oxygen supplied during rest. Breathing itself is an intricate process. The lungs hang loosely in the chest, each in a separate compartment with the heart in between. Around the lungs is a partial vacuum. Therefore, when the chest is enlarged by muscular contraction, the vacuum tugs the lungs outward, thus sucking in air. The abdominal wall expands outwards due to the descent of the diaphragm into the abdomen, or the ribs expand upwards and outwards. The process of expiration is simply a recoil mechanism.

Thus inhalation is an active process, while exhalation is normally a passive one. However, in states of bronchial spasm and mucus plugging of the airways, such as occurs in asthma, air has to be actively expelled from the lungs in order to overcome the increased resistance of the airways.

Behind many instances of respiratory disorder are two bad habits. The first is breathing through the mouth rather than nose, and the second is breathing in short, shallow pants without fully expanding the abdomen or chest. These habits of poor respiration give rise to many mental deficiencies and physical disorders. The yogic science of pranayama (control and manipulation of life energy) is a fundamental part of yogic therapy. It commences with full instruction in the art and science of breathing consciously and efficiently. The breath becomes the vehicle for energizing the body and mind and at the same time it is the doorway into the higher spiritual states of expanded awareness.

The yogic alternative

Yogic and medical science understands the respiratory system very differently. For example, yoga recognizes mucus discharge as a beneficial elimination of toxic wastes from the body and effectively promotes the cleansing process by using the hatha yoga shatkarmas in conjunction with heat promotion procedures. Because the symptoms of excessive mucus discharge usually arise in cold weather and at the change of season, the problem is recognized as one of imbalance of body heat.

The yogic approach to rectifying imbalance in the respiratory system is gradual and gentle, with the emphasis on redirecting subtle energies rather than on just gross physical manipulation. Unlike the surgical process of antral washout, in yogic science cleansing of the sinuses is accomplished readily and painlessly by jala neti Kriya. In this practice, warm saline water is introduced into one nostril while the head is tilted, allowing all the sinuses to be cleared and washed out before the steam of water emerges from the other nostril. Cases of long standing sinuses, for example respond rapidly to neti Kriya, which is fundamental to the health of upper respiratory tract. It should be performed twice a day, and more often if necessary to promote mucus elimination, by anyone who suffersfromm bouts of hay fever, allergy, middle ear infections, colds, eosinophilia, wheezy bronchitis or asthma.

The introduction of neti into medical practice will revolutionize current management of ear, nose and throat disorders, and the introduction of yoga into medical practice will open new doorways of approach to treating many respiratory diseases.

One Comment

  1. Luisa

    April 13, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Greetings! Quite helpful guidance on this post! It’s the small changes that make the largest changes.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

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