by Simon Borg-Olivier & Bianca Machliss
Yoga has a recorded history of at least five thousand years (Feuerstein, 1996). Hatha yoga involves the physical aspect of this ancient Indian science. Hatha yoga uses strengthening and stretching exercises, aerobic conditioning, and relaxation exercises, to help improve posture and breathing.
The word ‘yoga’ means union, joining, or to link together as one whole. Hatha yoga is a physical method which uses the breath to link the various parts of the body and the mind and to allow them to behave as one functional unit.
The scientific validity of yoga and yoga therapy for asthma is quite well established (Singh et al, 1990; Nagendra & Nagarathna, 1986; Nagarathna & Nagendra, 1985: Goyesche etal, 1980, 1982). Studies have shown that yoga therapy is beneficial for bronchial asthma (Jain & Talukdar, 1993) and yoga training results in increased lung function and exercise capacity in young asthmatics (Jain et al, 1991).
Asthmatics tend to develop poor physical posture
Yoga postures and exercises are excellent at helping the spine return to its natural curvature. Many yoga postures stretch and open the chest, which tends to be quite closed, tight or collapsed in asthmatics. Yoga also helps in opening closed and rounded shoulders, (common in asthmatics) which prevent proper use of the lungs. Yoga is also of great assistance in stretching the tight abdominal regions of many asthmatics. When this region is tight the diaphragm is not able to function correctly.
Yoga is strengthening, and can even be done by weak or sick people
Often children with asthma do very little physical activity for fear of provoking an asthma attack. Many asthmatics fall into a vicious cycle of inactivity which makes them progressively weaker and sicker, and makes it more and more difficult for them to participate in any physical activity. Yoga exercises and postures can slowly strengthen the muscles of the arms, legs and trunk. In addition, because yoga exercises are often weight bearing on the arms legs or trunk, they help increase bone mineral density, thus helping to strengthen children’s bones. With increased bone and muscle strength it is easier for asthmatic children to participate in other physical life activities.
Yoga builds fitness & aerobic conditioning
Many people do not realise that yoga can be quite dynamic and improve ones aerobic conditioning and general fitness. Yoga movements and postures such the ‘salute to the sun’ with its fun upward and downward facing dog postures, or a simple sequence of standing postures, can gradually be practiced in such a way as to increase the heart beat and even bring on a profuse sweat. The improvement in general fitness that yoga enables in a controlled, safe, and non-competitive environment helps condition and prepare children for everyday life activities.
Learning to breathe
Yoga is essentially the art of learning how to regulate and be comfortable with ones breath in all situations. Initially yoga simply makes the student aware of how they breathe normally in simple postures such as lying, sitting or standing. Students are then shown how to regulate and be relaxed with their breathing in passive postures such as lying on the floor or lying backward over a bolster so their chest and abdomen are passively stretched leaning forward over a chair so that their back spine is stretched and their diaphragm is rested. Gradually they are shown how to regulate the breath while remaining relaxed in more strenuous positions. Initially yoga breathing is taught as relaxed natural breathing. As students mature, and learn to remain relaxed they are gradually shown how to breathe more slowly. A slower breath allows less resistance in the airways. As students get used to breathing more slowly and in a more relaxed fashion during their yoga practice it makes it easier to deal with an asthma attack when only slow breathing is possible to get the air in’.
Learning to relax
One aspect of yoga centres around the concept of learning to do more while exerting ones self less. By teaching how to remain as relaxed as possible while performing both passive and active postures, it helps children learn to remain relaxed in their everyday life activities. In particular yoga helps strengthen, stretch and relax the accessory muscles of breathing, such as the muscles of the shoulders, chest, and abdomen. This naturally makes it easier for children to breathe in and also to breathe out. With regular yoga practice children also find it easier to remain relaxed during an acute asthma attack, and not panic, which usually makes breathing more difficult.
Yoga helps to regulate the bowels
Traditional Chinese Medicine suggests that there is a correlation between asthma and constipation. Often our bowel movements become disordered when we have a lung problem. By regulating the bowels we are in a sense also regulating lung function. Yoga postures and exercises can help to regulate bowel movements
Yoga increases a child’s self esteem
Studies have shown that exercise generally improves a child’s self esteem, confidence, psychological and physical well being. Yoga exercise is similar to a very gentle form of gymnastics, which is known to be an exercise well tolerated by asthmatics and which builds self confidence.
Yoga for kids is fun
Finally yoga for children can be made fun. Many of the postures and exercises resemble animal movements which children usually enjoy mimicking. Children who are not used to exercising can soon be doing a non-competitive physical activity with achievable postures and movements which does not compromise their breathing. If your child is interested in trying out yoga it is wise to take him/her to a qualified yoga teacher to learn the postures in a supported and safe environment.
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