Removing Old Obstructions

There are certain conditions which are a headache for both the doctor and the patient. They are usually the long term conditions with a downhill course, the chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer, asthma and other lung complaints. The treatment of these conditions has been unrewarding in the past because no effective means has been known to reverse the degeneration once the process has been started. This especially applies to a not so well-known group of conditions which comes under the category of chronic obstructive airways disease, COAD. This group includes such conditions as chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the tubes of the lungs), emphysema (excessive dilation of the airsacs), etc.

Inspired by the work of Udupa and Singh (1972)*1, Tandon has documented the use of yoga in helping people crippled by COAD to live better and more healthful lives.*2 Udupa and Singh have suggested that yoga has beneficial effects on respiratory function in normal persons as after training in hatha yoga they found:

  1. Increased vital capacity, the amount of air normally inhaled and exhaled.
  2. Decreased rate of respiration.
  3. Increased tolerance to physical stress.

Tandon's work was with 22 elderly patients with severe GOAD. They were not in an acute stage of their illness; they were enjoying reasonable health at the time of the experiment. They were then randomly allocated to either yoga or physiotherapy and were told not to change their prescribed medication or their smoking habits.

All were measured before starting treatment for :

  1. The efficiency of their lungs, by means of blood samples to measure arterial oxygen and carbon dioxide. If the oxygen levels are low it means that the lungs are not providing enough oxygen, and so on.
  2. The function of the lungs, by means of measuring the amount of air expired in one minute (FEV I) and the amount of air taken into and out of the lungs (VC- vital capacity).
  3. The maximum amount of exercise they can tolerate, by means of an exercise test on a bicycle.

They were then taught either:

  1. Physiotherapy, which included relaxation exercises for the respiratory muscles and general exercises for the legs and trunk to increase stamina.
  2. Yogic breathing exercises, aimed at encouraging full use of the entire abdominal and thoracic muscles, plus 10 yogic postures designed to produce improvement of respiratory function.

Both groups were trained for 1 hour, 3 times in the first 4 weeks, twice in the next 4 weeks, and once a month thereafter for a total of 9 months. All were encouraged to practice at home and were subjected to monthly testing of their lung function and subjective improvement.

As a result of this experiment it was shown that after the 9 months there was no difference in the arterial blood gas levels or in the lung function. There was, however, a significant change in the ability of the yoga group to handle exercise better, whereas no change occurred in the physiotherapy group. The yoga-trained subjects reported to have:

  1. Improved exercise tolerance.
  2. Quicker recovery after exertion.
  3. Control over an acute attack of shortness of breath without the need to seek medical help.
  4. Definite improvement in their overall chest condition. The breathing pattern of the yoga group was changed to a more efficient one. It was deeper and slower as compared with their original condition before the experiment and as compared with the shallow, fast breathing of the physiotherapy group which showed no change in breathing pattern.

Discussion

The importance of these findings is obvious. When we remember that the experiment was performed on a group of elderly and severely affected COAD patients, they become even more impressive and offer greater hope to those less affected but with similar conditions. The effects of the asanas and pranayama on these individuals lives can be expected to be enormous, for the ability to remain independent of medical aid and drugs during an acute attack and to exert oneself more during times of relative good health offer a degree of freedom that many with shortness of breath will envy. For one cannot really understand what a person is going through when the life giving breath is withheld or impeded in its course.

The results of this experiment should encourage others to experiment further, especially with younger and less severely affected individuals. When yoga is accepted into the medical profession as a valuable adjunct, we may see the dawning of an age in which both the doctor and the patient find themselves with an optimistic approach to what was once thought to be irreversible disease.

References

*1. K.N. Udupa & R.H. Singh, "Scientific Basis of Yoga", Am. Med. Assoc, 220, 1365.
*2. M.K. Tandon, Adjunct Treatment with Yoga in Chronic Severe Airways Obstruction", Thorax, 33, 514-517, 1978.