Yoga Therapy and Asthma

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati. Extract from talk: 'Asthma: Its diagnosis and treatment'.


Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati is an Australian physician and yogic researcher who studied for many years under Swami Satyananda Saraswati at the Bihar School of Yoga. In the course of his term at the ashram he was able to cure his asthma completely. A recent visit to the Dept. of Respiratory Medicine at NSW University astounded staff when a histamine challenge failed to activate his airways. In a lecture at the 2nd International Doctor's Symposium, Ganga Darshan, he discussed the diagnosis and positive aspects of asthma treatment from the medical viewpoint. In a further section of his talk he outlined the yogic therapy for asthma, which follows.


Asthma is a disease of the airways characterised by increased responsiveness to various stimuli. The result is widespread narrowing of the airways and the manifestations are paroxysms of breathlessness, cough and wheeze. Relief can come either spontaneously through therapy or by use of medications.

Medical Therapy

The medical therapy of asthma is today very simple and elective. The aerosol sprays introduced over the past ten years have brought about this improvement. They deliver the drug straight into the lungs, having an almost instantaneous effect. The amount of drug used is thereby reduced by about 4,000%. Drugs are now measured in micrograms, millionths of a gram, rather than milligrams, or thousandths of a gram. Two types of sprays are used. Ventolin is an adrenergic stimulant, a bronchodilator that works very quickly in most cases. Where broncho dilators reduce the spasm, steroids reduce the inflammation. Steroids have recently been introduced in sprays also. Another key drug is Intal which reduces the allergic reaction and enables people who wish to exercise to do so without an asthma attack. Theophylline is another asthma drug, although people can get good relief by drinking black coffee, for caffeine itself is very potent.

Yoga therapy and asthma

The therapy for asthma using yoga involves four stages, or main groups of treatment. These are:

  1. Asana
  2. Pranayama
  3. Hatha yoga shatkarmas
  4. Meditation

1. Asana

Asana limber up the body and take away stiffness. A lot of asthmatics have stiffness in their chests. Asana can also be used as a mild form of exercise. However, they have more powerful effects than this. They massage and directly influence the deeper organs. This is something we hope to be researching here in the future. In my research conducted in Australia over three to four years on pawanmuktasana, we found very specific effects. Pawanmuktasana circulates prana, helping to move the prana in the nadis when there are blockages. It also develops an awareness of the physical body; the most important term in the treatment of asthma and yoga is this word awareness. That awareness is the key to everything.

2. Pranayama

Pranayama is not breathing exercises but a method of generating prana. From the point of view of asthma, this is probably the most important aspect, for prana reduces inflammation. The basic underlying problem in asthma is inflammation of the lungs. Treatment is not just a matter of opening the lungs, it is a matter of getting rid of the inflammation. Prana generates vitality, and the more vitality you have, the more you can overcome and resist various stimuli and the more strength and stability you have in your system. Vitality is a common word and everyone knows what energy is; we know when our vitality is low and when we feel good, but to research this in a physiological sense is another thing. As a person I can tell you, but as a scientist, I do not know what vitality is.

This is where Yoga can offer the most help, because it understands prana. It helps us not only to generate prana but to conserve prana and to use it when and where we want to, with awareness and conscious control. Pranayama also develops respiratory muscles, and the more control you have over your muscles, the more control you can have over an attack so you will not panic, you will feel more confidence. Once the asthmatic has a basic grounding in asana and pranayama we can go on to the shatkarmas.

3. The Hatha yoga shatkarmas

The six kriyas of Hatha yoga, the shatkarmas, are a powerful and often underestimated tool. These kriyas cleanse mucus from the body and also have potent effects on deeper levels of the human personality. The shatkarmas remove mucus from the nose in the practice of neti and from the stomach in the practice of kunjal which has a reflex effect on the lungs. There are many explanations for this principle in the oriental systems of healing. The cleansing process balances the doshas, known in ayurveda as the vata, pitta and kapha (wind, bile and phlegm). Automatically you feel relief, you feel lighter, happier and stronger if it is done correctly. In terms of reducing inflammation in the short term, the shatkarmas are the most important practices; pranayama removes inflammation in the long term.

Shatkarmas also improve awareness of the inner cavities. In vastra dhauti you put a cloth into your stomach and churn it around, thereby becoming aware of the space within your body. Generally we do not feel inside ourselves, but when you are putting water or cloth inside the stomach, or somehow putting pressure in your body, then later on you feel more sensitive to the substances you put into the body. When you overeat you feel it more acutely. If you put the wrong food or some poison into your body, you know it immediately as the sensitivity and the awareness of the internal body has improved. At the same time you gain control over the basal part of the brain, the animal brain.

When you are learning to vomit (kunjal), or learning how not to vomit (vastra dhauti); when you are learning to purge from your intestines, then you are descending into a level of the nervous system which is unconscious. At that part of the brain lies not just the control of the heart, the blood pressure and the lungs, but many of the psychic conflicts which are at the root of many illnesses. We start to probe very, very carefully into the deeper, psychic body of our personality. Gradually, as the mucus comes out, so do a lot of these complexes. So, control over the nervous system is at three levels: physical, mental and psychic.

4. Meditation

The first three stages lead to meditation. Meditation affects the mental side of the personality as well as the emotional and psychic sides. Initially we learn to relax the psychic problems. We start with the mental problems, the overactive mind, thinking too much. When we want to go to sleep we are thinking; when we want to concentrate we cannot concentrate. This is the normal state for many people because of the pressure and stress of daily living. So initially, we relax those tensions through meditation and a balance comes. Once the relaxation takes place, we begin to strengthen and stabilise the mind.

Yogic treatment is not complete without Yoga Nidra, a deep relaxation practice which systematically relaxes on the four levels - physical, mental, emotional and psychic. The yogic practices serve to expand our awareness, giving insight into the cause and the effect. As your awareness develops you can gee what is causing the asthma. Then you become your own doctor, your own healer.

Ongoing Therapy

It is important to be aware of the dangers inherent in stopping drug therapy suddenly.

  1. Stopping drug therapy will lead to deterioration of the asthmatic state and prevent patients from either learning yoga or practising regularly and consistently.
  2. A negative and inappropriate attitude to medications leading to hesitancy in using drug therapy when required might lead to death. This especially applies to the excessive use of bronchcdilators and insufficient use of steroid aerosols. In everyday management, modern aerosol medication and education programmes using peak flow meters have reduced the dangers which previously gave drugs a bad reputation. They have also improved the quality of life for many asthmatics.

A patient using yoga for asthma therapy should be encouraged to slowly taper off medications and gradually replace them with yogic techniques, but only under the advice of their physician. It is one thing to learn a technique and another to be able to apply it effectively.