Breath Retraining in the Management of Asthma
by Barbara Benagh
How We Breathe
Respiration, like other essential bodily functions, is involuntary. Our bodies are programmed from birth to perform these functions automatically, without having to think about them. Respiration is unique, however, since it can be voluntarily modified by the average person. This capability is the basis for breathing techniques that have been part of yoga tradition for thousands of years. For asthmatics, these techniques can be the foundation for a program of breath retraining that can help them manage their disorder.
Breathing is ideally a process of maximum efficiency with minimum effort. Its efficiency depends on the correct functioning of the diaphragm, a strong sheet of muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the abdomen. In simple terms, each breath starts in response to a message from the respiratory center in the brain which causes the diaphragm to activate. It flattens into a disc, making the lower ribs swing out, and thus increasing the volume of the chest cavity. The lungs follow this expansion, creating a partial vacuum that pulls air into the lower lungs, much like a bellows.
When we exhale, the diaphragm simply relaxes. The lungs have a natural recoil that allows them to shrink back to their regular size and expel air. The abdominal and rib muscles can enhance this process, but it is the release of the diaphragm and the recoil of the lungs that are the crucial elements in the exhalation. After a pause, the breath cycle begins again, a pumping rhythm we can all easily feel. When our breathing apparatus is working efficiently, we breathe 6-14 times per minute at rest. In a healthy person, this rate increases appropriately when the physical needs of the body require it.