Yoga for the Treatment of Asthma

Afternoon yoga class
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that affects approximately 10 percent of the population. Symptoms typically include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Triggers may include airborne allergens (pollen, mold, animal dander, and dust mite), viral infections (the common cold), inhaled irritants (cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust), exercise, cold/dry air, and stress/emotions.

Common treatments for asthma include avoidance of triggers and pharmaceutical treatments. Pharmaceutical treatments for asthma include rescue medications, such as inhaled bronchodilators (for example, albuterol) as well as controller medications like inhaled corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers (for example, Singulair), and other oral or injected medications.

Alternative Treatments

Due to the concern for side effects from pharmaceutical treatments, many people with asthma have sought more natural alternative treatments for their symptoms. Natural therapies that have been tried for asthma include chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, and yoga.

Studies on these alternative treatments for asthma have shown mixed results. Some show that these various techniques are helpful for the treatment of asthma while others show no benefit. A recent study sought to perform a meta-analysis (a way of averaging out the results from many studies) to determine if yoga is beneficial for the treatment of asthma.

Yoga has been performed in India for thousands of years and is a way of uniting the mind, body, and spirit through physical activity, breathing exercises, and meditation. People with asthma have used yoga for many years, and while many people (and some studies) claim that yoga is helpful for the treatment of asthma, the data on its usefulness is actually quite limited.

Is Yoga Helpful for Asthma?

A group of researchers from Germany and the United Kingdom published a meta-analysis study in 2014 to determine if yoga is beneficial for the treatment of asthma. The meta-analysis included a total of 14 studies that included over 800 people with asthma.

The studies sought to determine the effects of various sessions of yoga, over weeks to months, on asthma symptoms, lung function, and the need for asthma medications. The benefits of yoga were compared to “usual asthma care” (whatever their doctor determined was needed) as well as to “sham yoga” (a fake form of yoga that served as the placebo). 

The results of the meta-analysis were quite interesting. In many cases, performing yoga resulted in an improvement of asthma symptoms and a decrease in the need for asthma medications, compared to usual asthma care.

Measurements of lung function also increased in many of the people who underwent yoga treatment compared to their usual asthma care. However, when yoga was compared to sham yoga, there wasn’t any difference in asthma symptoms, need for asthma medications, or lung function measurements.

There also appears to be a bias in the publication of studies that showed a benefit of yoga for the treatment of asthma. This means that it is highly likely that studies that showed no benefit of yoga for the treatment of asthma were never published, whereas studies that did show a benefit were published.

Exercise and Stress Relief Are Key

There seem to be benefits to using yoga-related breathing exercises for the treatment of asthma. However, this benefit doesn’t appear to be specific to just yoga breathing exercises. Even “fake” forms of yoga, which include breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation, are helpful for the treatment of asthma.

This is an important comparison to make because there isn’t anything particularly special about yoga for the treatment of asthma. Placebo forms of treatment are extremely powerful, too, and therefore it is necessary to compare any form of potential treatment to placebo treatment.

The use of yoga for the treatment of asthma is no exception. Since the side effects of yoga are minimal, the use of yoga or yoga-like activities (and any exercise, for that matter, that results in an improvement in physical and mental well-being) may be a helpful part of the treatment of asthma, but should not replace standard asthma care.

Standard asthma care includes regular follow-up appointments with a physician skilled in the management of asthma, routine lung function testing, and the use of rescue and controller asthma medications depending on the severity of asthma.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Cramer H, Posadzki P, Dobos G, Langhorst J. Yoga for Asthma: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2014;112:503-10.