Breathe Easy: Increasing Lung Capacity with Yoga
If the past few pandemic-ridden years have taught us nothing else, it’s how vital our respiratory health is. As we get older, it becomes even more so because we are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses due to changes in the vital capacity of the lungs. And if you are managing multiple conditions (such as heart disease or diabetes), it becomes especially crucial to increase your lung capacity as individuals with comorbidities experienced much higher mortality rates.
Vital capacity (VC):
the total amount of air we can inhale once we have fully exhaled.
Here’s what our lungs are doing:
According to the American Lung Association, as we age, changes to lung tissue, muscles and bones impact breathing and particularly lung capacity. The maximum amount of air your lungs can hold—or total lung capacity—is about six liters, about the equivalent of three large soda bottles.
Your lungs mature by the time you are about 20-25 years old. However, after about 35, they gradually decline in function, affecting breathing. Some of the age-related physiological changes that impact lung capacity include:
- The diaphragm, the large, dome-shaped muscle that sits below the heart and lungs, decreases in elasticity, gradually becoming weaker, decreasing the lungs’ ability to inhale and exhale.
- Bones of the rib cage become thinner and change shape making it difficult to expand and contract with breathing.
In fact, starting in our 50s, the rib cage tends to become permanently elevated and the tissue between the ribs (aka intercostal muscles) stiffen. The result is the body gets “stuck” in the inhalation position, unable to fully lower the ribs during exhalation. Combined with the decrease in the natural elasticity of the diaphragm, the residual volume, or the amount of air in the lungs after a full exhalation, increases significantly. The result is that vital lung capacity decreases.
Bottom line: it’s not how much we can breathe in, but how much we can breathe out that impacts breathing most as we age. Enter yogic pranayama practices! These practices are a great way to support and maintain vital lung capacity.
Follow along for a few easy to understand yoga practices to greatly increase your ability to breathe easier!
Maintaining the strength and flexibility of the respiratory muscles is the first step in increasing lung capacity. Start by focusing on yoga postures which target the muscles and ligaments of the upper torso, such as:
- Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) –> a sequence of twelve postures, moves the spine in all directions and alternates inhalation and exhalation which helps to oxygenate the body.
- Plank poses (Phalankasana) –> a static asana pose working the entire body, strengthens the muscles around the chest wall and increases blood circulation through the pulmonary veins and capillaries.
- Backbends, such as Cobra (Bhujangasana) and Upward Facing Dog (Urdva Mukha Svanasana), strengthen the back and tone and stimulate the cartilage of the respiratory tract, increasing the efficient functioning of the lungs.
- Twists, like Seated Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana), induce deep breathing and aid in better circulation of oxygen in the lung cavity. Bonus: twists also help to boost our immune system and relieve back pain and stiffness.
Inhale . . . Long Exhale
Adding pranayama practices which focus specifically on lengthening the exhalation.
The following pranayama practices work to gradually and comfortably increase the length of your exhale. Start with Long Exhale Breath (see below) in which you slowly increase your exhale to be twice the length of your inhalation.
Once you feel comfortable with the Long Exhale, consider trying Viloma Pranayama (also known as Ladder Breath). Viloma means “against the natural flow” and involves pausing or segmenting the breath. While Viloma can be done in three ways (pausing either the inhale or exhale, or both), this particular version focuses solely on segmenting the exhalation into three parts to increase lung capacity.
**When doing any exercise, but specifically breathing exercises, if you ever feel agitated or short of breath, then return to equal inhales and exhales**
Long Exhale Breath
1-Lie on your back or sit in a comfortable position. Bring one hand to your abdomen and feel the belly expand with each inhale and relax with each exhale.
2-Start to count the length of your inhale and exhale. It doesn’t matter what the number is as long as you are feeling comfortable and not forcing the breath. Find a rhythm in which the inhale and exhale are equal in length.
3-Once the inhale and exhale are equal, gradually lengthen the exhale until you get to a 1:2 ratio (so if the inhale is 3 counts, then the exhale will be 6).
4-Make sure that you are not forcing the exhale to a place of discomfort. If at any time you feel agitated or short of breath, then return to equal inhales and exhales.
1-As in the previous practice, begin either lying on your back or seated in a comfortable position. Bring one hand to your abdomen and feel the belly expand and contract with each breath.
2-Establish an equal breath pattern for 3-5 breaths. This should feel comfortable.
3-Next, take an inhale. Then engaging your low belly, exhale 1/3 of the breath. Pause for 1-2 seconds before continuing to exhale another third, feeling your upper belly muscles engage. Pause again before exhaling the remainder of your breath.
4-Repeat this pattern of inhaling and exhaling in three parts with pauses after each for 5-8 rounds. If at any point you feel like the breath is forced or you are lacking air, return to regular breathing.
5-End by coming back to the equal breath pattern for 2-3 breaths.
A regular practice of yogic breathing practices can help rid the lungs of bad or stale air, increase oxygen levels and get the diaphragm returning to its job of helping you breathe. Happy practicing!
Beginning in January, Wisdom Tree Yoga will be offering classes focusing on pranayama practices for respiratory health. Click HERE to see the schedule and sign up for one of our classes!