The lungs have long been taken for granted, which is absurd given that they are responsible for breathing, which provides oxygen to the bloodstream and removes carbon dioxide as a by-product – a process that sustains life.
Many of us do not realise the importance of our lungs until we have breathing problems or hear about horrific Covid-19 stories surrounding the same. As with the rest of the body, the lungs require daily care and attention.
For the respiratory system to work well, a good “vital lung capacity” is essential. In medical terms, this refers to the amount of air lungs can hold.
The larger your lung capacity, the more oxygen can be breathed in and carried to your cells. The lungs, however, are not muscles; they are tissues. A strong diaphragm and elastic rib cage are necessary for the lungs to expand as much as possible.
The average total lung capacity is about six litres. However, our lung function declines as we grow older, starting from the age of 30.
As our lung capacity shrinks, we breathe more, but are able to absorb less oxygen. Overbreathing prevents the body from metabolising the oxygen it needs and increases the heart rate, causing the heart to work harder than it should. This can lead to shortness of breath, fatigue, frequent respiratory infections and, over time, heart failure.
Countless studies have shown that yoga breathwork can boost oxygen intake, strengthen the chest muscles and improve circulation.
Here are some breathing techniques and postures that specifically target the improvement of lung health. If you have any medical concerns, consult with your doctor before practising yoga.
This exercise, also known as belly breathing, strengthens the diaphragm muscle, which allows you to take deep breaths. Additionally, it increases oxygen levels in the body. Breathe slowly and deeply, making each breath count and to relax the nervous system.
- Sit in a comfortable crossed-legged position, or on a chair, or lie on your back with the knees slightly bent. If you need support for your head, you can use a thin pillow.
- Relax your neck and shoulder muscles. Then close your eyes and place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling the air move into your belly while your chest remains relatively still.
- Slowly breathe out through your nose while pressing on your abdomen. Let your belly fall inward towards your spine.
- Both the inhalation and exhalation should be relaxed, and the exhalation should be longer than the inhalation.
- Practise this breathing pattern for at least five to 10 minutes every day.
Yoga postures for better breathing
Perform each pose slowly, deeply breathing through your nose, filling all facets of your rib cage equally. This promotes a slow, more substantial breathing pattern with proper diaphragm movements, resulting in full-body relaxation. To add heat and stimulation, pause for a second or two at the end of each exhalation.
Seated side bend
This pose stretches the ribs, which helps the lungs take in more oxygen.
- Sit tall with your arms by your sides. Inhale, lengthen the spine and raise your arms overhead.
- As you exhale, place your right hand beside your right hip and lengthen your left arm and upper body to the right, extending through the fingertips of your left hand.
- Inhale, bring your upper body back to the centre and sweep the right hand to meet the left overhead.
- Exhale, bring your arms by your sides.
- Repeat on the other side. Flow from side to side for five rounds.
Cat and cow pose with diaphragmatic breathing
A simple chest-opening practice, this allows the lungs to work more efficiently, improves lung capacity, and strengthens the spine and respiratory muscles.
- Start in the tabletop position. Stack your hips over your knees. Bring your knees hip-distance apart. Position your wrists underneath your shoulders and spread your fingers while pressing your palms into the floor.
- Inhale, arch your back, lift your chest, roll open your shoulders, expand your abdomen, tailbone towards the ceiling and gaze up. Stay in the cow pose for a count of 10, rolling the shoulders back to open the chest more.
- Then exhale slowly and, with control, round your upper back, squeeze your abdomen to the spine, tuck your tailbone under and tilt your head towards your chest, stretching the back of your neck. Hold the cat pose for a count of 10.
- Perform the movements slowly and smoothly in a continuous flow for 10 to 20 deep breaths.
This posture expands the rib cage and abdomen, which helps to fill the lungs with more air.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on the lower back, directly above the glutes. Keep the fingers pointing down.
- Inhale, use your core to lift the upper body upright and extend backward.
- Stay in the position for five breaths.
- Exhale, come up slowly with your hands by your side.
- Repeat for five to 10 rounds.
This excellent posture expands the chest cavity and allows a better flow of air to the lungs. It creates more space and openness in the full body, thus improving lung capacity.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Inhale deeply and step your left foot back, with your feet three feet apart. The right foot should be at a 90-degree angle, while the left foot should be 45-degrees inward.
- Slowly raise your arms sideways in line with the shoulders, with palms facing down. Keep arms parallel to the floor.
- Exhale, bend your body to the right, bringing your right palm down to the floor near your right ankle. Modify the pose by resting your right palm on your chin or the block.
- Extend the left arm fully, bringing it in line with the right shoulder, and extend the trunk. Push your left shoulder back to keep your chest open.
- Hold this pose for 30 to 60 seconds while breathing deeply and evenly.
- As you inhale, rise. As you exhale, return to the starting position.
- Repeat this on the left side by stepping your right foot back.
Revolved wide-legged standing forward fold
This pose increases lung volume by improving thoracic spine mobility and opening the chest. Additionally, it stretches the hamstrings, calves, hips, low back and neck.
- Step your feet about three to four feet apart – toes in, heels out.
- Put your hands on your hips. Inhale and lift tall through your whole torso.
- Exhale and fold forward slowly from the hip joints. Maintain a long torso. Let your head hang softly and gaze at the floor.
- As you inhale, place your right hand between your feet, directly under your chest. Lift your left arm, rolling your shoulder to the back.
- Keep your hips levelled and twist through your torso instead of your hips. Open your chest and gaze up at your left thumb.
- Breathe for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
Seated spinal twist
This pose is excellent for deepening your breath, improving spine flexibility and strengthening your thoracic. Twisting poses work your lungs harder, expanding their capacity to supply oxygen to less-used areas. Moreover, the circulation is improved, digestive organs are massaged and digestion is stimulated.
- Sit with your back straight and legs extended forward.
- Put your right foot outside your left thigh. You can either keep your left leg long or bend it and place your heel close to your glutes.
- Put your right arm behind your back, palm down. As you inhale, raise your left hand, lengthen your spine and exhale, placing your elbow or forearm against your right knee or thigh. From the base of your spine, twist to the right and look over your right shoulder.
- Hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds. Every time you exhale, lengthen the spine and deepen the twist.
- On an exhalation, release the twist and repeat on the other side.
This posture opens the chest and front of the body, enhances spine mobility and strengthens the spinal muscles.
- Lie on your stomach with your legs straight behind you.
- Put your hands under your shoulders, elbows close to your body. As you inhale, slowly raise your head and chest off the floor. Your belly button should remain on the floor, with your elbows hugging your sides.
- Keeping your core engaged, gently press your hips and thighs to the floor. Keep your shoulders relaxed as you extend your spine.
- Look straight ahead with your neck long.
- Hold this pose for 10 to 20 seconds while breathing evenly.
- Breathe out as you gently bring your abdomen, chest and head back to the floor and relax.
- Repeat five times.
This posture facilitates deep breathing and expands the rib cage, which strengthens the lungs and allows more air in.
- Lie on your back. Gently bend your knees and keep your feet hip-width apart, with the heels as close to the sitting bones as possible and arms beside your body, palms facing down.
- Inhale slowly and lift your lower, middle and upper back.
- Roll the shoulders and chest towards the chin. You can support your weight by pushing away from the floor with your arms, shoulders and feet, and squeeze the glutes.
- You can also interlace fingers and push your hands on the floor to lift your torso a little more.
- Hold this pose for 30 to 60 seconds while keeping your breathing relaxed.
- Exhale and roll the spine slowly to the floor as you release the pose.
Child’s pose breathing
This simple but effective posture allows you to breathe more deeply by expanding the back of your rib cage. When you are resting in this position, your abdomen becomes constricted, forcing you to breathe deeply around your rib cage and into your back lungs.
- Come to the tabletop position.
- Place your buttocks on your heels, pointing your toes back. Bring your stomach and chest to your thighs. Your arms should be back and your shoulders relaxed with each breath.
- To relieve pressure, place a blanket or pillow vertically from your stomach to your head, or put it between your calves and buttocks.
- Expand your back as you inhale, then exhale and flatten your body.
- Hold this pose for between 30 seconds and two minutes.
A mindfulness breathing practice centred on the breath, this can help you deal with anxiety, stress and negative emotions.
- Find a relaxed, comfortable seated position either on a chair or on the floor. Maintain an upright posture, but do not overextend, and rest your hands wherever you find most comfortable.
- Close your eyes and focus on the natural rhythm of your breath. Observe your breath without modifying or controlling it. Let it flow naturally. Follow the waves of your breathing, moment by moment. Let your breath pull you down into your body and your heart.
- Observe any thoughts that come to mind without judgment when your mind drifts. Acknowledge them, then return your attention to your breath.
- Meditate in this way for at least five minutes every day.
Nerry Toledo is a yoga instructor who lives in Dubai; nerryfit.com