Disorders of the lungs affect almost every human being at some time in their lifetime. I distinctly remember one occasion when I was home from boarding school for winter break. Despite being off for the holidays, senior year exam prep was my only focus. I had to study for the board exams, which would determine my college admission.
My parents lived in North Africa, but they had a place in a small town in northeastern India where winters were cold and foggy. This is where my family and I holed up while I was in prep mode. One morning, I walked onto the balcony attached to my parents’ room to catch a whiff of the morning breeze. What I saw that day scarred me for life.
I walked out to find my cousin—who was our next-door neighbor—fighting to breathe. He had tears rolling down his cheeks, and he kept making a strange wheezing sound. His mom, my aunt, was rubbing his back and urging him to take the inhaler. This kid looked frustrated, angry, and helpless. My mother had asthma, so I was familiar with breathlessness, sudden triggers, and the function of an asthma inhaler. But it was difficult to witness such a little kid unable to breathe. That was the day I understood why this cousin didn’t play sports and was rarely physically active. Asthma has a significant impact on people of all ages, particularly children.
How Ayurveda and Western Medicine Define Asthma
In Ayurveda, the disease in which breathing becomes difficult and is sometimes accompanied by sound is known as svasa. There are five basic types of svasa, and they are characterized by the type of breath they create. The five types are called: ksudra (exercise-induced heavy breathing), tamaka (forceful respiration), chinna (interrupted breathing), urdhva (prolonged inhalation and exhalation), and maha (high pitch).
From a western medical perspective, svasa can be correlated to asthma. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the airways of the lungs, causing them to become inflamed, narrow, or swell up, thus making it difficult to breathe. It tends to present as a lifelong condition, with different severity degrees throughout the asthma patient’s life. According to the World Health Organization, asthma affected an estimated 262 million people in 2019 and caused 455,000 deaths. The possible causes of modern incidences of asthma include pollution, global warming, food additives, toxins, and allergens.
The Cause of Asthma According to Ayurveda
Ayurveda teaches us that the underlying cause of all asthmatic conditions is increased Kapha dosha. Kapha accumulates and becomes aggravated in the stomach, overflows into circulation, and relocates into the respiratory system, where it obstructs the movement of prana vayu, or the natural respiratory winds of the body. It then adheres to the walls of the bronchi, causing narrowing of the bronchial tubes. This leads to respiratory distress and breathlessness, which is understood as an asthmatic attack.
Ayurvedic Suggestions for Asthma: What to Avoid
- Cold and damp places
- Exposure to cold wind or extreme heat
- Excessive intake of Vata foods (certain legumes) and Kapha foods (dairy and heavy foods)
- Air conditioners, coolers, and direct air of fans
- Foods that are heavy to digest
- Refrigerated foods and cold drinks
- Exposure to dust, smoke, allergens, and irritants
- Over-exercising to the point of breathlessness
- Perfumes and aerosols
- Smoking or use of recreational drugs
- Suppression of natural urges such as breathing, sneezing, yawning, or burping
- Exhaustive and excessive sexual activity
Ayurvedic Suggestions for Asthma: What to Favor
- Warm and light foods (think soups and porridge)
- Finishing dinner several hours before going to bed
- Drinking warm and hot water, as it lowers both Vata and Kapha
- Use of air purifiers
- Well-ventilated rooms
- Practicing Bhastrika pranayama daily (though not during an asthma attack)
- Yoga asanas that open the chest, like Setu Bandhasana (again, not during an asthma attack)
- Inverted yoga poses, such as Viparita Karani (leg raises) and shoulder stand, as they help the diaphragm function properly
- Simple diaphragmatic breathing to increase the volume of air moving through the lungs on inhalation and exhalation
- Meditation, to help you gain control over autonomic function and provide you an opportunity to relax at the onset of an asthmatic episode
Ayurvedic Suggestions for Treatment
Ayurvedic treatment for asthma aims to bring the Kapha lodged in the lungs and bronchi back to the stomach, from which it can be eliminated. Based on the patient’s strength and age, there may be dietary changes, lifestyle changes, herbal protocols, and Panchakarma treatments that can also help in decreasing asthmatic episodes.
There are two categories of herbs used to improve the flow of breath: expectorants and bronchodilators. While expectorants soften or liquefy accumulated mucus, making it easier to expel, bronchodilators expand the air passages to allow greater air flow.
An important Indian herb in the management of Kapha-type respiratory complaints is Vasa (Adhatoda vasica). Vasa is both an important bronchodilator and expectorant. An additional herb of importance for those with Vata-type respiratory complaints is Bala (Sida cordifolia). Bala is a respiratory tonic with a mild bronchodilating action. Some other very helpful herbs are licorice, Shatavari, Pippali, Ashwagandha, cardamom, Boswellia, and ginger.
The Kapha in the body can also be dissolved by the heat generated during the process of fomentation. When a person has difficulty breathing and there is an excess of mucus accumulation, it’s possible to massage the chest and back with very fine rock salt mixed with warm sesame oil. This should be followed by the application of a hot towel. After performing these recommendations, give the person ½ tsp Mahanarayana oil in warm water or licorice tea to sip.
While these suggestions can be helpful in navigating svasa, as always, consult with an Ayurvedic expert before you implement any herbal protocols, diet and lifestyle changes, or alternative therapies.
Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are nursing, taking medications, or have a medical condition, please consult with your health care practitioner prior to the use of any of these herbs. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and Ayurvedic coach, contact Sweta here.
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