Woman breathing deeply on beach with arms open to the sky

Learn 3-Step Breathing for Lung Capacity and Strength

Learn how to strengthen your lungs and breathe easier (through trying times and every day)!

In This Article

How to Strengthen Your Lungs

Experts are now proposing screenings for respiratory muscle impairment for individuals at higher risk from a viral infection. They suggest using breathing exercise for respiratory support before, during, and after a respiratory infection. Logically, if breathing muscles are weak, the intensity of any respiratory condition will increase.1 

In an April 2020 study published in the American Journal of Medicine concluded that, “diminished respiratory muscle performance may contribute to the overwhelming burden imposed on health care systems due to viral pandemics. What is more concerning is that frequency of viral pandemics and the prevalence of the global population in poor health associated with impaired respiratory muscle performance are potentially both at the tipping point. In nations with high economic development, poor baseline health is now, unfortunately, the norm; obesity alone is present in 42.4% of the adult population in the United States and continues to increase.”1 

Ayurveda recommends hundreds of different pranayama breathing exercises, each with their own subtle yet profound benefits. Modern hospitals employ respiratory muscle training techniques to strengthen breathing muscles.  

Strengthen Your Respiratory Muscles 

Breathing exercises called inspiratory muscle training (IMT) help strengthen the diaphragm, increase respiratory muscle strength, increase uniform diaphragmatic thickness and function, and help open the airways, making breathing easier.1  

Studies suggest early diaphragmatic fatigue is quite common. In one study with elite athletes, 50% had early diaphragmatic fatigue.9 The diaphragm never rests; on average it contracts about 26,000 times a day. 

In Ayurveda, almost all pranayama techniques will help strengthen respiratory muscles, but only a handful focus on strengthening specifically the inspiratory muscles. The diaphragm is the body’s major and most important muscle of inspiration. It is also one of the body’s major lymphatic pumps, primarily pumping lymphatic and undigested waste from the entire abdominal cavity.2-5 

In one study, four weeks of respiratory muscle training, where inhalation was restricted by 50% has been shown to reduce hospital length of stay, mortality, and risk of intubation in patients at risk for prolonged hospitalization.1 In patients on ventilators, respiratory muscle training improves weaning outcomes and reduces hospital length of stay.1 

This study concluded that evidence regarding beneficial effects of respiratory muscle training is strong, and the connection between impaired respiratory muscle performance, mechanical ventilation, and respiratory complications is also strong.1 

ThreeStep Ayurvedic Pranayama Techniques to Mimic Respiratory Muscle Training 

Bhastrika Pranayama / Bellows Breath  

Bhastrika, or bellows breath, is a series of deep, forceful, maximal inhalations and exhalations, allowing breathing to mimic a bellows. The benefits of bhastrika have been found to support brain, mood, memory, heart, and lung health, as well as helping the body cope with stress.6 I have been teaching bhastrika as part of my One-Minute Meditation for decades with profound clinical results.6 

Bhastrika is both an inspiratory and exhalatory exercise for the respiratory muscles. It is rare to fully contract and relax the diaphragm in modern life, when most of our time is spent sitting, slouching, or in shallow breathing. 

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Benefits of One-Minute Meditation with Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breathing)

Bhastrika Outperforms Running in Lung Function Tests 

In a study of 30 men ages of 18-30, half practiced bhastrika for 15 minutes and the other half ran for 15 minutes. They performed these activities six days a week for one month. 

The bhastrika group saw significant improvements in numerous lung function tests compared to the running group. Forced vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, peak expiratory flow, and maximum voluntary ventilation of the lungs were all higher in the bhastrika group. Only peak expiratory flow rate and maximum voluntary ventilation improved with the running group, but not as much as in the bhastrika group. Researchers concluded adding pranayama to athletic training could greatly enhance aerobic performance in healthy individuals and athletes.7 

Kapalabhati Pranayama, or Skull-Cleansing Breath  

lifespa image, increase brain power, graphic, human, clouds

Kapalabhati is derived from two words: kapala, which means skull and bhati, which means to illuminate. Kapalabhati is designed to accelerate breath from the lower abdominals, through the lungs, into the skull, supporting healthy drainage of toxins from the brain lymphatics (glymphatics), thoracic cavity, and abdomen.8  

The emphasis of kapalabhati is on exhalation, where the diaphragm is relaxing. The abdominal muscles forcefully contract against the diaphragm, creating a powerful abdominal-diaphragmatic-cardiac massage, which supports healthy diaphragm function. 

During kapalabhati pranayama, all five lung lobes are oxygenated, whereas during normal respiration, the lower lobes of the lungs are unused and considered dead space. Oxygenating the dead space not only boosts oxygenation potential of breathing, but enhances detoxification and fat burning—this weight loss potential is found mostly in the highly vascularized lower lobes of the lungs.8 

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Kapalabhati Breathing for Blood Sugar, Weight Loss + Brain Cleansing: the Science

Pratiloma Pranayama and Ayurvedic Inspiratory Muscle Training  

Pratiloma pranayama / Ayurvedic inspiratory muscle training is an technique that restricts air going through the nostrils during a maximal inhalation. Partially closed nostrils force the diaphragm to work extra hard, exercising the muscles of inspiration. 

Numerous studies have been done on the benefits of pratiloma, but under a different name. In Western medicine, this technique is called inspiratory muscle training (IMT) and has been found to be an effective treatment for numerous health concerns, including breathing afflictions, heart health concerns, and digestive issues (such as GERD and reflux), along with significantly enhancing athletic performance.10-19 

IMT has been effectively used in physical therapy to support healthy breathing for patients with compromised breathing.10,14,18,19  

In hospitals around the world, devices are used to increase resistance during inhalation to strengthen inspiratory muscles, primarily the diaphragm. These IMT devices typically restrict inhalation airways by 30-50%.1 Pratiloma can do the same by simply taking a full deep and maximal inhale with the nostrils partially closed. 

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Strengthen Your Lungs Now: Pratiloma Pranayama + Inspiratory Muscle Training

ThreeStep Pranayama Practice for Optimal Lung Health 

Watch attached video for a demonstration of this practice. 

  1. Bhastrika: 10 breaths 
  2. Kapalabhati: 10 breaths 
  3. Pratiloma: 10 breaths 

This is my favorite sequence for building lung strength. Practice 3-5 rounds 2x/day. 

Note: As with any breathing practice, check with your medical doctor before starting a practice. Never practice breathing techniques near or in water or while driving. Pranayama technique are designed to be comfortable. If you experience any discomfort or dizziness, contact your primary care provider

This article originally appeared in Elephant Journal.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7182755/ 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5629116/ 
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3221720/ 
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1308679/ 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515477/ 
  6. https://lifespa.com/?s=bhastrika 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6746052/ 
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4959327/ 
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1779675/  
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29178489/   
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6571650/   
  12. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3a3f/219fcdef05a749569b47454d6993d8c6c5fd.pdf   
  13. https://www.europeanreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/4547-4552-Breathing-training-on-lower-esophageal-sphincter.pdf   
  14. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpgi.00054.2013   
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24113771/   
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27182763/   
  17. https://www.powerbreathe.com/blog/2018/11/26/respiratory-muscle-induced-metaboreflex/   
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30307818/   
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29652761/