Yoga for the Treatment of Asthma

Is yoga an effective treatment for asthma?

Afternoon yoga class
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Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that affects approximately 10% of the population. Symptoms of asthma typically include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Triggers of asthma may include airborne allergens (such as pollen, mold, animal dander and dust mite), viral infections (such as the common cold), inhaled irritants (such as 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 such as inhaled corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers (for example, Singulair), and other oral or injected medications.

Alternative Treatments for Asthma

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 studies show that these various techniques are helpful for the treatment of asthma, and other studies 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.

What is Yoga?

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.

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 what was needed), as well as to “sham yoga” (a fake form of yoga that served as the placebo). 

Is Yoga Helpful for Asthma?

The results of the meta-analysis are 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 for asthma symptoms, need for asthma medications or lung function measurements. There also appeared to be a bias for the publication of studies that showed benefit for the use 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 likely never published, whereas studies that did show benefit were punished.

Yoga May be Helpful for Asthma -- But Exercise and Stress Relief are the 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 for yoga breathing exercises. Even “fake” forms of yoga, which include breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation, is also helpful for the treatment of asthma. This is an important comparison to make because there isn’t anything particularly magical about yoga for the treatment of asthma.

Placebo forms of treatment are extremely powerful, 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.


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.

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