Yogic breathing techniques collectively known as pranayama have been used to promote health and well-being for centuries. Applying these practices to actually treat disease is a relatively modern idea, yet it is gaining traction among gurus. As a noteworthy example, the late B K S Iyengar produced an instructional video titled Yoga for Asthma. Scientists too are beginning to gather evidence to help these time-honored techniques achieve medical acceptance. Of particular interest to me, a small trial published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers insight into possible mechanisms.
The study synopsis is as follows: 20 participants were randomized into two groups either receiving instruction in a yogic breathing technique or placebo, which was defined as a concentration based mental exercise. Those in the test group were instructed to chant mantra verses for 10 minutes, then preform 10 minutes of breathing exercises according to the guidance of a yoga expert. At 5-minute intervals after the completion of the exercises, saliva samples were drawn and inflammatory molecules therein were measured. The treatment and control groups were then compared head-to-head. After 20 minutes, the markers which achieved statistically significant decreases include, IL-1B IL-8, and MCP-1; IL-1RA, IL-6, IL-10, IL-17, IP-10, MIP-1b, and TNF-α did not appear to differ between the groups. Based on these outcomes, scientists can better determine which form of inflammation is most apt to respond to pranayama therapy.
The study at hand makes no claims to offer definitive advice for the development of an alternative treatment program. Indeed, there are several limitations:
- The long term effect of pranayama therapy was not explored. Traditionally, success at yoga could take weeks, months, or years depending on circumstances and efforts of the practitioners.
- There is an important confounding variable which hasn’t been accounted for. The participants could be responding to the guiding influence of the yoga instructor, not the yoga techniques in their own right.
- The sample size of the study was low, and furthermore, documented baseline characteristics were scant. These shortcoming could have been improved if the investigators employed a cross-over study design.
- Quality-of-life and disease state progression findings cannot be inferred from the biomarker data. We still don’t know how useful a pranayama practice might be compared to other available treatment options.
Despite these limitation, I am still quite optimistic for the about the anti-inflammatory properties of yogic breathing. Furthermore, the ability for investigators to measure biomolecules via the non-invasive saliva test will influence future yoga research. Although expert opinion may still be the best guide to judge the medicinal value of pranayama for the time being, the study at hand is a bold step forward.
Twal WO, Wahlquist AE, and Balasubramanian S. Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva. BMC Complement Altern Med, 2016 Aug; 16 (294): 1-10.