by Kaye Norlin, adult with PH and Central Illinois support group leader

NOTE: Always check with your physician before beginning any new exercise program.

September is National Yoga Month. Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, and people who practice yoga have experienced the benefits. Today, yoga is more widely known and practiced, and has become an important part of therapy for a variety of medical conditions. One smaller pilot study in Canada in pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) patients revealed some potential at least short-term quality of life improvements as a result of participating in yoga. A 2008 study among heart failure patients found that yoga helped people exercise more, reduced inflammation and even improved quality of life. When done correctly and under medical supervision, low impact exercise can help patients feel better. And, when patients are actively involved in their own treatment, they tend have better outcomes.

Chair yoga can be perfect for people with PH, regardless of age, disability, health status or body size. Even oxygen and Flolan® pumps do not get in the way of doing chair yoga, although you may have to use a longer oxygen line and adjust the pump occasionally.

Following are some tips for getting started with a chair yoga practice. Take this list, review and discuss with your health care team whether this would be appropriate for you.

  • Begin your yoga practice in small steps. Try 10 minutes and work up to more time.
  • If you are able, try to slow and deepen your breath during your yoga session. Some people even try to connect their breath to the movements.To connect your breath to the movement in yoga, follow a simple pattern: When you expand your chest, breathe in. When you contract your chest or forward fold, breathe out. If you’re not sure what you should be doing, just make sure you keep breathing.
  • Never hold your breath.
  • Use visualization: See yourself breathing easily.
  • Stay in the present: Do not compare what you do today with what you did yesterday – each day is different.
  • Engage one body part at a time. If you are stretching your legs, your arms should be at your side or your hands on your hips.
  • Do not lower your heart below your waist/trunk. This makes your heart work harder and can raise your blood pressure.
  • There are a lot of yoga teachers who may know how to teach healthy, ‘bendy’ people. They may not know how to teach PH patients. Find a yoga teacher or yoga instructor who is trained to accommodate health and disability issues. You may have to educate them about PH. Use whatever resources you have available: internet, yoga class, etc.
  • Always talk with your PH doctor regarding any exercise before starting.
  • Do not exercise alone.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Breathe in through your nose and blow out the air through your mouth.

A personal note: I started yoga at age 60 to help me breathe better with my “asthma.” A month later, I was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) and within four months I was enrolled in a yoga school to become a certified yoga teacher. Yoga taught me how to breathe correctly, which is something adults usually need to relearn. Watch a baby breathe with the belly poofing out; adults tend to breathe higher in the lungs and chest, which can cause problems. After a while, I could lay flat on the floor without feeling like I was suffocating. I could de-stress faster and was stronger. I could breathe while climbing stairs. Most importantly, I had some control of my life.

More information from a medical professional and a video about alternative exercise like yoga is on the PHA website.