Young black man wearing athletic wear sitting in the park practicing Yogic breathing

COVID-19 Pranayama: A Yogic Breathing Practice for the Pandemic

Baxter Bell M.D. eRYT 500, C-IAYT
Updated: 
January 11, 2022

It all started with a short video that came across my YouTube feed about a month ago. And a brief one at that, just 3:42 long. But despite its brevity, its content caught my attention immediately: a breathing technique that hospital staff in the UK were teaching to their patients with COVID-19 who had respiratory symptoms. It resembled a type of COVID-19 pranayama. 

It was pretty simple: take a big breath in, hold it in for five seconds, let it go. Repeat that six times, and on the sixth round, cough once or twice into your elbow. Do another set of six. Then, lie down on your belly, prone, with your chest, and head slightly propped up with a pillow, and take slightly deeper breaths for about 10 minutes. 

The reasoning for the prone practice is that more of our lung tissue is in the back half of the lungs. If we are lying on our backs in bed, sick, this area gets compressed by gravity and not utilized fully, compromising our ability to obtain needed amounts of oxygen into our bloodstream and possibly increasing our chances of getting secondary pneumonia. Lying on your belly and breathing opens that lung tissue up for use. 

I then came across another video, made by a doctor in the US, describing essentially the same technique. Something was brewing out there! He mentioned that these techniques seemed to be keeping hospitalized patients off the ventilators!

COVID-19 Pranayama: Smoothing the Breathing Process

Illustration showing human lungs anatomy with trachea, left and right lobesRight away, I saw that our yoga pranayama practice might enhance this technique. For example, the doctor who demonstrates the technique in the UK video mentions, offhandedly, that he got lightheaded while doing the technique. In all likelihood, he was hyperventilating a bit, due to the quick deep breath in and the causal breath out. Also, over-gripping while holding his breath for five seconds that I witnessed might have affected him. 

I wondered if evening out the inhalation and exhalation and holding the breath more gently for five seconds might alleviate this unwelcome and possibly discouraging (to patients trying it) symptom, while still opening up the lungs? (Always alert to possible cautions with pranayama techniques, I’d suggest those with blood pressure issues be more cautious about the kumbhaka hold at the top of the inhalation, by monitoring their blood pressure before and right after the practice to make sure there is not an unusual spike in their numbers.)

Yoga’s Sphinx Pose and “Proning” for Better Breathing

And the second part of the practice sounded like a low-supported Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana), and with proper propping, it could be done comfortably in bed or on a sticky mat. Lying on the belly is not always comfortable for all people, so creative propping might need to be explored to make this more doable for those people, and one might even break this up into two five-minute sessions, with a Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana) in between to relieve any symptoms in the spine. 

Image depicting Sphinx Pose also known as Salamba Bhujangasana

(Image above is of Sphinx Pose, but for Baxter's practice below, you'll need to add a pillow to support your chest-see part 2 below)

And then, just last week, this article appeared in The New York Times, describing a new trend of having ICU patients with COVID-19 lung involvement lie on their belly when on the respirator, and even before considering placing them on the breathing machines to try and avoid the need to do so. They call it “proning” and it is lowering the death rate in early investigations, as well as the need to place patients on ventilators. 

How to Practice COVID-19 Pranayama

With all this in mind, I started to practice the Part 1 technique in my morning meditation/pranayama practice in the following way: 

  1. Inhalation for 5 seconds, gentle pause at the top of the inhalation for 5 seconds, exhalation out for 5 seconds, for five rounds of breath, and on the 6th breath, instead of a 5-second exhalation, 2 short, strong coughs. 

  2. Repeat that again. 

Interestingly, although I had always been taught and read that holding the breath in after the inhalation (a kumbhaka) was stimulating to the nervous system, I have found that this particular way of doing it was neutral in effect for me. I actually feel pretty calm and relaxed after 2 cycles most days. 

Here’s how I practiced Part 2: 

  1. I had a pillow at my mat when doing my asana practice, and at the end of practice, I set myself up in Low Sphinx Pose with a pillow under the upper chest and the head supported on stacked fists.

  2. I gently lengthened the in and out-breath for 5 to 10 minutes, setting a timer so I did not have to worry about how long I had been practicing. I found this very accessible and actually quite calming and relaxing!

Practice COVID-19 Pranayama Before Coronavirus Strikes

If indeed, this two-part technique of breathing practice is potentially beneficial for the recovery of those who get COVID-19 respiratory symptoms, it might make sense for everyone to practice it ahead of time, as Dr. Munshi in the UK suggested, and be ready to use it more consistently if and when the need arises. Although the benefits are anecdotal at this time for Part 1 of the process, (the ICU use of prone breathing is being studied and already has evidence of value), it seems like the potential benefits of doing it far outweigh any negative side effects for the vast majority of people it could help. 

Try it out yourself with my video below. I'd love to hear about your experience with the practice: what worked, how did it feel, what was challenging. If you find it of value, spread the word!

 

Baxter Bell MD, IAYT, yoga teacher, YogaUOnline presenter, Yoga for Covid Long Haulers

Reprinted with permission from Baxter Bell.com.

 

Baxter Bell MD, C-IAYT, yoga teacher, YogaUOnline presenter, Yoga for Covid Long HaulersBAXTER BELL, MD, eRYT 500, C-IAYT
Baxter Bell, MD, has been actively deepening his understanding of the power of yoga since making the stress-reducing move from a career as a busy family doctor to that of a yoga teacher and medical acupuncturist. Baxter is a graduate of the Piedmont Yoga Studio’s 18-month Advanced Studies Program, and served as Director of PYS’s Deep Yoga Program for many years, teaching the Experiential Anatomy, Yoga Technique, and Yoga Methodology portions of that training. He is on faculty for several Yoga Teacher Training and Yoga Therapy Training programs around the country. Baxter is a Certified Yoga Therapist, a level of training denoted by C-IAYT. He is also co-author with Nina Zolotow of the book Yoga for Healthy Aging. Baxter’s teaching has been influenced by the many gifted teachers he has studied with over the years, including Rodney Yee, Patricia Walden, Erich Schiffmann, Richard Rosen, Mary Paffard, TKV Desikachar, and Donald Moyer. Baxter is a featured presenter and has therapeutic yoga classes on the website Yoga U Online as well as in Yoga Journal’s DVD, Yoga for Stress, and has written articles for yoga publications such as Yoga Journal and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. He is co-founder and a past contributing writer for the blog Yoga for Healthy Aging (lots of great archived articles by Baxter!) and his new blog is called What’s On Your (Yoga) Mind? Baxter is involved in the integration of therapeutic applications of yoga with Western medicine and presently serves on the board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Baxter teaches public and specialty Back Care yoga classes in Oakland and Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, as well as workshops and retreats around the United States and internationally.