Yoga for Pre & Post Thoracic Surgery

January 26, 2021

How Does Yoga Help the Respiratory System

The respiratory system is one of the most important networks of the body, compromising organs and tissues that include airways, lungs, and blood vessels that help you breathe. They work jointly to transport oxygen all around the body and flush out carbon dioxide through the blood. In the respiratory system, anything that blocks or ceases the flow of oxygen will lead to a sequence of negative events, or worse, death. Hence, stressing the importance of ensuring our lungs and respiratory system are healthy.

It has been noted that the practice of yoga has a rather profound effect on the respiratory system such as Pranayama can raise your oxygen intake by up to five times. When oxygen-rich blood is delivered to your brain, heart, lungs, and digestive organs, this will allow the organs to function better and boost your health. Deep breathing can help the body get rid of toxins, and with regular practice, increase efficiency and reduce issues in the respiratory system such as asthma, sinus, shortness of breath, hay fever, and allergies.

Other than breathing exercises, there are physical yoga poses that activate the muscles of the body and stimulate the blood flow such that your lungs expand allowing oxygen to be distributed throughout your entire body. Inverted postures enable circulation to be dramatically altered throughout the body, allowing the heart to receive an increased supply of blood due to the effect of gravity. This also makes use of regions of ‘dead space’ in the lungs due to emotional tension, bad posture, and environmental factors.

Restorative Yoga Post-Thoracic Surgery

A style of yoga that focuses on encouraging a compliant release of mind and body tension with a deep emphasis on breath and being supported. This style is a meditative practice that uses props like straps, blocks, bolsters, and blankets. Unlike vinyasa and cardio yoga that can be quite strenuous, restorative yoga is much more gentle as it is all about promoting relaxation, about establishing the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest & restore’ facet of our autonomic sensory system that revives the body’s cycles for restoration and recovery, for example, tissue repair and sleep.

It also aids in calming stress hormones that affect the nervous system, boosting the immune system, increasing flexibility, raising mood, and enhancing the capability for healing and recovery. Research has suggested that applying restorative yoga-based practices due to their physiological benefits could decrease healing time, for example after surgery. Ensuring our muscles and blood are oxygenated is key to a healthy immune system, hence, making restorative yoga a brilliant way to practice breath control, which helps to expand your lung capacity leading to efficacy in transporting oxygen to your bloodstream and muscles.

When practising restorative yoga, each asana is held for a much longer time than in yin yoga, typically around 8-10 minutes as this permits your muscles to relax and ease into the stretch, allowing a deeper stretch. The asanas are quite easy and can be modified according to the individual so that anyone will be able to adopt this style of yoga. Breathing deeply during the asanas is the key to receive all the benefits from this practice. Different breathing techniques such as Pranayama can be utilised but the main focus is to breathe deeply, easily, and with intention, as that will yield better results. You can choose to practice Pranayama or any other breathing techniques.

Below are four effective restorative yoga asanas that will greatly impact your lungs and overall health positively. A word of caution, that while these gentle exercises are safe for most people if you are rehabilitating from surgery or an injury, please do check with your doctor for approval.

Diaphragmatic Breathing (optional: with Mantra Meditation)

One of the most effective asanas for the recovery process is diaphragmatic breathing and it only takes 90 seconds of deep breathing with intention. This slowly reduces your heart rate and blood pressure while also reviving facets of your nervous, circulatory, and endocrine systems that encourage relaxation and restoration.

Get into a comfortable position lying down with a bolster beneath your calves to raise them above your heart. To begin diaphragmatic breathing, focus your attention solely on your lungs. When you inhale deeply, ensure that your lower ribs externally rotate, expanding outwards. When you exhale out completely, your ribs should rotate internally, moving in and down.

The next step is optional. Once you’ve set a rhythm of slow, long, deep breaths, you can start chanting a mantra that concurs with each inhalation and exhalation. This mantra consists of a phrase meant to help form positive thoughts. Once you have the mantra of your choice, take 10 or more deep long breaths while repeating your mantra in sync with your breathing.

Supported Fish Pose

Lie down slowly on a bolster or a large pillow such that your shoulders, entire back, neck, and head are supported. Once you are comfortable and do not experience any sensitivity in your lower back, you can extend your legs straight out on the floor, or modify by bending your knees. Open up your arms to the side to further open up your chest.

Taking deep breaths, this pose relaxes and releases chest, neck, and shoulder tension. Remain here comfortably for 10 or more deep breaths. Once your doctor has approved, this pose can be fruitful in releasing scar tissue and adhesions gently for patients recovering from lung, heart, and breast surgeries. The key point to take away from this is that no pose should make you feel anxious or wary, if it does, move out of the pose.

Legs Up the Wall

Viparita Karani, also known as legs-up-the-wall pose, is one of the most favoured restorative yoga poses. By raising your legs above your heart, changing the flow of gravity, this pose helps encourage venous blood flow that decreases swelling.

To settle into this posture, sit on the floor or the bed comfortably with your right shoulder and hip a few inches from the wall. Slowly, lay down on your left shoulder and swing your legs up to the wall with your back and head resting on the floor or bed. You can always modify by resting your legs on a chair with your knees bent or on the headboard of the bed. For further modifications, place a pillow or folded blanket beneath your head and/or hips. Stay in this pose for 10 or more deep long breaths.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

More than a yoga pose, this is a relaxation technique that can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. The idea is to tense each area of your body to steadily create a sense of relaxation throughout your body. Ensure to add in the diaphragmatic breathing and keep it going the entire time. Inhale deeply and scrunch your face as tightly as you can before exhaling to release the tension, allowing your face and jaw to soften.

Inhale again fully, and hold your breath producing tension in your chest, upper back, and neck before exhaling slowly to release completely. Inhale deeply and squeeze your hands into fists, tensing all the muscles and joints of your arms and fingers as much as you can before exhaling to release and uncurl your fingers.

Inhale and squeeze all your pelvic muscles as well as the muscles of your butt while tensing your abdomen before exhaling slowly to release. Inhale while curling your toes, activating all the muscles of your legs before exhaling to release and unclench your muscles. Rest in a state of complete relaxation and take 10 or more deep breaths.

Yoga Pre-Thoracic Surgery

Yoga has been known to boost your immune system, build strength and flexibility as well as aid in detoxifying your internal organs. It is especially useful before surgery as it also provides techniques to fight stress and anxiety as well as side effects such as constipation and fatigue. Yoga helps to keep the oxygen flowing and the breathing techniques are mobile.

Below are some asanas that you can practice to help strengthen the muscles of your chest which improve the health and functioning of your lungs. A word of caution, that while these gentle exercises are safe for most people, please do check with your doctor for approval.

Sukhasana (Cross-Legged Sitting Pose)

Sit in a normal cross-legged pose and hold your left wrist with your right hand behind your back. Inhale while slowly pulling your shoulders back and expanding your chest. Exhale and slowly bend forward as much as you can and try to touch your forehead to your right knee. Inhale again and lift yourself to the starting position. Now repeat for the other side by trying to touch your forehead to the left knee.

This pose is crucial for the lungs as it revitalises the blood flow and gets rid of harmful toxins from the lung muscles. It can also aid in treating respiratory disorders, cough, and cold symptoms.

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Lie flat on your stomach and place your forehead on the ground. Place both your elbows on either side of your ribcage, palms flat on the ground. Slowly, inhale and push yourself up, lifting your upper body while stretching your back and belly muscles. You can tilt your head back but ensure that your neck is safe. Straighten out your arms as much as you can and hold this asana for about 15-30 seconds before exhaling and releasing the pose.

This pose aids in stretching out the chest and lungs as well as strengthening the spine and giving relief from asthmatic symptoms.

Matsyasana (Fish Pose)

Slowly lay on your back with your knees bent in modification or your feet outstretched in front of you. Place your elbows next to your ribcage before inhaling and pushing up your chest by lifting your shoulder blades, thoracic spine, and sternum towards the ceiling before gently dropping your head back and touching the ground with the crown of your head. Keep inhaling and exhaling deeply to open up the chest. For modifications, you can always place yoga blocks beneath your spine and head to support the balance if your elbows are under too much pressure. Keep in this pose for as long as you are comfortable before gently releasing to lie flat on the ground.

The Fish Pose encourages deep breathing by stretching and strengthening the lung muscles as well as improved circulation and blood distribution throughout the body.

Ardha Matsyendrasana (Sitting Half Spinal Twist)

Sit comfortably with your spine straight and your legs stretched out in front of you. Inhale and bend your right leg, placing the right foot beside your left hip. Exhale and tuck your left leg beneath your right hip. Inhale and place your right hand on your left foot and your left hand behind you. Exhale and gently twist to the left and look over your left shoulder. Ensure that your spine is straight as you hold the pose for 30 seconds, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Gently, come out of the pose and repeat for the other side.

This pose is quite efficient in giving relief from breathing difficulties as the twisting of the torso inspires deep breathing, reviving the lung muscles, and helping in improved circulation of oxygen in the lung cavity.

In conclusion, yoga’s ancient techniques not only bring balance to the physical and mental demands of our body but have been found to improve our bodily functions. Patients who have gone for or are going for thoracic surgeries benefit greatly from practising yoga due to the improvement in lung functions as well as the increased blood diffusion throughout the body.

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