Yogic breathing for high altitude
A relaxed position: Yogis practice some simple yoga breathing exercises by sitting cross-legged. Courtesy of Tim Jahja
A couple of months ago, I was visiting a mountainous area about 4,200 meters above sea level, when yoga came my rescue. We had flown on a chopper for much of the way up there, hardly giving us any time to acclimatize, and as I sat in the car going up the mountain, I began to feel a mild sensation of discomfort.
I found it hard to breathe, and felt slightly light-headed. A person traveling in our group felt worse, she could barely stand up, felt nauseous and was eventually given oxygen.
Then I remembered the yogic breathing, I began to deepen my inhale and prolong my exhale, focusing on my breath until the discomfort disappeared as fast as it had appeared.
The few times I forgot to maintain the deep diaphragmatic breathing, I felt the discomfort creeping in again.
I was experiencing a mild case of altitude sickness, which occurs when the body runs out of oxygen in high altitude. Symptoms vary from nausea, exhaustion and hyperventilation, to cerebral edema, the accumulation of excessive fluid in the substance of the brain.
Interestingly, shortly after, I was asked to teach yoga to a group of mountaineers on an expedition to climb the world’s seven highest summits. Having climbed two of the mountains, they were intent on complementing their training with yoga to help them overcome more dangerous challenges awaiting them.
Mountaineering requires a high level of fitness and strong mental preparedness, and yoga practice is increasingly known to help climbers cope with the challenges of adapting to high altitude.
Research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2007 compares the physiological responses to high altitude hypoxic conditions in four groups of human subjects: a group of Caucasian subjects, Caucasian yoga practitioners, Nepalese native Sherpas with an active lifestyle, and Nepalese Buddhist monks who are yoga practitioners.
The results showed that at a high altitude, the Caucasian yoga trainees maintained satisfactory oxygen transport, with a minimal increase in ventilation and with reduced hematological changes. This kind of efficiency is comparable to that of the native Sherpas and the Buddhist monks.
The study concludes that respiratory adaptations induced by the practice of yoga may represent an efficient strategy to cope with altitude-induced hypoxia.
The Indian army has known this all along. In the past few years, it has incorporated yoga practice into the daily training routine of its soldiers posted in the conflict area of Kashmir.
At 11,000 to 21,000 feet above sea level and with often minus 60 degree Celsius weather, the Siachen Glacier is the world’s highest battlefield, making the soldiers vulnerable to high altitude sickness, hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissues) and the psychological stresses of isolation, monotony and separation from their family.
According to the High Altitude Medical Research Centre (HAMRC), the highest multi-specialty hospital in the world focusing on high-altitude medicine, yoga reduces wear and tear of the heart and produces mental tranquility, greater alertness, flexibility and enhanced tolerance of the cold.
By practicing a few minutes of pranayama (breathing technique), gentle asanas (postures) and meditation, many of the soldiers have testified to the physical and mental benefits.
But even if you’re just a casual hiker or someone who, like me, happened to be on a brief visit to a high-altitude area, you could benefit from the deep breathing technique used in yoga practice to avert hypoxia.
Here’s a pranayama practice that might come in handy when preparing yourself for the challenge of high-altitude breathing, as well as to help you cope with it when you’re there.
The little death: The corpse pose, or savasana, is an essential part of yoga practice, as it allows the whole body and mind to relax. This is a simple deep breathing exercise that uses all respiratory muscles to their fullest. To do this, you can lie down on your mat or bed in a comfortable savasana position but without a pillow, or sit on a chair, or cross-legged on a cushion.
If you’re sitting, find a comfortable position to sit upright without being rigid, allow your shoulders to drop and your hands to rest anywhere comfortable, then close your eyes gently.
First empty your lungs by extending your exhale. Now slowly breathe in allowing the belly to relax and enlarge, the diaphragm to lower, allowing the air to enter the lungs.
Continue breathing the second stage of your inhale by expanding the ribcage without straining.
The third stage of your inhale must allow the lungs to fill completely by raising the collar bone.
When the lungs are completely full, breathe out in the same sequence as when inhaling.
At the beginning, inhale and exhale for the same amount of counts, for example, if you breathe in five counts, breathe out also in five counts.
Later, as you gain more strength and your lungs increase in capacity, try to exhale twice as long as you inhale. So if you inhale for five counts, exhale for 10 counts.
Make sure you breathe easily without straining, and your body continues to be relaxed. Ideally, keep your respiration deep, slow, silent and easy.
You can practice this breathing technique every day as part of your daily training before you practice yoga asana or other physical exercises, or as a standalone practice in the morning or evening.
This is not meditation, but after a while, you can let go of the controlled part of your breathing and just watch yourself breathe naturally for a few minutes or more. Then you will enter a more meditative practice.
I did not include an asana practice here, but basically all yoga poses are beneficial as integrated training for climbing, trekking or mountaineering.
You can begin your practice with a few rounds of sun salutations, then proceed to do some standing poses, followed by some backbends, some core strengthening, and then wind down with some twists, forward bends, deeper hip openers, inversion and then savasana.
Being in nature induces a meditative state of mind. And what better way to cultivate this state of mind then by connecting to your breath? Namaste.