Objective: Pulmonary rehabilitation improves exercise tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, many patients do not have access to pulmonary rehabilitation programs. We hypothesized that an alternative to pulmonary rehabilitation to improve exercise tolerance is the practice of pranayama, or yoga breathing, which could be done independently at home. We also sought to determine whether yoga nonprofessionals could adequately teach pranayama to patients.
Design: Proof-of-concept, randomized, double-blind, controlled pilot trial.
Settings/location: Two academic pulmonary practices.
Subjects: Forty-three patients with symptomatic, moderate-to-severe COPD.
Interventions: Twelve weeks of pranayama plus education versus education alone. Two yoga professionals trained the research coordinators to conduct all pranayama teaching and monitored the quality of the teaching and the practice of pranayama by study participants.
Outcome measures: The primary outcome was a change in the 6-min walk distance (6MWD). Secondary outcomes included changes in lung function, markers of oxidative stress and systemic inflammation, and measures of dyspnea and quality of life.
Results: The 6MWD increased in the pranayama group (least square mean [95% confidence interval] = 28 m [-5 to 61]) and decreased in the control group (-15 m [-47 to 16]), with a nearly significant treatment effect (p = 0.06) in favor of pranayama. Pranayama also resulted in small improvements in inspiratory capacity and air trapping. Both groups had significant improvements in various measures of symptoms, but no overall differences in respiratory system impedance or markers of oxidative stress or systemic inflammation.
Conclusion: This pilot study successfully demonstrated that pranayama was associated with improved exercise tolerance in patients with COPD. Lay personnel were able to adequately teach patients to practice pranayama. These results suggest that pranayama may have significant clinical benefits for symptomatic patients with COPD, a concept that needs to be confirmed in future, larger clinical trials.
Keywords: COPD; breathing exercises; pranayama; pulmonary rehabilitation; yoga.