In honour of Stoptober, FG founder Michele Pernetta looks at how yoga can not only support quitting but also help heal your body from the effects of smoking.
70% of British smokers would like to quit and about three million try each year. More than 11 million people in Britain have quit and are now ex-smokers. Stopping smoking reduces the risk of 50 different illnesses and conditions. The risk of heart attack drops by 50% one year after quitting. Cancer risks drop with every year of not smoking. We are all aware of the detrimental effects of smoking and the positive effects of quitting.
With smoking becoming more and more difficult in public places, many people are thinking it is time to kick their habit. They may also be concerned as to how they might limit the difficulty and discomfort that accompanies the withdrawal from cigarettes, as well as do their best to aid the body’s recovery and return to good health.
Contrary to what many people think, times of change and difficulty are often the best times to take up a new exercise programme as, apart form the health benefits, it provides a distraction from the old habit we are trying to change and allows us to focus on something more positive. Yoga provides us with all we need to take us through this life changing decision.
In the essay The Secret of How to Change, from his book “The Eating Gorilla Comes In Peace”, author and spiritual teacher Adi Da writes: “True change and higher human adaptation are not made on the basis of any self-conscious resistance to old, degenerative, and subhuman habits. Change is not a matter of not doing something. It is a matter of doing something else -something that is inherently right, free and pleasurable. Therefore, the key is insight and the freedom to feel and participate in ways of functioning that are right and new.”
Many exercise programmes are beneficial during and after giving up smoking. They increase cardiovascular fitness, help to detoxify the body of the pollutants we have picked up from smoking and help with general wellbeing. Yoga however is unrivalled as a means to bring the body to total health and vitality. This is because while doing all the things a more conventional exercise programme might do, yoga has been proven over hundreds of years and much research and countless testimonials to:
- Improve the lungs and their ability to carry away waste and oxygenate the blood
- Address the balance of the major systems of the body
- Detoxify the body, lungs and blood
- Strengthen the immune system
- Improve cardio vascular fitness
- Increase stamina
- Improve digestion and our ability to absorb nutrients from our food
- Balance glandular systems
- Balance blood sugar levels and metabolism
- Relieve pressure on joints and discs
- Improve calcium absorption
Although any yoga practice would be beneficial as an aid, mentally and physically, for giving up smoking, my particular expertise is in the Fierce Grace Method, and I will detail some of the benefits below, then look at some common asanas in both FG yoga and other yoga methods that can support the recovery of your body and mind.
How Hot Yoga amplifies the detoxification process
Fierce Grace Yoga, which is a specifically designed hatha yoga system designed to deliver total health to 100% of the body, has the added benefit of the heated room which promotes sweating, a very effective way of removing many toxins from the body, as well as preventing injury. The humid warm air also helps the lungs expectorate, and that humidity is particularly pleasant, especially if we are suffering from any congestion after giving up smoking.
Smokers have higher levels of toxic metals in their bodies, and by helping the body to speed up it's detoxification process, we are reducing the time it takes to get through the difficult first few weeks after quitting. The sweating in Hot Yoga speeds up this process, and the 90 minutes of controlled deep breathing during the class.
Help your joints and skeletal system recover faster
Most chiropractors/osteopaths would agree that smoking slows the healing time of any tissue due to its affects on the circulation, and that people who smoke are more prone to disc injuries. For example, it affects the microcirculation of the intervertebral discs, which makes it harder for the disc to recover from an injury. Yoga can help to increase the local circulation and therefore speed the recovery. Through yoga’s gentle but effective re-aligning of the body, and the stretching that relieves pressure on joints and discs, we are helping the body to recover and repair, not just from an effects of smoking, but also from the general compression caused by gravity, impact sports and muscle tightness.
Even though yoga is not an “impact” sport, it has also been shown to increase bone density. Smokers tend to have lower bone density due to fact that smoking causes impaired calcium absorption. Yoga is weight-bearing exercise, where the bones are loaded with weight, for example in squats (Awkward Pose), the weight load is transferred down the legs. Standing poses are extremely beneficial because they are weight bearing on the large bones of the legs and hips and they promote flexibility.
The feel-good factor - recovering hormonal equilibrium with yoga
Many people suffer from extreme appetite after giving up smoking (perhaps because the absorption of nutrients from food is compromised in a smoker) by bringing balance to the metabolism, and to the appetite, this can come to harmony sooner. Yoga can help doing this by regulating the thyroid and parathyroid glands (critical for metabolism) located in the neck, when we create a "chin lock" that squeezes stale blood from the area.
In Fierce Grace Yoga we compress and stretch the thyroid frequently in several poses, which helps balance our metabolism. In poses such as Standing Separate Leg head To Knee Pose and Head to Knee Pose we balance glandular systems by compressing the abdominal wall, affecting the pancreas and thyroid. Smokers are twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes and this posture is well documented to improve the function of the pancreas, as has been successful in helping people with this condition. This is reputedly beneficial for balancing the feel-good hormone serotonin, and our sleep/wake hormone melatonin, both of which can need a helping hand after smoking. Feeling good and happy can help us not to drop back into our old smoking habits again. These poses compress the throat and thyroid, thus helping with the balance of appetite and metabolism. Those who need to eat more get hungrier, and those who need to eat less get less hungry.
Many people are afraid to gain weight after giving up smoking. Yoga is the perfect way to address this, as you are not just burning calories, but helping to bring balance back to the body. Yes, Fierce Grace Yoga burns as many calories as any other vigorous exercise, (it's estimated that we burn between 500-900 calories during an FG class) but as many people may be taking it up after being sedentary, or not doing much physical exercise before, it is perfectly safe to start as a total beginner. The combination of cardiovascular work, with stretching and detoxifying, with the added benefit of the thousands of years of knowledge of how to effectively affect the internal organs and systems, makes it the perfect way to kick our old habits and move into a new level of wellbeing.
Having taught many people who have either just given up smoking, or who start yoga as a smoker and are then prompted to give it up, I feel it is important to mention that although regular yoga practice will usually result in weight loss, combined with a sensible eating plan, allowing the body to balance in it’s own time is important. Due to deficiencies in the body caused by smoking, and nutrients from food being unable to be absorbed while we are still smoking, sometimes we get more hungry after we quit as the body is desperately seeking the nutrients it needs. One need not be too concerned, as long as one is eating whole foods, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, and not pigging out on junk food and sugar. Gradually this will balance out and the weight will come off. Anyone concerned about any aspects of their quitting smoking programme, or who experience any unusual symptoms, should always embark on a programme under the supervision of their doctor.
Establishing a healthier way to release stress
Many people have used smoking as a way to deal with stress or pressure in their lives. Yoga is a real alternative, as it removes stress from the body, through stretching, opening, twisting, pressing and squeezing the whole body, and through the breath, allowing us to breathe through difficulties and help release them, by taking our mind away from our troubles for an hour and a half, and by bringing oxygen to the whole body and brain, every cell is revitalised. Let Yoga become your new addiction!
It has been proven that some of the temporary relaxing effects of smoking come purely from the seven minutes or so, of deep inhaling and exhaling. Yoga gives us 90 minutes of deep breathing, while allowing the breath to actually do its work cleansing, oxygenating and energising the body, instead of toxifying and enervating us.
Healing the lungs
And perhaps most importantly, yoga can have a profound affect on the recovery of our lungs. For heavy smokers who already have lung damage (bronchitis/emphysema) yoga can help in two ways - it can improve the function of remaining lung tissue and it can help with withdrawal symptoms as yoga practice requires the patient to switch their focus from for cravings, to self (mental.)
Many postures increase the flexibility of the intercostal muscles, and thereby help to expand the ribcage. The backward bending stretches and opens the ribcage, and by this means we create more space for the lungs to expand. This improves the functioning of the lungs and their capacity to bring oxygen to our bodies. It is believed that disease does not begin where there is an abundance of oxygen.
The best poses for ex smokers
The standing postures increase our heart rate, and our cardio vascular system is strengthened. This is good for overall fitness, and especially for oxygenation of the blood, and for detoxification. Standing Head To Knee, Standing Bow Pulling Pose, and Balancing Stick Pose, bring our heart rate up, (Balancing Stick doubles the heart rate in five seconds, from 70 to 140!) thus improving the body’s ability to flush out toxicity, strengthening the heart and lungs and bring circulation to the whole body.
This pose opens all the joints of the body and brings increased circulation to the reproductive organs (male smokers are twice as likely to suffer from impotence, and female smokers are 30% less fertile than their non smoking counterparts, so this can’t be a bad thing!)
Good posture is critical to keeping your spine healthy, strong, and flexible. Yoga, particularly standing and seated poses, can help. When someone suffers from osteoporosis, which is more prevalent in smokers due to smoking inhibiting calcium absorption their vertebrae weaken and become vulnerable to collapse. If they have poor posture on top of a weakened spine, the likelihood of vertebral fracture increases. If the head sits forward on the shoulders, the weight is not evenly distributed along the spine. Instead, the fronts of the thoracic vertebrae receive the majority of the weight and are prone to stress fractures.
Practice standing, sitting, and walking with the same attention to alignment of the spine that you bring to Tree Pose to help strengthen the back muscles and improve your posture. Including forward and backward bends in your daily yoga practice can strengthen the front and the back part of the vertebral column and increase overall flexibility.
Wind Removing Pose helps with constipation and brings circulation to the colon, improving elimination. This aids digestion, which can have been impaired by the chemicals and toxins in the inhaled smoke, so it is very beneficial to improve our digestion and elimination in order to be able to absorb all the nutrients from our food. Smokers are often deficient in many vital nutrients, and we can improve our body’s ability to absorb nutrients by improving the digestive system.
Half Tortoise Pose brings oxygen to the very lowest portion of the lungs, an area hard to reach through every day breathing, once again helping to remove carbon dioxide, which in turn allows the oxygen to be picked up and transported to the body. This pose brings mental clarity and improves circulation to the skin and eyes, brain, thyroid, parathyroid and pituitary.
Camel gives the deepest stretch to the ribcage, opening us up and allowing the lungs full extension capacity.
Rabbit Pose is good for the immune system, which may be compromised from smoking. It also gives the deepest stretch to our spines, reducing the risk of compression of the nerves and discs
Unsurprisngly, yogic breathing practices (or pranayama) also have an important role to play on our physical recovery from smoking. Pranayama increases the capacity of the lungs (through controlled full expansion and contraction of the lungs) and the elasticity of the lungs, through this controlled full breathing. The control of the breath with the throat and the inhaling through the nose accelerates the air and pushes it down to the very bottom of the lungs, where it is more efficiently utilised. The deep exhalation through the mouth rids the lungs of waste products. We are also learning deep abdominal breathing which is more effective at oxygenating our blood, but also has added benefits in reducing stress and promoting deep relaxation.
Dr Poornima Kumar MRCP writes “Regular practice of pranayama and yoga help increase both total lung capacity as well as increase surface area for gas exchange to occur in the lungs, thus improving oxygenation in blood, and aiding elimination of toxins that accumulate in blood and tissues during metabolic activity.”
It helps if we understand a little about the lungs. At the bottom of the lungs we have the densest area of small sacs. These sacs pick up carbon dioxide from the blood. In order for them to pick up the oxygen we breathe in, they have to release these carbon dioxide molecules first. So we have to first exhale very deeply to allow these sacs to release these carbon dioxide molecules, and then we inhale very deeply to allow these sacs to pick up as much oxygen as possible so it can be carried by the blood. Oxygenation of the blood has been seriously compromised in a smoker so this is particularly helpful. The opening of the chest and ribcage through the position of the arms in this breathing exercise makes the process much more effective.
This breathing exercise is good for asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.
Recover your relationship with yourself with yoga
By smoking we often learn to ignore our body and what it really needs and wants. Through yoga we re-learn what feels good, we re-establish a relationship with ourselves that is about care, and respect for our body. A new relationship is formed and a compassion and love is developed for ourselves that can then extend out into the world and our relationships.
One simple benefit of taking up an exercise programme such as yoga while trying to give up smoking is that one will simply feel the limits smoking is placing on one’s body, and it’s effects on one’s performance. This is a real goad to stop, as the more we begin to enjoy our new programme, and ant to get better at it, we simply want to remove the obstacles standing in our way.
As Adi Da says in The Secret Of How To Change:
“The tendencies and patterns of our earlier adaptations are not wrong. They were appropriate enough in their own moment of creation, and there is no need to feel guilt or despair about them. Likewise, efforts to oppose and change them are basically fruitless. Such efforts are forms of conflict, and they only reinforce the modes of self-possession. What is not used becomes obsolete, whereas what is opposed is kept before us. Therefore the creative principle of change is the one of relaxed inspection and awareness of existing tendencies and persistent, full feeling orientation to right, new regenerative functional patterns.”
A consistent yoga practice can give us confidence and stability as we move through the world, and provide us with the arena we need to stay stress free, healthy, and full of vitality. These are the reasons we feel able to kick our bad habits, and not need our addictions to give us a false sense of wellbeing. The best way to change is not to have all our attention on that which we want to change but to put our attention on what is new and life positive so that we gradually forget our old ways and embrace our new ones.
For help and advice on stopping smoking there are many helpful organisations and help sites such as:
Good luck to everyone attempting to quit this month and any other month!