Advance with MUSC Health

Learn the Benefits of Yogic Breathing for Your Health

Advance With MUSC Health
February 06, 2023
Group of people practicing yogic breathing.

Breathing is simple, right? Inhale, exhale -- all without thinking twice.

Fact is, breathing is more complex than many of us realize; regulated breathing techniques can enhance our health and well-being, says an MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher and certified yoga therapist.

“Our breathing process -- the way we inhale, hold our breath, and exhale -- can change our mind and our body in a positive way,” says Sundar Balasubramanian, Ph.D. Dr. Balasubramanian holds his doctorate in biochemistry and is leading a study on the benefits of yogic breathing for breast cancer patients. “There are more than 100 ways people can regulate their breathing, and yogic breathing is one of the ways.”

Dr. Balasubramanian, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at MUSC, has written two books, “Prana Science” and “Mind Your Breathing,” that instruct readers on how to use their breathing to optimize their health. A yoga practitioner since adolescence in India, he teaches breathing techniques virtually and in-person to cancer patients and adults over 18 at MUSC Health’s Health & Wellness Institute on Chuck Dawley Boulevard.

He compares the techniques to a toolbox that anyone can use to create their desired outcome.

“Every single breathing exercise will have its own benefits and physiological response,” he says. “Slow breathing exercises can calm your mind, deepen your breathing, and serve as a warmup to improve circulation and heart function. For cancer patients, it can also lessen brain fog and the frustrating memory loss associated with chemotherapy. It depends on what you want to do.”

Dr. Balasubramanian recently completed a small study involving cancer patients to find out if regulated breathing could improve their symptoms.

According to preliminary data he collected from patients during their cancer treatment, patients who practiced regulated breathing reported an improvement in mood, appetite, pain management, and their ability to relax.

Those results are the foundation for his recently launched study, funded by NIH, involving breast cancer patients who have undergone radiation therapy. He and his colleagues have developed an app, Kumbi, that patients can use to learn and practice breathing exercises. Patients also can report changes in their physical and emotional well-being. The app also allows him to track how often people access their breathing exercises.

Patients also will provide 4 saliva samples that will be examined at intervals for changes in proteins, including tumor suppressors and inflammatory molecules, in the saliva.

“Our research has shown that breathing exercises can improve salivation and increase proteins in the saliva that are linked to improved immune function and proteins like nerve growth factor, which helps improve memory and plays a role in Alzheimer’s,” he says. “We want to study that further.”

Although Dr. Balasubramanian concentrates on breast cancer patients, he emphasizes that anyone can come to the health and wellness institute and learn yogic breathing and enjoy the benefits.

“Yogic breathing is very easy to learn and practice,” he says. “Deep, slow breathing causes the breath rate to go down, and that sends signals to the brain to relax. It also increases the ability to memorize and focus; it improves circulation and lets the cardiovascular system work at its optimal level.”

Dr. Balasubramanian says people don’t have to learn any foreign chanting or language or adopt a culture or belief system that they’re not comfortable with. “They can incorporate their own beliefs into exercises or keep it neutral,” he says.

He is enthusiastic about the potential for yogic breathing in health care. At MUSC, he is working on expanding opportunities to all cancer patients. He is studying ways to incorporate breathing exercises into MUSC Health’s other programs, such as the smoking-cessation program.

Meanwhile, he is collaborating with researchers at S.C. State University to develop an app for breast, prostate and colorectal cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy and radiation to study disparities in cancer outcomes.

“Cancer patients feel less energized and depressed because of the side effects of their illness and their treatment side effects,” he says. “We learned that people want to learn stress management exercises early after their diagnosis. Our goal is to expand our reach to all cancer patients at Hollings. We are open to all ideas…diversity, equity, inclusion.”

To learn more about yogic breathing, visit the Health & Wellness Institute or call 843-985-0802. Watch Dr. Balasubramanian’s video here.