At the age of 13, Menka Purswaney moved with her family from India to Hong Kong. She developed severe asthma, and tests showed her lung capacity was extremely diminished. “I could not climb up a set of stairs without panting, and taking several pauses to get air. Doctors told my parents that my asthma was incurable,” says Purswaney, who was prescribed a treatment plan with inhalers and steroids. “My parents could not bear to see me so heavily medicated,” says the now 41-year-old. They decided to take her to Jindal Naturecure Institute, a naturopathy and yoga centre in Bangalore, India. The centre takes a holistic approach to the prevention and cure of chronic diseases through detoxification and lifestyle modification, and says it is a pioneer of “modern, drug-less healthcare in India”. For Purswaney, treatment came in the form of instruction in yoga poses, or asanas, to improve her respiratory system, and in pranayamas, or yogic breathing techniques. She also followed a vegan diet and went to bed early and woke up early. What’s the key to better sleep and less stress? It’s how you breathe “I spent a few weeks at Jindal waking up at 6am every morning and going to bed by 9pm. Under the guidance of a teacher, I practised asanas to improve my lung capacity and open up the chest.” These included surya namaskar (the 12-step sun salutations sequence), shalabhasana (the back-bending locust pose), bhujangasana (the cobra pose, a heart-opening back bend that stretches the entire upper body), ustrasana (the kneeling back-bending camel pose) and dhanurasana (the bow pose, another back-bender). Pranayama helped improve her breathing, clear the constant phlegm and runny nose, and prevent shortness of breath. She learned the techniques of anulom vilom (alternate nostril breathing, deeply inhaling and exhaling while alternating between nostrils) and bhastrika (“bellows breath”, in which you take a deep breath and release it after counting to five, then inhale and exhale with force, mimicking panting). She also learned kapal bhati (“skull shining breath”, forceful exhalations and automatic inhalation at a fast pace) and bhramari (“humming bee breath”, taking take a long, deep breath in through the nose, then exhaling slowly, making a “hmmm” sound at the back of the throat). Purswaney says that the regular yoga and pranayama practice, along with the change in her diet, cured her of asthma. “A fortnight after starting the new regimen, I felt like I had a new pair of lungs. It was time to say goodbye to inhalers, steroids and drugs.” Back in Hong Kong and no longer in need of medication, Purswaney went on to join her school netball, basketball and hockey teams. Anna Ödman, an Iyengar yoga teacher who also suffers from asthma, explains that yoga helps with asthma by opening the chest muscles, softening the diaphragm and making more space for the lungs, which encourages better breathing. “A regular practice of yoga also increases self-awareness and brings about an acceptance of one’s situation,” explains 50-year-old Ödman, who teaches at the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Hong Kong. In 2017, after having two children, Purswaney started suffering from back pain and fatigue and returned to practising yoga after a lengthy hiatus. She had ended her regular practice from the time she was cured of asthma until the age of 37. “I didn’t see yoga as fun. I saw it as therapeutic and, since I didn’t have any serious illnesses any more, I didn’t think about yoga again until after having children and wanting to regain my health,” she says. Reviving her practice changed her perception, and she decided to train as a yoga teacher herself. How Iyengar Yoga gave three people their lives back Purswaney enrolled in a two-year youth empowerment programme with the Chinmaya Mission, a spiritual organisation that promotes inner growth. She studied the ancient Hindu scriptures and started teaching yoga philosophy to children through storytelling sessions. “After teaching yoga philosophy to children for years and training in yoga, I realised that yoga can be introduced to children in a fun and child-friendly way,” Purswaney says. “I felt that if learning yoga had been more engaging for me as a teenager, I would have continued with the practice and reaped its many benefits for longer. That inspired me to start teaching children. I wanted to create a ‘school outside school’.” She began by teaching yoga to her own children, then started The World of Yoga School in 2019, dedicated to teaching yoga to all children. Purswaney’s kids’ classes incorporate art, music, play, dance and stories together with yoga asanas in a way that is compelling for them. “Children understand concepts when they are presented in a simple way. They begin the class with a short, guided meditation , followed by breathing techniques and then learn about yoga anatomy and philosophy through music and games,” says Purswaney. “One of the best ways to teach children is through songs.” During the coronavirus pandemic, she released an album of yoga songs for children and adults called Menka’s Sound of Yoga , available on Spotify and Apple Music. The people teaching special needs yoga and making it accessible to all “To understand the breath, children make a set of lungs, heart and diaphragm. We inhale through the nose and children learn how the nose filters and warms the air we take in, causing less chances of catching bacteria or viruses,” she says. “To understand happiness , they learn a song about mindfulness and how, when we exercise, hug and laugh our brain creates the four happy hormones – oxytocin, serotonin, endorphin and dopamine.” Practising yoga has been extremely beneficial for the children during the pandemic, she believes. “Covid-19 has disrupted their routine more than ever. They couldn’t go to school, meet their friends, play sports or freely engage in outdoor activities. It’s all been very confusing and distressing for them,” Purswaney says. “In these times, yoga and music give them movement within a confined space which releases happy hormones in their bodies. It gives them the knowledge that, whenever they feel sad, confused, angry, scared or can’t sleep well, they can use breathing to come back to a safe place like home.” Nine-year-old Theo has been attending Purswaney’s classes for the past year. His mother, Lucia Caula, says yoga has made Theo calmer, more confident and more flexible. “Yoga helps him understand his body and mind,” Caula says. “In situations when he becomes nervous, he asks for some time to breathe. When he was nervous about getting the vaccine , he used his breath to help calm himself, by himself.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .