Yoga for Your Immune System
Updated: Feb 4
I am very intrigued by the role that yoga plays in building immunity. None of my yoga students who practice regularly, nor myself, have had Covid, even when we have been exposed or other family members have gotten it. Of course, there are many other variables. I believe the most important factor is that we have closely followed the science and medical advice. We have been fully vaccinated or have stayed in isolation (which is an ancient yogic practice.) We generally follow the CDC guidelines, understanding that they may not always be 100 percent accurate as we are in the most rapidly evolving times possibly ever experienced by humanity. Studying the philosophy of yoga helps us to navigate times of crisis and stress. And, of course, if you or someone else does get infected with Covid, the yogin practitioner will cultivate a compassionate and non judgmental attitude. Life, illness, and death all happen.
Stress is the biggest challenge for the immune system. Yoga is one of the most effective stress busting activities. It is important here to emphasize that yoga is not just the asana practice but includes breathing, energy regulation and meditation techniques as well. The sympathetic nervous system creates inflammation in response to stress and this is actually good in short bursts but becomes damaging if it is chronic or prolonged. The immune system is strengthened by the effective management of short term stress which yoga practice provides. In addition, consistent yoga practice over time leads us to eliminate unnecessary stress and tension from our lives. We learn to slow down and take better care of ourselves.
Sarvangasana, shoulderstand, is one of the best postures for supporting the immune system. It is the most relaxing of all the inversions and supports the movement of the lymph system which usually has to work against gravity. Healthy movement of fluids through the lymph system is a key aspect of supporting the immune system as these fluids flush out toxins and provide nourishment to the tissues. Shoulderstand is also good for the circulatory system for much the same reason, supporting the vigorous flow of blood in the body. And shoulderstand promotes the health of the thyroid gland, the part of the endocrine system which regulates metabolism as well as hormones, including stress and destressing hormones. I recommend a daily 5-10 minute practice of either an active shoulderstand or a restorative variation known as Viparita Karani, or Legs Up the Wall.
Restorative yoga promotes the health of the whole nervous system, calming the sympathetic nervous system which creates inflammation. Thus, consistent practice maintains balance, regenerating the sympathetic nervous system when it is depleted by stress while simultaneously strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system which is directly working with the immune system (and the lymph, endocrine, respiratory, and circulatory systems which all support the immune system.)
Gentle, moderate, and vigorous practices of all the side stretching postures, such as Triangle and Side Angle, promote lung health. Covid is known for trying to accumulate in the sides of the lungs! And all of the twists, whether seated, standing, or reclining help to boost the immune system by purifying and strengthening our second brain, the belly brain. We now know that the gut, as in the stomach and the large and small intestines, is where many of the hormones, nutrients, and chemicals that sustain our immune system are manufactured and nourished.
Ocean breath, especially when emphasizing the detoxifying exhale, is very purifying for the respiratory system, which as mentioned above supports the immune system. Breath of Fire and Bellows Breath emphasize the exhale even more and thus have an even more powerful effect on the health of the lungs. Perhaps most interesting is Bees, or Brahmari, Breath in which you hum out the exhale. This is incredibly good for the immune system and for detoxifying and revitalizing the nasal passage and the lungs. Based on the same mechanics and science, yogic chanting also provides amazing benefits for the immune system. https://vimeo.com/496644308 for guidance in practicing Bee's Breath.
Humming as you exhale helps circulate healthy nitric rich air within the nasal sinuses, which creates a better environment to help protect against pathogens. It then also allows more nitric oxide to enter the lungs on the inhale. Nitric oxide helps immune cells throughout the body destroy pathogens, while opening blood vessels wider and expanding airways. Nitric oxide in the lungs will kill or inhibit growth of many bacteria, parasites, and viruses, especially the coronavirus. Humming also creates vibrations in the inner ear which are being picked up by the vagus nerve, the bidirectional highway of communication between body and brain. Humming in a synchronized way with the breath puts the brain into a flow state. Having your system in flow translates to many health benefits, including less stress. (This last paragraph is adapted from an article by Mary Anderson, Get Your Body Humming, published in Shape Magazine, December 2021.)
Plow, or Halasana, offered as a restorative yoga practice strengthens the lungs and is also a gentle inversion.