This week in class we have been exploring how our yoga practice helps to support our immune system health. Helping to boost the immune system is just one of the benefits of a regular yoga practice and at this time of year when coughs and colds are rife this aspect really comes into its own.
The practice of yoga provides a gentle, natural means of supporting the immune system on a day-to-day basis and there are many ways in which it achieves this. Practicing yoga postures and yogic breathing techniques lower the stress hormones produced in the body, strengthen the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulate the lymphatic system to process and expel more toxins, and increase oxygenated blood and blood circulation.
It is well researched that stress can compromise the immune system. When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced which is why we are then more susceptible to infections. In addition, the stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes in the body, which are the white blood cells that ward off infection.
Yoga is widely known as a practice that helps to reduce stress and anxiety which in turn helps to lower the stress hormones that affect the immune system. Yoga, as a mind-body practice, helps to reduce stress and anxiety through its physical postures, controlled breathing, meditation and relaxation. Ample research has shown that just 20 minutes of meditation a day increases endorphins, decreases cortisol levels, and fosters positive states of mind to promote better health.
Condition the lungs and respiratory tract
Since both colds and flu attack the bronchial passages, it makes sense that conditioning the lungs and maximising one’s breathing capacity through pranayama (yogic breathing) would help to build immune resistance. Cold and flu infections, allergies, asthma, and other chronic respiratory conditions are directly linked to a weakened immune response due to disturbed and irregular habits of breathing. Therefore, sectional breathing (our full yogic breath) and rapid abdominal breathing (kapalabhati) can help to increase the resistance of the respiratory tract and practices like alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodana) can help to increase the resistance of the sinuses.
Cultivating balance in our body systems
We have several systems in our bodies that work very closely with our immunity and yoga helps to support their functions in order to boost health and immunity. Yoga poses stimulate the lymphatic system to process and expel more toxins, they increase oxygenated blood and blood circulation thus having a direct effect on our circulatory system (which is basically our heart and our blood), they activate the various chakras, or energy centres, in the body which influence the endocrine system (also known as our hormonal system) and they also have a positive and calming effect on our nervous system which is responsible for our stress response.
By using yoga to cultivate balance in our body systems, and in our body, in general, we can support, nourish, strengthen and build our health and immunity.
Yoga Postures to Boost the Immune System
Here are some examples of postures that will help to boost the immune system.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
As both an inverted posture and a forward bend, this posture encourages blood circulation to the head, sinuses, chest and lungs which ultimately helps to ease congestion and allows the lungs and sinuses to drain off fluid. This simple resting posture also increases circulation in the body because your head is lower than your heart. Promoting good circulation can help allow immune cells to flow freely so they can more effectively fight off infection. All inverted postures and standing forward bends would have this same effect.
Bhujangasana is a heart opening pose which stimulates the thymus, an organ located behind the chest bone that is responsible for the growth of T-cells. These cells are your body’s first response to a cold or flu and improve the body’s immunity.
Matsyasana (Supported Fish)
In the supported version of this pose (with blocks to support the upper back – at the bottom tips of your shoulder blades – and behind your head) this is an invigorating restorative pose that opens up the heart and lungs, thus breaking up congestion in the lungs and sinuses and which also stimulates the thymus which helps improve the body’s immunity level.
Another example of a heart-opening pose that opens the chest and stimulates the thymus gland and respiratory system.
Yoga tradition suggests that colds and flu also result from poor digestion or an energy imbalance originating in the digestive tract, which results in a build-up of phlegm, mucus and toxins which move into the lungs and which hinder the immune system. Therefore postures that compress, extend and twist the stomach can help release this build-up.
Dhanurasana is an example of a posture that compresses the stomach and which helps improve the flow of white cells by putting pressure on the digestive system.
Parivrtta Parsva Konasana (Revolved Side Angle)
Parivrtta Parsva Konasana is just one example of a twisting pose that can help to massage the digestive organs thereby encouraging the elimination of toxins within the body and which can help a host of digestive ailments. Any yoga twists would have the same effect and can be included in a practice to boost immunity.
There are many variations of Kurmasana but this posture is well known to be a tonic for the body. It supports the thymus and also helps with digestive issues and improves blood flow and circulation to the body.
Obviously these are just a few examples of postures that can help to boost the immune system, but included in a regular yoga practice and combined with breathing techniques, meditation and relaxation these will help to keep you healthier for longer.