The benefits of yoga are wide-ranging and it has been touted as a cure for … just about everything, at this point! While calling it a ‘cure-all’ is definitely overstating the case, it is true that yoga has wide-ranging health benefits: including improving the functioning of your immune system.
The way this works isn’t difficult to understand. In a nutshell, immune function is suppressed in times of stress. When you’re stressed your body gears up to fight or flee the threat to your security, and in doing so diverts energy away from your body’s restorative, healing, maintenance functions. Stress that is out of control increases your risk of heart disease, digestive problems and depression. It can also lead people to engage in dysfunctional coping strategies like smoking, substance abuse, poor food choices and exercise habits. All of which are linked to poor immune functioning.
One of the main ways that yoga ‘works its magic’ on the immune system is simply by lowering stress levels and tapping into the power of your body’s relaxation response. Chronic stress affects almost every biological system in the body – but so does chronic relaxation (see chart below for examples). While the effect of chronic stress is to create wear and tear on your body’s systems. The effect of yoga is to positively influence the biological processes that bolster healthy immune system function. Yoga also improves lymph circulation and downregulates your body’s inflammatory processes, and has been shown to improve mood, foster community, encourage healthy behaviours, downregulate inflammatory processes, and improve sleep and digestion – all of which are associated with better immune system functioning.
Science and research have helped us to understand the underlying mechanisms of yoga – and how posture, breath, meditation, deep relaxation practices, massage and movement can impact our health and well-being. If you are looking for simple, effective, pleasurable practices that you can use to help bolster your immune system, I’m here to help. Read on.
Normally, we think of heart rate, blood pressure, immune function and digestion as being outside of our control. And they ARE outside of your DIRECT control, but you can INDIRECTLY gain a measure of control over these processes by turning OFF your stress response and turning ON your relaxation response. A simple physiological trick is to get into a comfortable, passive reclining or inverted position
THE SCIENCE: When you flip your body upside down, a reflex (called your baroreflex) kicks in, lowering your blood pressure and decreasing your heart rate so that you don’t experience dangerous levels of pressure in your head/brain/eyeballs. See here for a video explaining how this reflex works. This natural reflex has a sedative effect and anytime you’re in a relaxed inversion, this is what is happening to you on a physiological level. Flipping upside down is a very simple form of physiological trickery you can use to turn on your body’s relaxation response.
Turning upside down also encourages lymph circulation by reversing the pooling effect of gravity on the fluids in your body.
Try this version of Viparita Karani Mudra (Inverted Psychic Attitude). In addition to making use of your body’s natural reflexes, it gives you a mental focus – which is useful for turning off mental chatter.
Use self-massage to give your immune system a leg up by changing your muscle tone, your nervous tone, your digestion and lymph flow.
When you are under stress, your brain signals your muscles to tense in preparation to fight or flee (or freeze) in order to escape the perceived threat to your safety. Luckily, the pathway of communication between your brain and your muscles goes two ways. When you release muscle tension through massage, it sends a signal back to your brain that it can let go and relax too.
THE SCIENCE: Your body is loaded with pressure receptors that when activated through touch (massage, a hug, a weighted anxiety blanket) signals a reflex loop that relaxes your nervous system. Massage is relaxing, hugs are relaxing, being wrapped in a warm blanket is relaxing. We know this intuitively. So, one route to turning off your stress response is through the application of gentle pressure of massage. You can focus on high tension areas, such as shoulders, jaw or upper or lower back to start your process of unclenching.
You may have noticed that after a good, relaxing massage, you end up lying in a puddle of drool! Relaxing stimulates the production of enzyme-rich saliva in your mouth – which is where the process of digestion starts. When you massage your masseter muscle, you actually manually stimulate your salivary glands
Massage also has the effect of circulating blood and lymph. Your lymphatic system is incredibly important in your body’s defence against disease. The lymphatic system fights off infection and circulates lymphocytes and other immune system cells throughout your body. It disposes of cellular waste and circulates bacteria from your body fluids to specialized cells located in your lymph nodes, where they are destroyed. Unlike your circulatory system, which has a heart that pumps your blood around your body, your lymphatic system does not have its own pump. You have to circulate your own lymph by moving or with massage.
Self-massage can also Improve your sleep – and sleep is so important to your immune function. It is while you are at rest that your body does its important healing and tissue repair work.
Try this massage sequence for tension relief in your jaw/face.
As discussed above, movement and muscle contractions are important for moving lymph throughout your body. When you contract and lengthen muscles as you come into and out of yoga postures, you improve your lymph flow and with that, your lymphatic system function. But ANY movement will do!
Consider heading outdoors for a walk in the sunlight, and while you’re at it, soak up some valuable Vitamin D.
You have probably observed that when you are deeply relaxed or relieved you naturally fall into a pattern of exhaling deeply (think sighing with relief). You might also have noticed that when you are stressed your breath tends to be short and shallow. Just as your mental state can affect the way you breathe, you can affect your mental states by changing your breathing patterns. By exhaling fully and deeply, the way you would breathe if you were completely relaxed, you can shift yourself into relaxation mode. In a way, you sort of fake it until you make it, by breathing like you’re relaxed until you are actually relaxed.
Another breathing trick is to hum as you exhale. This is called Bumble Bee (or Brimhari) breathing because it creates the sound of a buzzing bee hive inside your head. While the thought of bees may not relax you, it turns out that humming (and singing) can be very relaxing.
Click on the video below for a quick tutorial on Bramhari Breathing
The healing effects of meditation are very well-researched and documented. Meditation is known to relieve stress, reduce inflammation, possibly reduce viral replication and lead to more positive psychological states.
Certain forms of meditation, such as Loving-Kindness (Metta) and Compassion (Tonglen) Meditation can also build feelings of social connectedness, which we need now more than ever. The current state of the world demands that we put some distance between ourselves – but this can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are also associated with hampered immune function. It is possible that meditations that focus on bolstering our sense of community can help to deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation - in addition to the known benefits for our immunity.
Try this Metta Meditation
The stronger your immune system is, the better able you are to fight off disease and infection when you need to. Do a little self-care practice every day to take care of your health and well-being.
Equanimity involves a willingness to rise and greet everything as it is: good, bad, painful, pleasant... To be honest, I felt hesitant about rising to greet my newsfeed this morning. I mean, waking up to bad news is not my favourite way to start the day. And furthermore, if the news was bad, what could I DO about it?
I reminded myself that ignoring reality is not the best way to deal with it.
Reading the news is hard for many people, myself included. It confronts us with a lot of suffering. It often hurts my heart. When I read the news, I try to practice equanimity. This involves cultivating a balanced perspective. An equanimous news-reading session involves allowing my heart to hurt without condemning or hating anyone else in the process. Some days that takes a lot of work.
Equanimity ALSO means feeling pleasure without grasping and clinging at it, and staying present and receptive to neutral experiences too. It involves practicing an attitude of serene even-mindedness amidst the ever-changing tides. It is not neutrality or indifference. When we cultivate Upeksha, we're still moved by injustice in the world. We are still motivated to make things better, but our response is not borne from reactivity. It is borne from a state of even-minded openness that allows for a clear, balanced, considered response.
We care. We care deeply about our own and others’ suffering and when we choose a response, we choose wisely.
Intention/Affirmation: ‘I listen with openness and respond with thoughtfulness.'
Meditation: Mindful Breathing (see video). Mindfulness practices (Just being with things as they are) train us to be less reactive
On the Mat: Mountain Pose. Contemplate the still, strong presence of a mountain. Unmoved, unreactive - regardless of what happens around it: rain, sun, snow, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, etc
Off the Mat: When you notice yourself getting caught up in reactivity - remind yourself to respond with an even, open mind.
Mudita = Altruistic joy
Mudita is one of the four qualities of the heart (along with friendliness, compassion and equanimity) that yoga suggests we nourish and grow. You know mudita is at work when you find yourself feeling delighted about the good things happening in OTHER peoples’ lives.
Sharing yoga gets my mudita motor running like nothing else. Just last week, a 98-year old student of mine remarked that he loves coming to class because he loves the experience of moving in ways he’s never moved before (at 98!), and that he ‘felt years younger’ after class.
‘How young do you feel?” I asked.
“34” he said.
I LOVE that for him.
And that is why I teach yoga. When students come to class and experience joy, inspiration, pain relief or have a breakthrough, it gives me SO. MUCH. JOY. #mudita
I don’t know about you, but I want to feel 34 when I’m 98 too! And I want to keep finding ways to move that surprise and delight me! I want that – for him, for you, for me, and for everyone! May we ALL experience the joy of movement at every age!
Here are some ways to play with Mudita both on and off the mat:
Intention/Affirmation: I am happy for the success of others
Breath: Breath of Joy (see video)
On the Mat: Do a pose or a practice that gives you joy
Off the Mat: Tell someone how happy you are to see them thriving at life