The ancient practice of yoga teaches many ways to regulate the body in order to defeat outward threats such as virus’ and disease. A yogic lifestyle can provide a foundation for developing self-awareness which affects the way we interface with the world around us. Through yoga we develop awareness to make conscious decisions that directly benefits our overall health and wellbeing. The practice of mindful breathing has a significant impact on our immune system which is the first line of defence and the best protection we have against illness and infection.
Widespread disease has always threatened our survival as a species. The world is in crisis mode right now due to the pandemic known as Coronavirus, COVID-19 or CV-19. Globally, the consequences from this virus are taking shape at an alarming rate. Mandatory government enforced quarantines have significantly affected world populations and global economies. The Coronavirus comes with a wave of fear, panic, anxiety and stress echoed across the media, apparent in empty grocery aisles, affecting our careers, and shutting down our social gatherings. Many remain in their homes in a state of isolation and those who are critically ill are facing inadequate healthcare systems, overloaded facilities and compromised
Harvard Medical School has recommended yoga for coping with Coronavirus anxiety and the many stressors which accompany this global pandemic. Also noted was meditation and controlled breathing practices as effective means of coping with the stress and to create a sense of calm and balance. (Sharp, 2020).
Stress, especially chronic or prolonged stress, is typically accompanied by dysregulation of the nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems. All of us are carriers of disease and have many viruses and bacteria residing within us without showing any symptoms. When we are exposed to stressors, it creates a tipping point in the immune response and results in illness. Stress increases latent viral reactivation, infects the upper respiratory tract, and delays recovery time. All of these are signs that chronic stress negatively effects the immune response. (Gopal, Mondal, Gandhi, Arora, & Bhattacharjee, 2011).
The immune response causes hyperarousal and prolonged activation of the fight or flight nervous system. The continual release of stress hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure all signal the body that something is wrong. Inflammation, the body’s natural response to illness and injury, is activated by the immune system. Chronic stress causes chronic inflammation as the body struggles to bring itself back into balance. If inflammation becomes too widespread, immune forces become exhausted and sickness or infection reach a tipping point. (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2008).
Stress exhausts the body over time and inhibits the immune system’s ability to defend itself from disease. Yoga helps us to keep stress levels to a minimum which supports immune function. Additionally, yoga decreases stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate. When we are stressed out, practicing yoga protects us from disease.
Yoga promotes immunity by supporting processes at the cellular level by increasing cytokines (signalling cells) to circulate in the body. The cytokines regulate immune function, control inflammation and stimulate production of blood cells (Gopal, Mondal, Gandhi, Arora, & Bhattacharjee, 2011).
Yoga also stimulates the lymphatic system which removes toxins from the body and brain, particularly during restful periods like yoga practice and during sleep. Yoga also helps to circulate freshly oxygenated blood throughout the body including the organs, which promotes optimal function (Prisi, 2017). Inversions (when the head is below the heart) are particularly helpful for disease prevention because it sends blood to the lymphatic system, clearing contamination and spreading immune cells throughout the body (Watts, 2020).
The lungs and respiratory tract are supported through yoga. Inverted postures help circulate blood through the sinuses, reducing congestion and draining mucus build up in the sinuses and lungs, protecting them from infection. Heart opening postures circulate blood throughout the chest and lung cavities, spreading healthy cells to combat infection throughout these vulnerable areas. Poses that expand the chest area, defend against lung infections, including COVID-19 (Watts, 2020).
Irregular breathing habits are linked to weakened immunity causing cold and flu infections, allergies, asthma, and other chronic respiratory conditions (Prisi, 2017). Yoga repatterns our breathing and promotes proper respiratory habits. Breathing exercises strengthen the lungs and clear the nasal passages, which creates resiliency for the respiratory system, protecting us from many illnesses including COVID-19. Two breath exercises, Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire) and Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), help to fortify lung capacity and cleanse lung cavities, fostering resistance to infection (Watts, 2020). Kapalabhati is useful in increasing respiratory resilience and expanding breath capacity while Nadi Shodhana is effective for increasing the resilience of the sinuses. The ayurvedic practice of Neti Pot (pouring warm, saline water through the nostrils) can help to clear and strengthen the sinus area. Practicing these breathing techniques daily, along with Neti Pot significantly reduces colds and infection. (Prisi, 2017).
Yoga supports healthy digestion and the elimination of toxins from the internal organs. One theory of disease believes that toxin build up in the digestive tract manifests itself as disease in other areas of the body. Gently twisting, compressing, or extending the belly through yoga practice stimulates digestion and elimination of toxins. (Prisi, 2017).
Yoga helps combat symptoms of illness even after they are evident. For instance, when experiencing a fever, sitting in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) with the backs of the hands rested on the thighs and hands in gyan mudra (tips of thumb and pointer finger touching while the other fingers rest extended) and breathing in Sitali pranayama (tongue extended and shaped like a U) for three minutes or more reduces an elevated temperature (Pirisi, 2017).
Yoga is a valuable tool in boosting immunity and strengthening resilience which are vital in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. Meditation practices have a calming effect on the body. Just 20 minutes per day is enough to reduce stress, providing more energy for immune function (Corliss, 2014).
Research has shown that yoga supports optimal wellness of both mind and body through asana, meditation, pranayama, as well as ayurvedic practices. “Yoga is unlike other forms of exercise that focus only on certain parts of the body,” says Kathleen Fry, M.D., the president of the American Holistic Medicine Association “Yoga works on everything,” (Prisi, 2017).
Yoga is a valuable asset for everyone who is feeling stressed, depleted, sick, or simply looking for an immune boost. The many ways yoga supports immune function, from stress reduction, to respiratory and sinus protection, to circulation, digestive function and cellular performance, makes it clear that yoga is now more than ever, the doctor’s little helper.
Sharp, J. (2020). Coping with coronavirus anxiety. Harvard Health. Harvard Medical School.
Gopal, A., Mondal, S., Gandhi, A., Arora, S., & Bhattacharjee, J. (2011). Effect of integrated yoga practices on immune responses in examination stress–A preliminary study. International journal of yoga, 4(1), 26.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2008). Immune System Kick-Started in Moist Nasal Lining in Sinusitis, Asthma And Colds. Johns Hopkins University. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/immune_system_kick_started_in_moist_nasal_lining_in_sinusitis_asthma_and_colds
Pirisi, A. (2017). Support your immune system: yoga for wellness. Yoga Journal.
Corliss, J. (2014). Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967
Watts, M. (2020). Yoga for immunity: How to practice your way to optimal health. Siddhi Yoga. https://www.siddhiyoga.com/yoga-for-immunity