Yoga for stronger immunity
In a time of collective ill health, you might be wondering what you can do to improve your immune system. Incorporating yoga into your routine can significantly bolster your body’s ability to combat sickness.
How is your immunity? Can you fight colds, viruses and bacteria with ease? Before COVID-19 hit, you probably didn’t think much about the strength of your immune system. In the post-pandemic world, though, many of us are now asking if there is anything we can do to build our immunity and keep ourselves resilient against viruses.
Thankfully, it is possible to boost your immunity with the integrated practice of yoga, meditation and breathwork — not to mention the other benefits you will no doubt reap from those practices, too.
While the focus here will be what yoga can do to keep your immune system strong, vitamin-rich foods, herbs, steam baths, essential oils and Ayurvedic practices should not be overlooked. Boosting your immunity naturally is best achieved through a holistic approach.
Much research has shown the beneficial effects of yoga, and a number of preliminary studies point to the effects of an integrated yoga practice (entailing postural yoga practice, breathwork and mindfulness)in improving immune functions and resisting the impairment of cellular immunity.
A randomised controlled pilot study, conducted by Sung-Ah Lim and Kwang-Jo Cheong published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, concluded that regular yoga practice considerably decreases oxidative stress and improves antioxidant levels of the body, along with positively affecting stress hormone releases and partly improving immune function.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine indicates that yoga can be a helpful way to boost the immune system and decrease inflammation in the body among the populations at risk or affected by illnesses with an inflammatory component.
What is your immune system?
Our immune system is the body’s defence mechanism against disease. It fights viruses, parasites, toxins and bacterial infections.
Consisting of the innate (the one you were born with) and adaptive (acquired) immune systems, the immune system is a network of cells and tissues spread throughout the body. It comprises antibodies, white blood cells, chemicals, the lymphatic system, proteins, tissues, bone marrow, spleen and thymus.
Yoga, mindfulness and breathing practices for stronger immunity
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the lungs and the large intestine (colon) are responsible for immunity and govern the immune system. The yoga practice presented here is centred around stimulating the lungs and the large intestine meridians to support your immunity and to assist with stimulating the respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic and digestive systems, together with encouraging stress reduction.
Since movement and sweat play important roles in strengthening the immune system, incorporating 10 to 12 rounds of sun salutations, when you move steadily with ujjayi breath, is a beneficial addition to your practice, either prior to the commencement of the yin sequence outlined below or a standalone morning yoga practice.
Surya namaskar (sun salutations) are a series of postures linked together which integrate the body, breath and mind; they will warm up your body thoroughly and assist in supporting your heart and lungs by increasing blood circulation and lymphatic flow in the body, which are essential for the healthy functioning of the immune system.
For this deep yin yoga practice, you will need a bolster (or a stack of two to three rectangular pillows), a yoga block (or a cushion) and a folded or rolled blanket, or two for extra support if you require modifications.
The twisting poses in the practice will reinvigorate the organs of the digestive tract and help to detoxify the body. The forward fold will further add compression in the abdominal region, allowing the openness of the inner groin, thighs and the back body, inviting the breath into the back of the lungs, and bringing the enhanced circulation into the heart and digestive and reproductive organs upon the release from the pose.
Backbends will allow the front of your body to open, lengthening the chest and the abdomen, expanding the capacity of your lungs and opening your shoulders; while the modified viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) will help relieve fatigue and reverse the blood flow in your body, further boosting blood and lymph circulation and creating lightness in your legs by the means of gravity reversal through the inverted body positioning in it.
Thread-the-needle pose A & B
Begin in tabletop, on your hands with your knees under the hips (place a blanket under your knees for more cushioning, if needed).
Thread your left arm (with the palm facing upward) under your right arm, as you lower your left shoulder and left ear to the floor, gazing to the right. If your head lifts, rest it on a cushion. Keep your hips above your knees.
You should feel the traction through the back of your left shoulder and the outer left arm.
Keep your right arm relaxed on the floor, extended over your right ear (A) or wrapped around your back, with the palm facing away from you, or reaching for the left inner thigh (B).
Stay in the pose for three or four minutes.
To release, press into your right hand, to bring your left arm back. Rebound on your back before repeating on the other side.
Supported sphinx pose
Place your bolster at the front of your yoga mat and lie on your stomach, stacking your hands under the forehead and finding the most favourable position for your lower back by readjusting the distance between your feet, keeping them as wide apart as you need. Take a few spacious breaths here.
Place the bolster under your chest, draw your armpits towards the bolster and rest your forearms on the floor in front of it. Stay there for three to five minutes, if you feel this compression is enough for your lower back (variation A).
Alternatively, you can elevate your elbows on the bolster for a deeper backbend (variation B).
Support your head by resting your chin on your hands or resting your forehead in your palms.
Stay in supported sphinx pose for four or five minutes before exiting it by pushing the bolster aside, lowering down onto the floor and taking two minutes to rest on your abdomen, exploring the effects of this backbend.
Seated butterfly over the bolster
Begin seated with your legs extended over a bolster or a stack of two or three pillows under your knees.
Draw the soles of your feet together, so that your legs form a diamond shape and lower your knees away from each other towards bolster. If the pose feels uneasy on your back, hips or knees, elevate your hips on a cushion and place extra folded blankets or towels under your knees or outer thighs.
Use an exhale to fold over slowly, allowing your back to round and your head to relax.
If your head and neck need support, use a yoga block under the forehead, or support your head by resting your chin on your hands or cupping the forehead with your hands, with your elbows on the bolster.
Remain in the pose for three to six minutes.
To come out, slowly unroll and rest on your back with your legs extended over the bolster for one or two minutes.
Supported fish pose with ujayyi pranayama
Place a bolster or rolled blanket across your yoga mat and lie over it, so that it’s positioned just under the bottom of your shoulder blades.
If your neck feels uncomfortable, place a yoga block underneath the back of your head.
Lying over the props, keep your feet flat, mat-width apart and allow your knees to relax towards each other or, alternatively, straighten your legs.
Once you settle into the pose, begin the practice of ujjayi pranayama, explained below.
To come out from the pose, use your hands to press yourself up and then rebound on your back.
Supported supine twist
Begin by lying on your back, with your bolster or stack of cushions on the right side of your yoga mat.
With your feet on the floor, lift your hips and shift them slightly to the left, as you lower both of your knees to the right onto the bolster, entering the supine twist and keeping your knee close to your abdomen. If your knees are not comfortably rested on the bolster, stack an extra cushion or a block on top of it so you can rest your knees on a prop and relax into the pose.
Rest your right hand on your left thigh, and bending at the elbow, take the left arm over your head with the palm facing upward. Use a folded blanket under your left shoulder if support is required.
Turn your head to the right or to the left, and remain in this twist for three to five minutes, before taking a one or two minute pause resting on your back.
Repeat the pose on the other side.
Viparita karani on the block
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor.
Lift your hips and slide a block on its lower or medium side underneath your sacrum.
Lower your sacrum onto the block and extend your legs upward, keeping them relaxed and your knees slightly bent.
Keep your arms either out to the sides of your body, bent at the elbows or extended above your head as you hold onto the opposite forearm or elbow.
Remain in the pose for three or four minutes.
To come out, bend your knees, lower your feet to the floor, and as you lift your hips, remove the block and slowly transition into supported savasana.
Supported savasana (Corpse pose)
Place your knees over the bolster and slowly come down onto your back.
Make any adjustments you need to find the most comfortable position you can rest in: readjust the shoulder blades, lengthen the tailbone, shift the hips, draw the chin slightly in.
Allow your feet to relax and your arms to be extended to the sides of your body.
Close your eyes, soften your entire body and rest for five minutes or longer.
Pranayama practices for your lungs and immunity
Both yoga and Ayurveda emphasise the utmost importance of breathing practices. Dr Suhas G Kshirsagar BAMS, MD (Ayurveda), a world-renowned Ayurvedic physician and educator, explains: “According to ancient texts, breath is the single most important food. Breath creates the fundamental connection between life, concrete matter and intangible consciousness. It provides the network among body, mind, senses and spirit.”
Deep breathing helps the body return to a more balanced state, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (bodily rest/digest response), enhances the flow of oxygen to the brain and throughout the body, and bolsters the immune and lymphatic systems.
Breathing practices to try at home
Ujjayi, translated as “victorious breath”, is a breathing technique that uses an audible soft whispering sound on both deep inhalations and exhalations. This is achieved by narrowing the vocal cords slightly, constricting your “whispering muscles”, creating a hissing sound at the back of your throat and allowing your breath to pass along the glottis.
Kapalabhati means “skull shining” breath and is considered a cleansing exercise (kriya) in the yoga tradition to purify and invigorate the lungs, cleanse respiratory passages, revitalise the blood, improve circulation, energise the nervous system and stimulate the brain and digestive organs.
For kapalabhati practice, find a comfortable seated position, elevating your hips on a cushion or a block or by sitting on a chair.
Place one hand on your lower abdomen and begin to breathe through the nose, exaggerating the exhalations and allowing your inhalations to come naturally.
You will notice when you exaggerate the exhalations, your navel and hand will be pulled in towards the spine and your abdominal muscles will contract as you pump the air through the nostrils.
On inhalations, your belly will relax and soften, as it pushes gently forward into your hand. Repeat a few times, until you get a feel of this “pumping” breath, before lowering your hand down and commencing your formal practice of kapalabhati.
Begin with 12 to 20 repetitions of the skull shining breath, focusing on the out breaths and allowing the in breaths to happen naturally, working towards 36 repetitions with time, followed by three to five ujjayi breaths to complete one round. Repeat two more times.
Meditate for immunity
Integrating mindfulness practices into your yoga and breathwork routines can further the positive effects of yoga on your health, boosting the brain and immune functions.
You can begin by integrating a simple breath-focused mindfulness practice into your day. Set a time of five to 20 minutes to sit in a comfortable position with your spine long and your body relaxed; be attentive to the sensations of your breathing through your body. Every time the mind wanders, acknowledge the distraction kindly, without judgement, and return to observing your breath and its sensations in your body.