If we had to pick only one health benefit from yoga, its ability to lower stress and anxiety would probably be the more reasonable choice. That is already an essential element to support and boost immunity.
Yoga decreases cortisol levels, also known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is high when we are under stress. It gives us a burst of energy by increasing sugar levels in the bloodstream so we can react to the danger we are facing while holding back nonessential functions under a fight-or-flight response. Thus chronic stress alters the body balance and the immune system’s ability to protect us from bugs.
According to the yoga teacher Carla Vido, yoga copes with stress and anxiety because the body movement in this practice is aligned to our breath, sending a message to the nervous system that we are safe, preparing us to slow down - the “rest and digest” mode. It creates in the body an opposite effect to the fight-or-flight response.
“Yoga helps lower stress hormones that compromise the immune system while also conditioning the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulating the lymphatic system to oust toxins from the body, and bringing oxygenated blood to the various organs to ensure their optimal function." says Carla.
For a year, we have been dealing with the stress and array of emotions created by the pandemic. Yet, relying on our immune system to beat the coronavirus.
A healthy body and mind are crucial to thriving in hard times like this. And both lie at the heart of yoga.
The yoga effect on the immune system
Yoga affects the circulating levels of cytokines, small proteins secreted by the immune system that play a role in cell signaling. These substances are regulators, interfering with cell growth, development, and differentiation. They can reduce inflammation and support the immune system in fighting viruses, bacteria, or tumors (1).
While exercises, in general, can improve health and stimulate the production of cytokines to maintain a balanced immune system, the advantage of yoga relies on the combination of a pose (physical exercise), the breath (breathing technique), and mindfulness (meditation). This triad leads to a reduced inflammatory response, also reducing inflammatory substances. Regular practice can decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels that will interfere with metabolic disorders such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease (2).
How to practice breathing exercises
Deep breathing is central to lower stress. It does to the body exactly the opposite that stress does, such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Breathing properly, at the full capacity of our lungs, is one way to trigger the relaxation response, which is considered a ‘method of healing’ by Herbert Benson, author of the book “The Relaxation Response”.
Mindful and deep breathing is at the core of yoga practice. The process is called pranayama.
“Pranayama is the invitation of prana to your body. Prana is life energy. You are inviting new energy to flow into your body,” Carla explains. “There are different kinds of pranayamas, some can energize, relax and heal the body.”
The recommendation to practice pranayama is to sit straight with an upright spine.
This technique is also called diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, or abdominal breathing because the lower belly rises when we inhale and goes in when we push the air out.
Belly breathing consists of inhaling deeply, allowing the air coming through the nose to fully fill the lungs.
Alternate nostril breathing
This yogic breath helps bring calm into your body, so it is usually a good practice before starting a yoga class.
"For someone anxious, this practice brings you back to your body, cleansing all your channels,” says Carla.
To do this, you should focus on breathing ease throughout the whole practice. You should not practice alternate nostril breathing if you have a cold or flu.
“If you feel tired or are not feeling well, listen to your body. You can show up to your mat to set up an intention and connect with your body instead.” Carla recommends.
This breathing technique requires you to use your thumb and your ring finger. Index and middle finger rest in the eyebrow center.
Keeping your right hand raised, your thumb will close the right nostril. Your ring finger will close your left nostril. You will alternate the channel where the air will come in and out to complete one cycle.
- Start by exhaling completely through both nostrils
- Close the right nostril
- Inhale through your left nostril and then close it
- Open the right nostril and exhale through this side
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side
Three yoga poses that support the immune system
A healthy body requires good levels of oxygen to support cell growth and blood circulation. Yoga helps with blood flow and oxygenation.
“When you are holding a pose and breathing, you are opening up your lungs to receive air and creating physical strength. You are getting new energy into your body and releasing what no longer serves you.” Carla says.
There are a few yoga poses that can increase the lung capacity for air. When it happens, it sends relaxation messages to the nervous system, calming the mind and supporting the body’s ability to fight illness. Below, Carla shares three of them:
Dhanurasana - Bow Pose (backbend)
This pose helps not only to strengthen your back but your whole body. Although breathing will be difficult with the belly pressed against the floor, be sure not to stop breathing.
The pressure on your belly helps to tone your kidneys, liver and improve your digestive system. Considering that about 70% of the body’s immune cells are in the gut, a healthy digestive system is central to a healthy immune system.
According to Carla, this is also a great option to tone female organs and to improve back flexibility.
Bhujangasana - Cobra pose (backbend)
In this backbend pose, the chest is open, deepening your breath. It might stimulate the thymus gland located behind the chest bone. The thymus is involved in generating and circulating white blood cells that help us fight diseases (3).
The pose also helps to clear the passages of the heart and lungs, improving blood circulation, kidney function, and detoxification. Carla explains:
"You are extending your chest during this pose. So, your internal organs move and naturally receive the purification of your blood."
Matsyasana - Fish pose (backbend/inversion)
This pose stretches, opens the throat, stimulates belly organs and muscles of the upper body. Labeled as the "Destroyer of all Diseases" in the ancient Yogic texts, the fish pose helps manage anxiety.
“It improves the respiratory system because you are opening up your chest to a great extent. Your heart is higher than your head, helping the blood circulate better, bringing more relaxation to your body.” Carla explains.
Practicing the sequence regularly, especially throughout the winter, can improve your chances of staying healthy.
How to start practicing yoga
Yoga is for everyone. That is what Carla preaches. If you are new to yoga or have not been happy trying videos on YouTube, she suggests you find a practice that you like first.
“There are different styles of yoga, all of them connecting breathing and movement at different levels. Sometimes, one might not be what you are looking for,” she says. “Finding a teacher that knows your needs and how to guide you through your experience can help.”
While most of us are working from home, it might be challenging to find a space to be alone, physically and mentally. To help with that, Carla reminds us that headphones can block noises, easing the concentration process. Choosing the best time of the day that fits our schedule also can make the process easier.
“If you never practiced yoga, you can start slowly, 15 minutes of practice daily, to build up a memory in your body”, she says. “Try to show up to your mat every day, slowly, and at the same time. Sometimes, I only show up to my mat to meditate or breathe, and that is what counts the most, showing up.”
* Photo credit: Carla Vino's personal image archive