As the pandemic continues wreaking havoc across the globe, there is a need to understand how a healthy immune system can be maintained through yoga
Yoga has a large number of benefits, and one of the most important reasons to practice yoga is its impact on the body’s immune system. As the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic continues to rise, one thing that is on everyone’s minds is how to stay safe and boost immunity. A stronger immune system is important to keep Coronavirus at bay, and while diet is an important aspect of it, the importance of yoga cannot be ignored.
To understand the impact of yoga and how it benefits the immunity, Mini Shastri, consultant and columnist, has some valuable insights to share.
“From its many road maps, yoga essentially helps us by lowering cortisol in the body, also known as the stress hormone. Asanas help with synchronous breathing, boosts immunity by improving the circulation of lymphatic fluid, a disease-fighting white blood cell fluid that relies on movement for optimum circulation,” she says.
Apart from helping with stress, yoga also encourages healthy behavioural patterns, which counter the tendency to eat poorly and getting too little sleep. These are the factors that work to deplete the immune system.
“If flying by the seat of your pants becomes your default setting or chronically externalising becomes a habit, our body perceives it as stress. Under stress, our sympathetic nervous system moves into high gear, which is useful but under prolonged stress situations, all the systems under it remain on overdrive in readiness for fight or flight,” Mini adds about stress and its impact on the immune system.
To further understand how stress leads to long-term suppression of the body’s immune functions, she says,” Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol in response to a crisis. This hormone can overstay their welcome in our bodies as it takes a long time to reverse back from our systems. When people are regularly stressed, persistently elevated levels of cortisol can have an adverse effect on the immune system, body weight and memory. Apart from some overactive stress symptoms such as digestive complaints, constipation, excess stomach acids, ulcers, muscle tension, shoulder pain, allergies and chronic fatigue, one of the most damaging long-term consequence is the suppression of the body’s immune functions.”
In this sense, she says, prolonged arousal in stress mode is the mother of most conditions.
Yoga practices have far-reaching effects to decrease stress and hence improve the immunity system. “Practices like improved body posture can lead to a change in the way we breathe due to an open tall carriage hence affecting our nervous system and consequently our stress patterns and our vagal tone (ability to pull out of stress when the crisis is over) point to an overlap of all roadmaps given through yoga and in our underlying physiology and psychology of health,” Mini says.
When it comes to the human body, she adds that everything is connected. “This interconnectedness necessitates a holistic system like yoga and each little habit or tool helps the entire body and its functions as a whole.”
Another aspect that is connected with yoga is meditation, and that has its own benefits. “Meditation, even if it’s just 10 minutes every day, has till date the strongest scientific support to improve the immune functions, Practices such as yoga nidra, guided breath practices, body stillness and body scan guided meditations make inner conditions for real relaxation,” Mini says.
Giving more insights about the immune system, Mini mentions the importance of thymus. “The thymus is an important organ in the immune function. The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle below the lungs, moves to stimulate the thymus. Deepened breaths and movement are a prerequisite for a powerful work of our thymus to dispose of toxic waste products of cellular functions, eventually working towards a good immune system.”
However, what is also important is how we are breathing. “The cleansing and movement of the lymphatic fluid is the body’s response to pathogens. The lymph spreads to nourish, cleanse and defends against external dangers. Our lymphatic system moves in vessels without walls, unlike the veins and arteries. When you stretch, come in and out of yoga postures, the lymph gets stimulated. To get better results from this system, the combination of both muscle movement and diaphragmatic breathing is vitally important,” she says.
Mini further adds, “Yogis believe chronically tight muscles and shallow breaths are breeding grounds for disease and illness. In your exercise regimen, be aware of your ability to expel air and relax the tightness that keeps insidiously layering in us if ignored.”
Another important aspect to keep in mind is how we sit. “Neck and the throat are the bridge between the brain and the rest of the body. Poor posture, slouching, constrictions in the chest due to improper posture leads to poor communication between the brain, neck and the rest of the body. One-third of our lymph nodes are in the neck. Neck and shoulder tension will impair and eventually slow down the draining of our cellular waste around the head and neck,” she says.
Finally, she mentions that practices such as tongue scraping and oil pulling prevent toxins from entering the stomach, overloading our systems and burdening the cleaning organs from an excessive load that travel down from these sense organs in the face.
Dr Reshma is an advocate of wellness, prevention and holistic health. Instagram handle: dr.reshmakhattarbhagat
Talking about the importance of breathing exercises, Mini says, "When muscles meltdown tension in them, the brain waves slow down to a serene calm alpha state. In this state, the immune system strengthens, even bringing healing to autoimmune conditions with lowered immunity. The same applies to pranayam and other breath regulation practices." As such it is important to ensure that breathing exercises are practised on a regular basis to ensure health. A step by step simple Pranayama Begin with a few rounds of Kabalbhati. 12 rounds repeated 3 times. Begin to settle on your chair, cushion with your lower body becoming sturdy support for the upper body Ease into your natural breath. Spend a few moments noticing how you breathe and the path of your breath, In and out. Start to bring a rhythm to your breath, making the breath 1;1. equal in, equal out. Without any strain to stretch the breath Initiate lengthening the exhale vs the inhale, eventually keeping the ratio of inhale to exhale, 1: 2. spend a few minutes with this exercise. After a few weeks, add gentle retention between the breaths, breath retention after inhale and after exhale. making the ratio 1;1;1;1, till you develop an even and rhythmic flow of breath Slowly come back to just observing your natural breath You will notice that the mere act of being with the breath helped you stretch the breath without force. This breath practise is Sama 'equal' Vritti 'action' where respiration has four equal parts. Helps release tension and assists to release any held stress.