Don’t let common aches and pains keep you off your mat or ruin your practice. Recover faster with these 20 expert-recommended natural fixes.
No one wants to run to the doctor for every ache, cramp, or cough. Indeed, 75 percent of respondents in a Yoga Journal online survey said they always try a home remedy first before calling a doc, and 98 percent said they were interested in learning more about home remedies as a first line of defense. So we tapped the collective wisdom of a wide range of doctors, herbalists, yoga instructors, nutritionists, and meditation experts to give you a comprehensive guide to the most effective DIY natural options. Consider this a personal first-aid kit to treat your common health complaints.
If you have a sore throat...
“The throat can act like a web, catching all the germs and bacteria that enter the mouth and nose,” says Larissa Hall Carlson, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. A warm saltwater gargle can help clean out mucus, germs, and bacteria—and may even help prevent upper-respiratory-tract infections, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Carlson advises gargling with a mixture of 1/2 tsp sea salt and 1/2 cup warm water. “Do it two to three times per week all winter as a preventive measure, increasing to once a day at the first sign of a sore throat,” she suggests.
The quickest relief for an upset tummy is as close as your kitchen cabinet: Mix 1/2 tsp baking soda into a glass of room-temperature water, and sip. Indigestion and stomachache often happen when a mucosal barrier between your stomach lining and stomach acids gets temporarily worn away due to infections, alcohol, or food sensitivities; excess acids cause irritation, explains Maria Marlowe, an integrative nutrition health coach at New York City’s Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “Baking soda contains sodium bicarbonate, which acts as an antacid,” she says.
A paste made of honey and turmeric is an ancient Ayurvedic remedy for soothing sore throats and calming coughs. “Turmeric is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and honey is warming and scraping, so it’s good for pulling away excess mucus,” explains Carlson. Mix together equal parts honey and turmeric powder, stirring them into a paste. Eat a teaspoon of the paste every three hours (washing it down with warm water) until your cough subsides. And if you’re not a fan of turmeric’s flavor, you can just use honey, which was more effective at calming children’s coughs than common over-the-counter cough suppressants, according to a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Need an energy boost to motivate for your Ashtanga practice? Meditation can provide a pick-me-up, according to Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She recommends doing an invigorating body scan to move your attention quickly through the body. Start by standing up and noticing what you’re seeing, then what you’re hearing; flash your attention to your posture, notice a few breaths, and then begin the scan over again. “It’s the movement and attention to a variety of objects that pick up energy,” says Salzberg.
It’s tough to pull off deep, yogic breathing when there’s no air getting through your congested nose. Open things up by adding essential oils to a pot of hot water. Try three drops of rosemary, two drops of grapefruit, and one drop of peppermint, then drape a towel over your head and the pot, close your eyes, and breathe the vapors deeply, advises Mindy Green, a Colorado-based aromatherapist and co-author of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. “The combination is decongestant, antibacterial, and antiviral,” she says. “And breathing in the steam moisturizes dry nasal tissues and helps deliver the essential oils more gently to the respiratory tract.”
Soft belly breathing is a favorite remedy for stress from James Gordon, MD, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and author of Unstuck. Sit quietly and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, with your belly soft and relaxed. As you inhale, think “soft,” and as you exhale, think “belly.” “You’re bringing more oxygen into the body and activating the vagus nerve, which extends from your brainstem to your abdomen,” explains Gordon. “That activation balances the fight-or-flight response and quiets activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls fear.” He suggests practicing soft belly breathing for a few minutes every day and doing 5 to 1o breaths to calm down when you’re confronted with a stressful situation.
To relieve a tight, achy low back, try Ardha Salabhasana (Half Locust Pose), recommends Gigi Terinoni, Yoga for Healing instructor and owner of Dova Center for Health & Healing, in Louisville, Colorado. It strengthens your low-back muscles and glutes; plus, since you’re lifting one leg at a time, the grounded leg supports and stabilizes your pelvis to alleviate tension. Start in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) with wrists under shoulders and elbows tucked into ribs. As you inhale, pull back on your hands, and with a neutral neck, lift your head and right leg off the floor; lower head and leg as you exhale. Alternate legs, repeating 3 to 5 times.
If you know the right reflexology points to press, you can literally rub away a headache while you wait for yoga class to start. Reflexology works by stimulating nerve endings that correlate to other areas in the body, explains Marci Howard-May, director of spa and wellness at Sagestone Spa & Salon at Red Mountain Resort in St. George, Utah. For headaches, massage along the sides of the big toe—from the tip down to the joint before it meets the foot, a point that correlates to the neck. “Many headaches come from muscular tension in the neck,” says Howard-May. “Working the big toe can reflexively relax those muscles and ease head pain.”
Practicing lovingkindness meditation is a way to channel restless energy at bedtime, says Salzberg. The technique involves the silent repetition of variations on the phrases “May you be happy; may you be at ease.” While this method is often used to direct well wishes toward specific people, Salzberg suggests a nighttime variation directed to specific groups: all those beings who are awake (like you, and maybe the cat) and all those beings who are asleep (like your children or your partner snoring beside you). Sending your energy to others and repeating the phrases will quiet your mind, slow your breathing, and encourage sleep. “It’s restful even while you’re awake,” Salzberg says. “And it quells the anxiety that keeps us from falling asleep.”
Treat dry, flaky lips with a moisturizing scrub made with coarse sugar (like turbinado) and coconut oil. Mix equal parts sugar and oil into a paste, spread on your lips, then brush it off with a soft-bristled toothbrush. The sugar gently exfoliates, while the oil has a creamy texture that drenches lips with moisture. Follow that up by slathering on straight coconut oil to further hydrate lips, says Brandy Velasquez, spa director at Health LA, a wellness spa in Los Angeles.
Make a tea from an herbal blend of catnip, fennel, and peppermint to help relieve cramps during your period. “There are essential oils in these herbs that get into the nervous system, where they act as antispasmodic agents,” explains Feather Jones, an Arizona-based herbalist and owner of Sedona Tea Blends. Add a rounded teaspoon of each herb to a pint of just-boiled water, cover, steep for 1o to 15 minutes, strain, then sip.
When you’ve got the blues, the aptly named “Breath of Joy” can be the ideal antidote, says Amy Weintraub, E-RYT, founder of LifeForce Yoga and author of Yoga for Depression. “It counters the shallow, upper-chest breathing of depression, bringing oxygen into the bloodstream and energizing the mind,” she says. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Inhale through your nostrils as you swing your arms up in front of your body to shoulder level, palms up. Continue inhaling as you swing your arms out to your sides, then inhale to full capacity as you swing your arms overhead, palms facing each other. Open your mouth and exhale with an audible "lum" (a grounding, energizing sound), bending knees and swinging arms back behind you into a modified Chair Pose. Do up to 1o reps.
Try chewing on a couple of clove, fennel, or anise seeds for a few minutes (then spit them out). “All have antiseptic qualities that fight the oral bacteria that are causing the odor,” says Marlowe. Another option for garlic breath: Nibble on parsley or mint. These herbs contain enzymes that oxidize the polyphenolic compounds in garlic, thereby neutralizing odor, reports the Journal of Food Science.
The eyes are probably our most overused sense organ, and they can feel exhausted after long days in front of the computer or too many late nights. Carlson suggests spraying two spritzes of organic distilled rose water (with no perfumes, dyes, or chemicals) into the eyes to reduce inflammation and refresh. “In Ayurvedic medicine, rose is a cooling substance, making it useful for red, burning eyes,” she says.
A cup of ginger tea can ease the pressure because ginger helps relax the gastrointestinal system, reducing gas. Cut up two or three slices of fresh ginger root and steep in boiling water for 5 minutes, let the tea cool, and then sip. You can also take steps to prevent gas. “About 10 minutes before eating a gas-inducing food like beans, have something bitter like a shot of apple-cider vinegar or a handful of arugula,” says Marlowe. “When taste receptors detect bitter foods, they stimulate the stomach to produce more digestive enzymes, bile, and stomach acid.” And if the digestive system is working optimally, you digest food better and are less likely to get gassy.
Try this modified Cobra Pose, a “functional movement that integrates head, neck, and upper back to strengthen and release muscle tension,” says Terinoni. Begin on your stomach, hands alongside your chest, forehead on the ground. Inhale, pull back on your hands, and lift your face and chest to the point where it feels challenging to hold, but not painful (your chest may only lift a few inches). Exhale, drop the chest halfway down, and tuck your chin. Inhale, pull back on your hands, and lift your face and chest again. Exhale, lower your chest to the floor, and turn your head to the left. Repeat sequence, ending with your head turned to the right for one complete round. Terinoni suggests starting with five rounds once a day for at least two weeks, increasing to twice per day as you feel stronger.
Feet swollen and sore from too many standing postures? To revive them, start with a 10-minute soak in water infused with Epsom salts. Follow with self-massage—Howard-May advises working in strokes that travel from the toes toward the ankles—to move excess fluid (mostly water) out of puffy feet. Then finish with a few minutes of rolling the soles of your feet over a frozen golf ball. “The cold reduces pain and swelling, plus it brings in blood flow for a healing effect,” says Howard-May.
Sniffing rosemary helps improve memory and mental focus, according to a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience. Green suggests making a mist with a mix of rosemary, peppermint, and grapefruit essential oils (about three drops of each diluted in two ounces of water) and spritzing it into the air over your desk any time you need to boost brain power. While the rosemary has the best focus-enhancing science behind it, grapefruit and peppermint have also long been used in aromatherapy for their stimulant benefits, says Green.
After an intense yoga class, those sleep-interrupting muscle spasms can be the result of dehydration and/or a lack of electrolytes, such as the minerals potassium and magnesium, says Tara Collingwood, RD, a sports nutritionist based in Orlando, Florida. Replacing your body’s fluids and electrolytes post-practice will help relax and prevent muscle cramps. Eat a banana to bump up your potassium (one medium banana has 12 percent of your daily potassium) and some pumpkin seeds for magnesium (you’ll get about 4o percent of your daily magnesium in 1 oz). Chase them down with coconut water for additional potassium (one cup contains 17 percent of your daily potassium), always followed by regular water for much-needed hydration.
To stomp out foot odor, make a soak that kills the stink-causing bacteria. Stir 1 cup white vinegar into a bucket of about 20 ounces of warm water and soak your feet for 1o minutes, recommends Laurie Steelsmith, ND, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health. “The vinegar is acidic and has antibacterial properties,” says Steelsmith. Another option: Soak feet in black tea. It’s an astringent, a substance that decreases the size of sweat glands. Plus, tannins in the tea act as an antibacterial, she says. Add boiling water to two teabags in a cup, then dilute that tea into 20 ounces of warm water for soaking.