At least 35.9 million Americans annually are plagued by seasonal allergic rhinitis, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. And the number of sufferers has doubled in the last 20 years, due to factors such as environmental pollution, poor diet, and increased stress, which make our immune, nervous, and respiratory systems hypersensitive.
Allergies aren't just annoying; they can affect sleep, concentration, and productivity and put you in a bad mood. Moreover, growing evidence shows that allergies and asthma may be two sides of the same coin, as asthmatics are more likely to be allergy sufferers too and those with allergies have a greater chance of developing asthma.
While people often think of spring as the beginning of "allergy season," there are actually three separate times of year when seasonal allergies tend to occur: spring (tree pollen), summer (grass pollen), and early fall (ragweed pollen). Allergy shots (immunotherapy), nasal steroid sprays, and over-the-counter antihistamines may work for many, but a more holistic approach can help too. As a lifestyle measure, your yoga practice can help reduce allergy symptoms by tempering your immune system's response to the perceived offender—pollen.
"Allergies are worsened by a stress reaction, which causes physiological responses, including the release of stress hormones and histamine, and triggers inflammation," says Jeff Migdow, M.D., director of Prana Yoga Teacher Training through the Open Center in New York as well as a holistic physician at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Relaxation diminishes fight-or-flight response, and thereby reduces allergic symptoms." Through relaxation, the nervous system basically tells the immune system to hold its fire. Once the immune system backs off, the inflammation and mucus decrease, and symptoms diminish.
Migdow suggests you make de-stressing your immune system a priority by modifying your yoga practice to be less vigorous and much more calming. "For example, avoid Bikram Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga where there is already heat. Instead, practice asanas in a smooth and relaxing way with lots of slow breathing."
Gary Kraftsow, the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and the author of Yoga for Wellness, adds: "When allergies flare up, avoid anything that may add insult to injury and keep energy up, since allergies are also associated with low energy." Plus he advises against using forceful breathing or any pranayama through the nostrils, as congestion might make this difficult and uncomfortable. "In your breathing, place a greater emphasis on exhalation; a short inhalation followed by a longer one has a calming effect," he says.
Harriet (Bhumi) Russell, who is a holistic health educator, yoga teacher, and director of Bhumi's Yoga and Wellness Center in Cleveland, Ohio, says that inversions can help clear the upper respiratory tract and drain secretions from the nose, allowing freshly oxygenated blood to flow into the oral cavity. Doing Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Halasana (Plow Pose) can open nasal passages, ensuring proper drainage of sinuses, she says. "But don't keep your head down too long in poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) and Sirsasana (Headstand), which can put extra pressure on nasal passages."
Russell also recommends doing more standing poses—forward and backward bends, and twists—in your practice, all of which tend to massage various parts of the spine and the thoracic cage and condition the lungs. "Strong lung meridians help strengthen immune-system functioning," she explains.