Seasonal and environmental allergies have been part of Jessica Levinson's life for as long as the 23-year-old can remember. As a child, Levinson, now a law student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, remembers her family having to tear out wall-to-wall carpeting to cut down on allergens in their home. At 13, she began taking allergy shots to reduce her reaction to pollen, dust, and mold, but they did little to help her. Anxious for relief, Levinson went from doctor to doctor and tried one medication after another, but to no avail—nothing seemed to relieve her symptoms, which included itchy eyes, a runny nose, a scratchy throat, and congestion. Finally, when she was 19, one of her doctors suggested she try yoga. "The doctor didn't know whether it would help but thought it certainly wouldn't hurt," Levinson says.
So she signed up for yoga lessons with Larry Payne, Ph.D., a yoga teacher in Los Angeles and coauthor of Yoga Rx: A Step by Step Program to Promote Health, Wellness, and Healing for Common Ailments. "I had to start with private lessons, because I wasn't in good enough shape to participate in a group class," recalls Levinson, whose allergies had always limited her participation in outdoor activities and sports.
Under Payne's tutelage, she learned a range of asanas as well as several Pranayama techniques. Over time, she gained strength, began taking group yoga classes, and developed a home practice. Now she practices yoga daily, doing 45 minutes of asanas in the morning and 15 minutes of pranayama in the afternoon. She is, she says, a whole new woman.
Allergies Are Everywhere
Before trying to understand how yoga can help alleviate allergies, it's important to understand what they are and why they occur.
An allergic reaction occurs when a person's immune system attacks a substance that is usually harmless—such as pollen, pet dander, or dust—as if the substance were an organism out to cause disease. The immune system kicks into defensive mode, releasing histamine and a host of other powerful chemicals to attack what it sees as the enemy, says Pamela Georgeson, M.D., board-certified allergist and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. "These chemicals cause the allergy symptoms patients experience: stuffy and runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, teary eyes, postnasal drainage, and sometimes headaches." Although less common, allergic reactions can also include hives, itchy welts on the skin, and difficulty breathing.
Seasonal allergies occur during much of the year, though their patterns depend largely on where you live. In areas with cold winters and warm summers, tree pollens tend to be most bothersome in March through May; grass pollens wreak havoc during May, June, and July; weed pollens cause trouble beginning in July; and ragweed pollen appears in August and stays in the air until the first frost. In areas that stay relatively warm year-round, allergy sufferers may never get a break. Likewise, people who are allergic to nonseasonal environmental substances such as pet dander, mold, and dust may suffer all year long.
Some 36 million Americans experience seasonal allergies, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis. Allergies take a staggering toll: The estimated overall cost of allergic rhinitis in 1996 was $6 billion in medical care and lost productivity, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Beyond the financial loss, people with seasonal allergies suffer physically and emotionally. As anyone who has seasonal allergies knows, the symptoms of hay fever can make you miserable and can sentence you to months of debilitating discomfort and fatigue. "It can significantly affect a person's ability to function," notes Richard A. Nicklas, clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"The incidence of allergies, asthma, and allergic rhinitis has gone up, and we're not exactly sure why that is," Nicklas says. "It's substantially greater than even 20 or 30 years ago." And as the incidence of allergies increases, so do related problems. People with allergic rhinitis are more likely to develop asthma as well as colds and infections in the sinuses, bronchial tubes, and ears.
Pollution may be partially to blame for the rise, and stress may play a part too, according to Richard Usatine, M.D., vice chair for education in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio and coauthor with Payne of Yoga Rx. "Stress affects the nervous system and the immune system, and a lot of conditions are mediated by our nervous system and immune system."
In a stressful situation, your breathing rate, heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure all increase, and the body releases adrenaline. These reactions—which are known collectively as the fight-or-flight response—can be helpful if you need physical energy to confront your stressor.
However, in the crazy-busy 21st century, most of our stresses are emotional, not physical, and they tend to be chronic. As a result, our bodies are constantly prepared for stress—muscles stay clenched, breathing remains shallow, and, over time, the immune system is challenged and allergies may worsen.
Chances are, you can't eliminate all the sources of stress in your life. But if you can cut out as many stressors as possible, the ones that remain may feel less taxing. Yoga and pranayama can also help break the stress cycle, and give the body the time and space it needs to heal.
"Clearly, stress adds an extra burden on the immune system—not only in allergies but in asthma and other illnesses," says Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., an allergist who is medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. "Yoga and postural exercises exert a relaxation response that may modify the negative effects of psychological stress on proper immune function."
This was certainly Levinson's experience. She believes that yoga eased her allergies in three ways: Asanas helped her build a stronger, more agile body; pranayama increased her oxygen intake and improved the way she breathes; and together, asana and pranayama bolstered her body's ability to fight off environmental assaults. "I feel that yoga ups my immune system so I can just deal with environmental invasions better," Levinson says.
The Yoga Prescription
Asanas can be prescribed very specifically for some ailments. For example, if your back is sore, you might benefit from a posture such as Bharadvajasana I (Bharadvaja's Twist I), which gently stretches the spine and hips and is well known for its power to relieve lower back pain. However, seasonal allergies occur partly because the immune system is overreacting, not because a certain muscle needs to be stretched. Therefore, recommending therapeutic asanas for allergy sufferers is not so simple.
The same is true with pranayama. Because allergies cause reactions in the respiratory system, which may then become congested, runny, or inflamed, pranayama must be undertaken carefully so that it helps rather than harms. Alternate-nostril breathing can be a wonderful way to practice breathing more deeply when the respiratory system is at peace, but in the middle of a full-blown allergy attack, you may not be able to breathe clearly enough out of either nostril.
In other words, if you're looking for a couple of quick moves that will banish your runny nose and itchy eyes forever, you won't find them here. But if you want to build a comprehensive lifestyle plan that will improve your overall health—and with it, your allergies—yoga can help.
In traditional Eastern medicine, someone seeking help for an illness or ailment would be treated in an integrated way. A healer would use the principles of yoga along with Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing system, and would also talk with the patient about other behaviors that contribute to health or disease.
That's what we should do today too, according to Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and author of Yoga for Wellness and Yoga for Transformation. "You need to look at lifestyle in a holistic way," Kraftsow says. "If you're very tired, for example, your system becomes weaker and therefore more susceptible. My view is to look at the whole person and work from multiple directions at once. There's no universal prescription, but there is an approach."
Kraftsow tailors that approach based on his students' individual needs—that's the cornerstone of Viniyoga, he explains. "Viniyoga always begins from an understanding of the individual body's unique condition," he says. " Yoga practice must be adapted to the anatomical, physiological, and psychoemotional needs of the person, along with health conditions and stress levels." And a complete, well-balanced practice—such as the series he designed for this article—can be the best medicine: prevention. As your body becomes healthier and stronger, Kraftsow says, it will better be able to cope with allergens. Larry Payne agrees: "One of the best ways to build up your immune system is general conditioning yoga."
This means that before thinking about what poses or breathing exercises to do to help with your allergies, you must first look at your own general health-related behaviors. Do you sleep enough? Do you get enough aerobic exercise? Is your diet balanced? Do certain foods, drugs, or emotional states trigger allergic reactions? Are there unnecessary sources of stress in your life? Do you have relationships that are causing emotional upheaval?
Once you have identified any problem areas, you can focus on devising your own remedies and on developing an asana practice that respects your body and your own structural and constitutional needs. Which asanas will help depends on who you are and how you feel. For example, forward bends may feel great when your head is clear, but doing them while your head is stuffy could cause headaches. Likewise, Shoulderstand may feel wonderful to some people; others may feel as if they're drowning in this inversion. Viniyoga stresses that asana practice should be about understanding and addressing the mechanisms responsible for your present condition, not about achieving perfect form in asanas.
As you practice with increasing awareness, you will naturally begin to find that some asanas are particularly helpful during an allergy attack. "It has been reported that yoga/postural exercises may assist and improve nasal breathing, including stuffiness and clogged nasal passages," Bassett says. "Some of the inverted yoga postures may aid mucus drainage."
Pranayama also helps make systematic changes that improve the way your body copes with allergies, as deeper breathing improves the use of oxygen in the blood. "It's a powerful way to strengthen constitution and endurance," Kraftsow says. According to the Viniyoga perspective, as the breath cycle lengthens, digestion improves, the cardiovascular system is strengthened, sleep deepens and becomes more refreshing, and immunity increases.
Pranayama is a crucial part of Jessica Levinson's daily routine. She practices Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing) and Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining Skull Breath), which includes short, rapid exhalations through the nose. She believes that these two exercises allow her to take in more oxygen. "I was a very shallow breather through my mouth, because I was so congested all the time," she says. Pranayama remedied that.
An Integrated Approach
Levinson was lucky: Yoga helped her so much that she was able to stop taking allergy medication on a regular basis. That's not the case for everyone, however.
You may find that an integrated yoga-pranayama practice helps ward off allergy attacks but that you still need medication to manage attacks when they do occur. If that is the case, Bassett says, long-acting, nonsedating antihistamines such as Clarinex, Claritin OTC, Zyrtec, and Allegra can help control sneezing, runny nose, and itchiness of the eyes, nose, and throat. These drugs can be a real gift to allergy sufferers, allowing them to maintain their practice even in the midst of the worst pollen season or a sea of cat dander.
"Do these exercises but don't throw away your inhaler," Payne recommends. "The best approach may be a marriage of modern medicine and yoga."
The key is to find what works best for you. One person may find allergy relief by doing backbends and alternate-nostril breathing and popping an occasional Claritin. Another may discover that Shoulderstand and long-term meditation do the trick. Whatever your personal method, if you're using an integrative yoga-based approach, you're boosting your body's ability to heal itself. And you might find, as Levinson did, that your life becomes transformed. "You have to work for it, but it's worthwhile," she says. "I got over my allergies without popping a pill.
"I'm still someone who should not dust for fun or sit next to certain flowers," she adds, but notes that she no longer panics when she happens upon a bouquet and can even go hiking without assuming that pollen will chase her right back indoors. She can, in short, move about the world freely and with ease.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a freelance health writer who contributes regularly to Yoga Journal.