For years Julia Fine was tormented by monthly ear infections. The pain was bad enough, but Fine already had severe hearing loss in both ears: When the infections came on, she couldn't wear her hearing aids, and her world diminished.
The recurring infections didn't stop her from practicing yoga, studying abroad during college, or entering law school, but they were exhausting. "When I had an ear infection I was always more tired," Fine says. "I had to pay extra attention to people's lips and constantly ask people to repeat themselves." Even yoga classes weren't the same: She felt a sense of loss when she was unable to hear the teacher's voice, the music, or her own breath.
Then last year, Fine increased her Ashtanga practice from two or three days a week to five or six. She expected to feel stronger and calmer, but another benefit took her by surprise—the ear infections disappeared. Today Fine, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, still feels the urge to knock wood when she talks about it. "My doctor doesn't believe me," she says, "but I know my practice is what's keeping me healthy."
When it comes to fortifying the immune system, mainstream physicians like Fine's rarely give yoga its due, but times are changing. Over the past few years, scientists have traced a plausible connection between meditative practices and good health. "When the stress hormone cortisol is elevated for long periods, it wears down the immune response," says Timothy McCall, M.D., Yoga Journal's medical editor and author of Yoga as Medicine. Researchers suspect that mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques, including yoga, can improve the immune system's functioning by lowering cortisol levels.
Yoga also has a rich anecdotal history of reinforcing the immune system, says Larry Payne, Ph.D. In the Krishnamacharya lineage, he says, every asana is said to either increase or reduce energy in the body. "People with immune problems need to bring in more energy," he says.
The best poses for doing this, according to Payne, are backbends. Some of his favorites are Cobra Pose, Bow Pose, and Sun Salutation. But his favorite immune-boosting pose—especially if you're fighting a cold—is Savasana.
Catherine Guthrie is a health writer in Bloomington, Indiana.