Ask a dozen sniffling, sneezing people to talk about the bug they've caught, and you'll likely discover a pattern. Chances are good that before they came down with the cold or flu, they were working long hours, eating on-the-go, getting little sleep, operating at full-speed ahead. While not always the case, many people report that these winter afflictions creep up on them in times of stress, when they're pushing themselves too hard.
More and more, it seems that science backs up this observation. According to William Mitchell, N.D., a Seattle-based practitioner who teaches advanced naturopathic therapeutics at Bastyr University, studies show that many viruses and bacteria quietly reside within us until something within the body's internal environment becomes unbalanced. Then they rally into action and attack.
As many longtime yogis can attest, asana practice provides a gentle, natural means of supporting the immune system on a day-to-day basis—, no matter how hectic your schedule might be. Yoga helps lower stress hormones that compromise the immune system, while also conditioning the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulating the lymphatic system to oust toxins from the body, and bringing oxygenated blood to the various organs to ensure their optimal function. "Yoga is unlike other forms of exercise that focus only on certain parts of the body," says Kathleen Fry, M.D., president of the American Holistic Medicine Association in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Yoga works on everything."
Mitchell, who teaches Paramukta Yoga (Yoga of Supreme Freedom), points to a number of poses that can help a practitioner get through a winter cold. Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose) supports the thymus. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) encourages blood flow to the sinuses—although Mitchell adds that most inverted postures or forward bends will focus the immune system on the sinuses, ultimately helping to ease congestion. These particular types of poses also work to prevent the complications of secondary infections by draining the lungs.
If bronchial congestion has you gasping for air, Mitchell suggests you practice Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Balasana (Child's Pose) with arms extended in front, moving into Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) to open the chest and prevent pneumonia. Should you come down with the flu, however, it's best not to practice yoga at all, since the condition requires absolute rest. The one exception to this rule, according to Alice Claggett and Elandra Kirsten Meredith in their book Yoga for Health and Healing: From the Teachings of Yogi Bhajan (1995), is in the case of fever. Sitting in Sukhasana (Easy Pose), with the backs or sides of the hands resting on the knees, thumb and index finger touching in gyan (or jnana) mudra and breathing through a U-shaped tongue for a minimum of three minutes will help reduce a temperature.
It seems reasonable to focus preventive measures on the areas of the body that fall directly under siege: namely, the nasal and bronchial passages. But the yoga tradition also suggests that colds and flu result from poor digestion or an energy imbalance originating in the digestive tract, which results in a build-up of mucus and phlegm that moves into the lungs. The theory, suggests Gary Kraftsow, a Viniyoga teacher based in Maui, Hawaii, is that improper digestion causes toxin build-up, which in turn manifests as disease anywhere in the body. Poses that gently compress, twist, or extend the belly can help a host of digestive ailments.
While the asanas make up the cornerstone of infection prevention, yoga's benefits don't stop there. Since both colds and flu attack the bronchial passages, it makes sense that conditioning the lungs and maximizing one's breathing capacity through pranayama would build resistance to preying organisms. Kraftsow, in his recent book Yoga for Wellness (Penguin, 1999), explains that cold and flu infections, allergies, asthma, and other chronic respiratory conditions are "directly linked to a weakened immune response" due to "disturbed, irregular habits of breathing." Drs. Robin Monro, R. Nagarathna, and H.R. Nagendra, authors of Yoga for Common Ailments (Fireside, 1991), also emphasize breathing exercises. Sectional breathing and rapid abdominal breathing (Kapalabhati) "increase the resistance of your respiratory tract," they advise, while the nasal wash and alternate-nostril breathing "increase the resistance of your sinuses." Recent findings from a Penn State University study involving 294 college students support this. Those who irrigated daily with saline experienced a significant reduction in colds.
Finally, meditation also reduces the incidence of infectious ailments by de-stressing the body and mind. Ample research has shown that just 20 minutes of meditation a day increases endorphins, decreases cortisol levels, and fosters positive states of mind to promote better health.
So how does one begin an immune-boosting yoga program? Rest assured that whatever your current yoga practice entails, it already strengthens your resistance. But if you want to take extra steps to avoid infection, take this advice from Richard Rosen, frequent YJ contributor and instructor at Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. He explains that modified versions of forward bends, backbends, and twists can all lend a hand in supporting and strengthening the immune system. Practice the sequence regularly throughout the winter to better your chances of staying healthy. And if you do succumb to illness, you'll find these poses provide just the R & R you need to get better.