We know that exercise is great for our general health, but can mindful movement like vinyasa yoga also boost our immunity?
“Exercise and movement are very important for supporting our immunity and overall health,” says Dr. Vani Gandhi, an infectious diseases and integrative medicine specialist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But when it comes to immunity, not all forms of exercise are equal.
“There’s a relatively new field of medicine called exercise immunology,” Gandhi says. “Studies have shown that moderate exercise can activate immune cells, which have anti-inflammatory effects. On the other hand, evidence shows that high-intensity exercise, like intense competition events, is associated with physiologic and metabolic stress, which are linked to immune system dysfunction and inflammation. A short yoga session or a 45-minute walk is very different on the body compared to a 26-mile marathon race.”
So while there’s nothing wrong with a serious sweat session, we might reconsider putting so much pressure on ourselves to beat our personal best every time we hit the gym. A slower, more intentional flow is just as valuable.
How yoga stimulates the immune system
Dr. Vani’s suggestion to emphasive moderate exercise got me thinking about Surya Namaskar A–a sequence we lovingly refer to as “Sun A.” These yoga moves are reasonably accessible for most generally healthy bodies. Plus, Sun A may also address the lymph system—a key part of our immune system.
The lymphatic system helps cleanse the body of bacteria and unwanted cells, and is a vital part of our immunity. Moving our bodies helps activate the lymph system. This is important, because this system doesn’t have its own internal “pump.” The classic series Surya Namaskar A seems tailor-made for this purpose because we are rhythmically folding and creasing at each point in the body where lymph nodes cluster.
For this immune-boosting practice, we’ve also included heart openers and moderate inversions to potentially support lymph flow, and a pranayama shown to increase the antiviral compound nitric oxide in our breathing passages.
An immune-boosting yoga sequence
For your warm-up, start by placing a palm on your belly. Observe the easy movement of your belly as you breathe for a moment or two. Then begin your ujjayi breath. Keep the breath steady and smooth, using a 4 count inhale and a 4 count exhale. Once you begin to move, try linking your 4-count in-and-out breaths to your movements. Doing this can soothe and calm your nervous system.
Note: Your lymph nodes are elegantly clustered where the major joints crease. As you move through Sun A, meditate on the rhythmic folding and unfolding at these joints. Take a slow breath in, and begin by bringing your hands to the Anjali Mudra of prayer on your exhale. As you work with the below sequence, remember that while our intention is to use these movements to “pump” the joints where the lymph nodes reside, it’s important to protect your neck by refraining from throwing your head back in any of these poses.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand with the bases of your big toes touching, heels slightly apart. Ensure your toes, knees, hips, shoulders, and head are in alignment and engaged.
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
From Mountain Pose, inhale as you lift your hands overhead. Look past your hands and extend the spine into a backbend if that feels good. As you lift your head up, lengthen and open the front of your neck without crunching the back of your neck.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
On the exhale, bend your knees slightly and hinge at the hips, tucking your chin to “close” the front of the neck at the end of the movement. Hinge at your hips and fold your torso down.
Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)
Inhale and lift up your torso up halfway, gazing forward to open across your neck and chest. You can place your fingertips on the floor, blocks, or your shins. Exhale, bend your knees, ground your palms, and step back to Plank Pose.
Ashtanga Namaskar (Eight-Pointed Bow Pose)
In Plank, inhale and look slightly forward. Exhale and lower your knees, chest and chin to your mat, creating an inchworm-like shape. I have found that if you aim the center of your chest between your thumbs, the chin placement takes care of itself.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
On your next inhale, slide your heart forward of your hands, hugging your shoulder blades toward the middle of your back. Use your arm strength to open and reveal your heart and the front of your neck.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
On your next exhale, press into your hands, tuck your toes, and lift your hips up and back to Downward Facing Dog. Tradition suggests remaining for 5 slow breaths—perhaps enough time for gravity to assist the flow of lymph and blood back to the heart.
After your fifth inhale, exhale and step both feet between your hands at the front of your space. Inhale to the Ardha Uttanasana again, and exhale to fold into Uttanasana.
Bend your knees slightly as you inhale and rise to stand, lifting your hands over the head in Urdhva Hastasana. Exhale and return to Mountain Pose, bringing your hands to prayer.
Now the end becomes the beginning: Inhale and “open” all the major anterior joint spaces for Urdhva Hastasana. Exhale and close them in Uttanasana. Repeat the entire sequence 5 times slowly.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
After your Sun A practice, lie on your back in Constructive Rest for 5 breaths. Place your feet about hip-width apart and close enough to your seat that you can touch or almost touch your heels with your longest fingers. Place your hands close to your ears with the fingers facing your shoulders and your elbows pointing up. Take an inhale, then exhale and press firmly down with both hands and feet, lifting your chest and torso off the ground and lengthening your limbs as much as you can.
There is no need to look back. Instead, allow your neck to lengthen without strain. Continue kicking into your heels to open across your hip creases, chest, armpits, and neck. Remain for 5 deep breaths. To exit, tuck your chin to and bring your head and spine down to the earth and rest. This is a challenging pose! You can also practice Extended Supported Bridge for a similar experience.
Viparita Karani, variation (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
This pose is at least as old as the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā—from the fifteenth century! It’s potentially safer for the neck than Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), and can also be practiced with a block under the sacrum for a more restorative pose. Otherwise, begin on your back. Shuffle your shoulder blades underneath you a little, and take one hand to the back of your neck. Check that you can easily slide your hand under the curve of your neck. (If not, be sure to practice at the wall. Note that this pose is not for those with high blood pressure—Savasana works well instead.)
Looking straight up at the sky, swing your hips and legs in the air, catching your hips in your hands. Since our intention is to allow gravity to assist the flow of lymph and blood back to the heart for a while, there’s no need to create a vertical line with your legs. Instead, your back is at about a 45-degree angle to the earth, and the front of the neck is not compressed. The “wall” here in this pose variation is imaginary!
You can remain in the pose from 5 breaths to 8 minutes. Always save your strength and focus to exit out of an asana. Without looking left or right, place your hands on the backs of your thighs. Bend your knees in a bit and slowly roll your hips, legs, and feet to the earth. Now rest.
Matsyendrasana (Supported Lord of the Fishes Pose)
This restorative pose opens your chest, which is home to the thymus gland, an important player in your immune system, and can bring you a sense of ease. If you have two blocks, place one on its lowest, widest width across your space, and place the other block on its highest level (where your head will be.) Come down to your elbows, and adjust the block to support your back behind your chest where a bra strap would be. Adjust the second block to support your head on a level that feels comfy, and experiment with bringing the arms and legs as wide as you like. (If you don’t have this equipment, try a pillow placed vertically under your upper back and head).
Inhale slowly, and as you exhale, make a gentle humming sound. Breathe in through your nose, and repeat. When we hum, the paranasal sinuses release nitric oxide (“N.O.”) into the nasal passages. The mere act of humming increases N.O. into the nasal passages by 15 to 20 times. This is significant, because N.O. is naturally anti-microbial, and anti-viral. Work with this humming breath for 2–3 minutes.
As always, save time for a relaxing Savasana (Corpse Pose) to close out your practice.