Can Yoga Really Boost Your Immune System?
(Read time approx. 3 min. 50 sec.)
"Personally, these are the times that I value my yoga practice more than ever."
Whether it’s to do with the coronavirus or at any other time in life, having a strong immune system is not only about health but also about getting the most out of life. Health is wealth as they say, and the idea of boosting your immune system is naturally appealing - but are there really things you can do to support or even boost it?
Understanding the Immune System
The first thing to point out about the immune system is that it’s not a single entity but an entire system and like most systems, it requires balance within all its parts to function correctly. The immune system’s balance is governed by yet another of the body’s systems known as homeostasis – “stasis” meaning to balance or to stand still with support.
Fundamentally, two factors affect the balance of homeostasis. The first comes in the form of mental or environmental stressors that stimulate or break the body down. The second is the opposing force that restores and builds the body back up. This constant back-and-forth between break-down and build-up is the basis of metabolism and is essential to life. It’s an evolutionarily response that’s designed to help us adapt to the world around us, and as long as there is more build-up than break-down, the process makes us stronger. This is how we build muscles when we exercise or develop antibodies when we're exposed to viruses like corona.
Homeostasis acts like one of those toys that the more you knock it down the more it bounces straight back. The problem comes when we become overloaded with stress from every direction and the homeostatic response struggles to build us back up. When this imbalance becomes sustained over time, it can cause what is known as a compromised immune system.
Compromised Immune System
The main causes of having a compromised immune system are often associated with either a chronic health condition or simply reaching a stage in life where the homeostatic response becomes sluggish and doesn’t function as well as it did when we were younger. Or it can come from what I class as being “overstimulated and under-restored” - in other words, being over stressed and at the same time not getting enough good quality rest and restoration.
The Power of Rest and Restoration
A lot of us will identify with at least one if not all of these conditions and rest assured that they can all be addressed over time by adopting a healthy lifestyle. But there is the only one condition that can be addressed immediately and that is rest and restoration. Simply getting a good night’s sleep is probably one of the best ways to restore homeostasis and boost the immune system. We forget, but sleep is the body's way of naturally metabolising stress.
Of course, there are other healthy ways to metabolise stress like spending time in nature, being with loved ones, participating in a hobby, laughing and perhaps ironically right now, intimacy, human touch and of course any loving act. I’m sure we can all think of healthy ways to relax that we enjoy, but the hardest part is always making it a priority and finding the time.
Yoga and Stress
As a yoga teacher who has spent the past 15 years specialising in yoga for stress, I naturally rely heavily on all the techniques yoga has to offer. Yes, doing a dynamic yoga class can be great for improving overall health and increasing the production of feel-good hormones like endorphins - these types of hormones can drag stress hormones down with them when they decline at the end of a class. But equally, we have to keep in mind that any form of exercise, yes even yoga, is a form of stress and can easily add to any of the other types of stress we’ve accumulated.
Personally, these are the times that I value my yoga practice more than ever. A time when I find I naturally gravitate towards more de-stressing styles that emphasise things like restoration, breathing, and meditation. Yoga styles that encourage you to just simply show up in your body - without judgment, without wanting to control or fix anything.
Yoga’s greatest gift is that it takes us into our bodies, which in turn changes our relationship to thought. It's not that we want to stop thinking, but the nature of thought exists either into the past or projects into the future – to things that may or may not happen. Being able to be in our bodies allows us to be in the gap between the past and the future - the present moment. The ability to spend time in this place not only has a powerful effect on homeostasis and the immune system but is also the place where we grow and heal – and I can’t think of anything better than that right now.
PS. These are clearly stressful times for all of us, but it’s important for ourselves and others that we stay positive with cool minds and warm hearts. Remember that worst-case scenarios are not inevitable, they are just that, worst-case scenarios and its good authorities are prepared. We are in unprecedented and uncertain times, but at the same time keep in mind that we have all have experience of a bad cold and flu, and this is the same in the majority of cases.
Of course, it makes total sense to practice good hygiene and social distancing as much as possible until we get the chance to get back to some kind of normality. I would recommend that if you find yourself in any kind of isolation, please make sure you’re in regular contact with loved ones and your community. At hard times like this it’s worth remembering the old Persian adage “this too shall pass” - we will get through this and more importantly we get through together.
Over the next few weeks, I will definitely be writing more on this topic so please let me know if you would like me to cover anything and I’ll do my best.
Check out previous related blogs: Practicing Yoga During Flu Season