Immunity-boosting yoga? When we think of “immunity boosters”, yoga’s not usually the first thing that comes to mind. But, it can do wonders for immunity, especially when we practice regularly.
Here’s how it works: yoga stimulates digestion to keep the body toxin-free and able to resist disease, it balances the thyroid function which regulates many of our body functions, it improves lung function and respiratory health, and perhaps most important of all, it reduces the stress that can rob us of immunity.
In this global moment in time, we need all the immune help we can get — not only to protect us against COVID-19, but to protect us against the effects of the fear and uncertainty arising from this global pandemic. And for this, yoga is perfect.
As teachers and students, it’s helpful to understand what immunity is from a holistic perspective; specifically, from yoga’s sister science of Ayurveda. According to Ayurveda, immunity is a function of ojas— the subtle essence of our body tissues. Ojas acts like a shield, resisting pathogens and disease (both endogenous and exogenous). At the same time, it helps us to overcome disease should we fall ill. If our ojas is strong, there is nowhere in the body for disease to manifest. Every cell and system is protected.
Ayurveda explains that there are three ways in which we allacquire immunity. Firstly, we’re born with it — and some are born with stronger immunity than others. Secondly, we build immunity with time and the exposure to pathogens that only time can bring. This is easy to see in children, who frequently fall ill as their systems don’t yet have the immunity to withstand colds and bugs going around the classroom. That tendency dissipates as we age and our body acquires immunity.
Lastly, we create immunity through our own right actions and decisions: proper food, restful sleep, self care, and exercise. Wholesome food and lifestyle behaviors keep our systems in good health, boost our ojas, and strengthen our resistance to disease.
Immunity-boosting yoga: When it comes to exercise, restorative yoga has its own very special immunity-boosting benefits. Aside from those mentioned above (stimulating digestion, balancing the thyroid, and strengthening the lungs), yoga improves the functioning of the internal organs, helps prana to flow, removes stagnation and accumulation, relaxes the nervous system, and calms the mind.
Here’s an immunity-boosting yoga flow that grants all of these benefits to the body. It should be practiced without stress or strain, slowly and mindfully, and with long, deep abdominal breaths.
Most students, and humans! are overwhelmed by thoughts right now — be they fears of losing work or loved ones. This immunity flow will serve as a tool to let go of the future if only for a moment. But first, centering is needed. This is an opportunity to land the mind in the body before moving on to the other poses.
Begin sitting comfortably in thunderbolt pose, easy pose, or lotus pose. Close your eyes and bring your body to stillness. Scan the body, becoming aware of any gripping or holding, and consciously relax. We often hold tension in the belly, shoulders, jaw, and forehead — places to be aware of.
Next, bring your attention to the soles of your feet. Notice any sensations you feel here: cold, warmth, tingling, vibration, the feeling of fabric against your skin. You can do the same with the palms of the hands, noticing any sensations that arise here.
Take a few deep breaths, filling the abdomen and feeling the belly expand.
Then, chant om three times.
From thunderbolt pose, place your fingertips on the floor in front of you and slowly walk them forward, lowering the head and torso into child’s pose. Open your knees wide and rest your forehead on the ground. Keep the arms engaged, fingers spread.
This is a moment to connect with the earth in a very physical way — forehead connected to the ground beneath you. Take a few breaths here, then slowly rise to return to thunderbolt pose.
Now, to warm up the body: practice 3 rounds of sun salutation A followed by 2 rounds of sun salutation B. Become especially conscious of the chest opening opportunities in these sequences: in mountain pose with the arms overhead, in upward facing dog, and in warrior 1. Lift the heart toward the sky and visualize baby blue prana filling your lungs.
Ideally, these sun salutations will cause you to break a sweat. You may need to do a few more rounds to get to that point. However, don’t overdo it — straining the body will go against the immunity-boosting effect we’re after!
Breaking a sweat has great significance in ayurveda. It’s the point up to which we should exercise — some sweat on the brow, having to breathe a little more heavily through the mouth. This signifies just the right amount of exertion and not beyond; we’re enabling our body to burn off toxins and clear its subtle channels without causing depletion.
Lie down on your back in savasana for a minute before preceding. This will give your body a moment to rest so that the sequence ultimately becomes restorative and energizing rather than draining.
From savasana, bring your legs together and slide your hands, palms down, underneath your buttocks. Inhale and slowly reach your right foot toward the sky. Stop when your leg is perpendicular to the floor. Then exhale and slowly lower your leg back down. Repeat 4 more times. Now, do the same with the left leg. Then rest for a moment in savasana.
This exercise helps to strengthen the core and improve digestion. According to ayurveda, digestion is our powerhouse: the center from which all body systems stem and flourish, and our immunity depends on it. When the digestive fire is balanced, digestion, absorption, and assimilation all happen as they should. There’s less chance of undigested matter accumulating in the body, which means less chance of toxic buildup. And the cleaner our system, the stronger our immunity.
From savasana, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor near your buttocks. Your feet should be as wide as your hips, and your arms should be flat on the floor alongside your body, palms facing down.
On an inhale, push into your feet to lift your hips toward the sky. Make sure that your knees are not beyond your feet; if they are, walk them a few inches away from your body. Hold the pose for 3-5 breaths. Then exhale and slowly lower back down. Repeat 3 times. Then rest for a moment in savasana.
Bridge pose is wonderful for revitalizing the spine and improving digestion. With the chin pressed against the chest, it also balances thyroid function, which plays a role in all aspects of our metabolism.
Next, come into fish. Bring your legs together. Place your hands underneath your buttocks, palms facing down. Inhale and lift your chest, drawing your elbows toward one another. The back of your neck will lift from the floor; gently lift your chin toward the sky and rest the crown of your head on the floor. Keep most of the weight in your elbows and only a small amount of weight on your head. Stay in the pose for 3-5 breaths. To exit, press your elbows into the floor, lift your head and lower all the way to the ground. Rest for a moment in savasana.
Fish pose is also wonderful for regulating thyroid function. By encouraging deep breathing, it benefits the lungs, too. It also stimulates digestion by stretching the abdominal organs.
Seated forward bend pose
Now for a forward bend to balance out those beautiful backbends! Roll onto one side and then come all the way to sitting. Bring your legs together. It may be helpful to slide the flesh out from under you so that you’re sitting tall on the sitz bones.
Inhale and reach your hands to the sky, lengthening your spine as you reach the crown of your head upwards. Exhale and bend from your hips, bringing your hands to the outsides of your feet (or as far as they reach). Relax your neck. Stay here here for 5-10 breaths. Then inhale and slowly release.
Breathe slowly and deeply into your belly. In this variation of seated forward bend, the goal isn’t to stretch the hamstrings but rather to stimulate digestion through deep abdominal breaths.
We’ll finish with lion pose to release any lingering stress or tension in the mind, chest, or diaphragm.
Bend your legs and come into thunderbolt pose with your legs folded underneath you. Keeping your feet together, open your knees wide. Place your hands on the floor between your knees, fingers pointing toward you. Straighten your arms and roll your shoulders down your back, lengthening your spine. Close your eyes.
Inhale deeply. Keeping your chin where it is, open your eyes and gaze upward. Stick out your tongue and exhale with a long, audible “ahhhh” sound. Close your mouth and eyes and repeat 4 more times.
Finish with a long and rejuvenating rest in savasana — 5-10 minutes. Be sure to keep warm, covering yourself with a blanket or shawl. Just as we opened our practice, chant 3 rounds of om to finish.
Enjoy the renewed sense of vitality you’ve created with this immunity-boosting flow!