The beginning of a new year always gives us an opportunity to organize our thoughts about what we plan to focus on in the upcoming year. What is most important to you right now? Your health? Your work? Your relationships? Once you get clarity on where you want to direct your attention, you can set up your yoga practice in a way that supports your intentions.
While all of us have different goals and priorities, we live in a unique time right now. Staying healthy is particularly important nowadays, and we are especially concerned with the health of our immune systems. They accomplish an incredible feat of identifying what the body needs to keep and what it needs to get rid of every moment of every day. Our immune systems are proficient in this intricate task, and it would be cavalier for us to suggest that we can somehow regulate this delicate system through our own actions, including our yoga practice. Most activities of our immune system are beyond our conscious control. However, there are certain things that we do have control over that might support our immune function.
- Skin care. Your skin is a protective barrier that prevents germs from entering your body. It is important to keep it clean and supple to maintain that barrier.
- Respiratory mucus consistency. Your body fluids, such as nasal mucus, saliva and tears, contain enzymes and antibodies that are able to destroy many microbes. When mucus gets too thick or too thin, it cannot trap the invaders properly. It helps to keep track of the factors that make you congested or give you a runny nose. You might have to modify your diet, quit smoking, drink more water, get a humidifier or try neti pot irrigation to care for your mucus. Read more about your mucus>
- Lymph movement. Your lymphatic system defends your body against pathogens in your environment, as well as internal threats, like cancer cells. It is made up of millions of little vessels that branch out to almost every organ and tissue. Lymph travels along those vessels from your toes and fingertips up toward your neck against gravity. The movement of your skeletal muscles (particularly the muscles of the legs) and rhythmic respiration facilitates the steady flow of lymph throughout the body.
- Sleep quantity. When you are sleep-deprived, you are more likely to get infected with a virus and you are less likely to develop an immune reaction to a vaccine. In addition, sleep deprivation can destroy as much as 70% of the natural killer cells that protect your body from dangerous invaders. Sufficient sleep is necessary for optimal health, including immune function.
- Stress management. A prolonged period of stress disrupts a variety of immune functions, particularly the work of lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infection). Stress suppresses the formation of new lymphocytes and their release into circulation, shortens the time existing lymphocytes stay in circulation, and disrupts communication between them. Effective stress management strategies are essential for proper immune function.
In addition, in yoga it is said that energy follows attention. This means that by bringing attention to different organs and tissues that comprise our immune system (like lymph nodes or spleen) and imagining their activity would, theoretically, increase energy flow to those areas and support their function.
This is exactly what we will do in our new series of yoga practices Zoom in Within. In every practice we will zoom into one aspect of our physiology and use yoga poses, breathing practices, meditations and other tools to bring attention to and support different physiological layers of our functioning. We will start with several practices that highlight different aspects of our immune system and then move on to other physiological systems (digestive, respiratory, circulatory, nervous, etc.)
To make things more interesting, we will use various adaptations of the same pose to emphasize a particular aspect of our chosen system. A persistent myth in some yoga circles is that particular poses benefit specific conditions. For example, the Yoga Journal website lists poses by benefit with a byline “Explore yoga poses to alleviate what ails you—from anxiety to headaches, insomnia and more.”
This kind of grouping creates an impression that if you do the poses listed in a particular category, you will relieve your insomnia, back pain, depression, fatigue, etc. This is simply not correct. You might do all the poses listed and continue to suffer from the same condition, or you can do completely different poses and get relief. It’s not the poses themselves that matter, but how you use them. Yoga poses are just jump-off points that can be adapted for specific purposes. For example, in the first several practices of our series we will use different adaptations of Ardha Utkatasana (Chair pose) to move your lymph, bring attention to your spleen and deal with stress. All of those aspects are meant to support your immune system, but that doesn’t mean that “Chair pose improves your immune function”. We could take almost any other pose and accomplish the same goals. In this series, I would like to show you how versatile yoga poses are and how they can be used for a wide variety of purposes, depending on how they are adapted and what context they are placed in.
I hope that you come along for the ride! I plan to release a new practice every two weeks on HappyUHub, starting this Sunday. Please sign up for a HappyU newsletter if you wish to be notified about new practice release or subscribe to my YouTube channel. Each practice will be under 40 minutes long, simple and to the point. I hope that overtime we will make our way through every layer of our physiology to develop better theoretical understanding and intuitive awareness of what’s going on “under the hood”, so to speak. Hope that you will join in!