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Balancing the immune system with yoga
by Jeff Migdow, M.D.

For many of us, the arrival of autumn means it's time to stock up on Kleenex and cough drops. Along with seasonal allergies, autumn means colder weather that can bring with it colds and flu. But yoga can help by strengthening and balancing your basic weapon against sinus conditions -- the immune system. Yoga postures, pranayama, relaxation and meditation are powerful tools for helping to stimulate or calm the immune response depending on the situation.

Increased allergy symptoms indicate that your immune system is working overtime. A stuffy nose, ears and sinuses, inflamed eyes, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing are all caused by the mucus-producing process of the inmmune system attacking innocuous invaders. Through relaxation, the nervous system can tell the immune system to settle down and stop attacking the foreign bodies, which are naturally cleared out in a non-allergic person by sneezing once or twice a day. When the immune system backs off, inflammation and mucus decrease and symptoms diminish.

Practicing any yoga posture in a relaxing way with slow deep breathing and the intention to let go and relax the nervous system can be very beneficial in decreasing the symptoms of allergies. Kapalabhati breathing is great for allergies as it forces out the mucus. (Don't forget to keep tissues within easy reach!) The relaxation time at the end of a yoga class can also be an important part of decreasing allergic immune response. Encourage your students to relax and affirm that the relaxation will help decrease their reaction to allergens. However, be aware that students suffering from allergies may become too congested when lying on their backs; you can suggest they lie on the stomach or side if that's more comfortable.

Relaxing the nervous system has been shown to help direct the immune system to attack the viruses and bacteria that increase in colder weather. Colds are caused by bacteria and affect the upper respiratory system, causing stuffiness, coughing, sore throat, etc. If the immune system is weak, the bacteria can go into the lungs and cause bronchitis or pneumonia. Viruses go deeper into the system, causing chills, fever or pain and aching in the joints.

But a strong immune system can frost the invaders within a few days, preventing more extreme manifestations of the illness and in fact strengthening the immune system. Again, yoga postures done in a relaxed way and slow, deep pranayama can help relax the nervous system and boost the immune response.

Another way to build the immune system and improve sinus-related conditions is to focus on the thymus gland. Located in the chest, the thymus gland is the locus of the immune system. Thus both the thymus gland and the immune system are stimulated by any posture in which we open the chest and breathe deeply into it. The most beneficial postures for this purpose are the Cobra, the Pigeon, the Fish, the Boat, the Bow and the Bridge.

Since the thymus gland corresponds to the fourth chakra, these postures can be enhanced by including chakra sounds such as the fourth chakra bij mantra "yum" or the fourth chakra vowel sound "ay." Kapalabhati breathing or slow deep ujjayi breathing in postures where the chest is open can also be beneficial. Experiment with practicing the postures as you breathe deeply into the chest and sound the mantras. My audiotape on Prana Yoga, send out through KYTA last spring, will help guide you in combining the mantras with the postures.

With a relaxed nervous system and a focused and revitalized immune system, you'll find you're able to resist autumn allergens and throw off winter's infections more readily.

Jeff Migdow, M.D., a former director of Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training, is the developer and director of Prana Yoga Teacher Training. For information about workshops at the Open Center in New York City and his Prana Yoga Teacher Training, call 212-219-2527. For information about Jeff's medical practice, call 413-448-3446.

Reprinted with permission from the Kripalu Yoga Teachers Association Yoga Bulletin.

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