Yoga on pilgrimage to Sri Lanka

COVID-19 & Immunity: Yoga & Pranayama Perspectives

Apr 10, 2020

One of the guiding principles explored in the Contemplative Studies Program is that we have agency. In the face of adversity we can become empowered to consciously direct our evolution towards more favourable outcomes.

What follows is an instalment in a series of assignments taken on by CSP members. Students were asked to research pandemic related subjects including economics, health and lifestyle. The purpose of the task was to engage critical reasoning in the midst of a barrage of sensational headlines and form an action plan. In a crisis, having a plan and keeping moving is critical to mental health.

This information is provided to deliver you things you should know, and things can do during the pandemic.

Five Things to Know

  1. Yoga helps decrease stress hormones, stimulates the lymphatic system to release toxins out of the body, and brings oxygenated blood to the various organs in the body to ensure their function. These effects boost immune function.
  2. Yoga postures and pranayama (breathing exercises) can strengthen vagal tone (see more about this in the next section) and help regulate the nervous system. Certain practices help decrease sympathetic nervous system activity and re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system (helping us to calm down when feeling stressed), and others can help engage the sympathetic nervous when we’re in a traumatic reactivity shut-down mode (feeling lethargic, immobilized, depressed). The more we can regulate our nervous system and return our body-minds to homeostasis, the stronger our immune response will be.
  3. Forward folds and inversions (including downward dog) bring blood flow to the sinuses and can ease congestion and prevent mucus from moving into the lungs. Passive forward folds and inversions also have a calming effect on the nervous system, and are therefore helpful to do when feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
  4. Backbends can help promote lung health and relieve bronchial congestion. They have also been shown to help prevent pneumonia, however backbends can be quite active and if one is already quite weak from illness, it might be better to skip the backbends until feeling a little better.
  5. Twists are helpful to prevent the onset of illness, as they release toxins from the body and aid in digestion. Since the build-up of toxins in the digestive system makes one susceptible to illness, it is important to eat a healthy diet and detoxify as much as possible.

Five Things We Can Do

1. Inversions

a) Legs-up-the-wall pose. I cannot stress enough the many benefits of this posture. Do this for 20 minutes at least once a day, or whenever you’re feeling anxious or dysregulated. You can set yourself up at the wall and use a bolster or blanket under your hips or head, or you can just do it right from your couch or bed – you just swing your legs up the wall and rest your torso on the couch or bed. Relax your shoulders away from your ears. You can place an eye pillow over your eyes if you’d like. Focus on your breath, particularly on the movement of your belly as you deeply inhale and exhale. This posture activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps decrease stress and anxiety. It also helps alleviate insomnia and boosts immune function.

b) If you have an established yoga practice, headstand, shoulderstand, and halasana are all excellent ways of promoting health and reducing stress. If you’re not already familiar with these postures, best to skip them for now and focus on the others. You can practice downward facing dog if you want to try a more active inversion, but are not familiar with the aforementioned postures.

2. Forward folds (while there are many, here are two that have immediate calming effects on the nervous system)

 a) Paschimottanasana (forward fold): This is a nice variation using a chair. You could also use bolsters or blocks if you have them. The idea is to have your forehead resting on a surface so you can fully relax into the posture. If you have tight hamstrings, you can bend the knees slightly or sit up on a blanket.

 b) Uttanasana (standing forward fold): I’d do this with the feet hip width apart. Fold forward at the hips. Keep a slight bend in the knee. Allow your torso, head, neck, and arms to relax fully. Take deep breaths. You can even sigh out the mouth for several rounds of breath.

3. Backbends (while there are many, here are a few basic backbends)

a) Cobra pose

b) Sphinx pose

c) Bridge pose

4. Twists

a) Gentle, reclined twist:

5. Pranayama (breathing practices)

a) Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) - This practice balances the right and left hemispheres and modulates the stress response. This is a great practice to do daily, for 5-15 minutes. Can be helpful to do this before your regular meditation practice. Here’s an instructional video on youtube:

 b) Sitali (the cooling breath) – Some evidence suggests that practicing this breath for 3 minutes will help reduce a fever. You can sit in sukhasana (cross-legged posture) with the backs of your hands resting on the knees, thumb and index finger touching. Then, you inhale through a curled tongue or pursed lips if you’re not able to curl your tongue (it’s a genetic trait!). Exhale through the nose.

c) If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, a simple breathing technique is to make your exhalation longer than your inhalation. You can try inhaling to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 6 or 8.

d) Kapalabhati (skull-shining breath) – This practice can help activate the sympathetic nervous system and can be helpful to do if you’re feeling depressed or caught in a shut-down mode. It also helps clear the lungs of mucus and toxins, however I’d recommend using this technique more as preventive measure for keeping the lungs healthy, as opposed to practicing once you’re already congested. Here is a youtube instructional video, which also includes information about a few contraindications of this practice (ulcer, hernia, uncontrolled hypertension)

 e) Box Breathing - Inhale to the count of 4, retain the breath for a count of 4, exhale to the count of 4, retain for a count of 4; then repeat for several minutes, until you feel calmer, or for as long as you’d like. This helps to balance the nervous system and strengthen vagal tone.

Written by

Erica Saccente

Irina Viscun

Coming up... Vagal Tone and Meditation Perspectives on COVID-19 & Immunity


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