January 16, 2008

Keeping a Clear Head

Winter is often the season of colds and flu. Besides the obvious recommendations of washing our hands regularly, eating well and getting plenty of sleep, there are some yoga techniques that help to stave off the possibility of catching these conditions. First and foremost, a regular yoga practice (3-5 times a week) is already going a long way to boost your immune system and strengthen your respiratory system. So you are already ahead of the curve if you are a regular practitioner. In addition there are some specific poses that help to support the immune system by stimulating toxin release. These include twisting poses such as Pavritta Trikonasana (revolved triangle), Marichyasana II (one legged seated twist), and extending poses such as Adho Mukha Svasana (downward facing dog), and Bhujangasana (cobra).

If you do get stricken with a cold it is best to practice poses that help the body heal. These can include Balasana (child pose), Adho Mukha Svasana (downward dog) which help keep the mucus out of the lungs, and Ustrasana (camel pose) to help open the lungs and sinuses. Easy restorative poses also help the body to heal by reducing the stress hormones. These include Supta Baddha Konasana (reclining bound angle pose) and Supta Savasana (supported corpse pose).

It is also helpful to practice specific Pranayama techniques. To help keep the sinuses and bronchial airways clear, a short daily practice of Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) is very helpful. Also Sectional Breathing (1/3 into belly, 1/3 into ribs ,and 1/3 into chest) helps build lung resistance to cold symptoms.

If you are familiar with nasal cleansing, this too can be an enormous boost to keeping the sinuses and head clear. An ancient Ayurvedic technique (the sister science to yoga), nasal cleansing incorporates what is commonly called a Netti Pot. It is a small pot that has a long spout that is directly inserted into one nostril. A saline solution is then run through one nostril and pours out the other. The procedure is then repeated on the other side. It is greatly effective, although it takes awhile to get used to. Recent findings from a Penn State University study involving 294 college students support this. Those who irrigated daily with saline experienced a significant reduction in colds.

The flu carries a slightly different set of circumstances because usually there is a fever. It is best not to practice yoga with a fever as it increases body heat. However, there is one pranayama technique that is recommended to reduce fever. Sitting in Sukhasana (easy pose) breathe slowly and deeply with tongue extended and curled like a U. Inhale through the tongue and exhale through the nose. This is a cooling breath called Sitali Pranayama. Practice for 1-3 minutes.

Remember that no matter how hard we try, sometimes even the healthiest of us get caught by the cold or flu bug. Should it happen to you, listen to the voice of your body and let yourself heal. Resist the temptation to keep going at the rapid pace you are used to. It is probably that pace that lowered your immune system in the first place. According to William Mitchell, N.D., a Seattle-based practitioner who teaches advanced naturopathic therapeutics at Bastyr University, studies show that many viruses and bacteria quietly reside within us until something within the body's internal environment becomes unbalanced. Then they rally into action and attack. So your best defense is to remember to pace yourself, take nutritional care of yourself, and do your yoga!