Can Yoga Cure a Cold?

I used to get sick all the time. My immune system had never met a germ it didn’t want to party with; if I was in twenty feet of a sick person, I was bound to catch whatever she or he had.

But then I started a regular yoga practice, and my sick days were miraculously over. I didn’t really put two and two together, but in the past 24 hours, one thing has become abundantly clear – yoga is my only defense against the common cold. How did I come up with this hypothesis? Well, as I sit here in bed, box of tissues to my left and orange juice to my right, I have to admit that I’ve been rather lax in attending yoga class for the past few weeks. I had in-laws and friends in town, a lot of work, and a ton of unexpected house-related issues come up all at once, forcing me to miss about 2 weeks worth of my regular class. At first I tried to keep up with my practice on my own, but that dwindled as the days went on.

Let me just stop here and convince you I’m not crazy (a bit Sudafed-addled, maybe, but not crazy). According to Timothy McCall, M.D. in Yoga Journal, “Yoga has been shown in some studies to improve the functioning of the immune system, which may be due in part to its demonstrated ability to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Short-term elevations in cortisol levels actually improve immunity, but persistently high levels ultimately undermine it and may set the stage for colds and other health problems.”

So now, I pay the price. The common cold has struck in its most common cruel way, making me feel like a Mack truck blindsided me and then ran me over a few times for good measure. The same Yoga Journal article maintains that people who practice yoga regularly have less potent versions of the dastardly cold, and that engaging in a light practice while sick may actually help with symptoms. Certain poses can alleviate specific cold-related problems. For example:

  • Chanting “ohm” or “mmm” can help open up congested sinus passages, according to one Swedish study.
  • Reclining Bound Angle (Supta Baddha Konasana, one of my restorative personal favorites) opens the chest and helps you take deeper, more cleansing breaths.
  • Child’s Pose (Balasana) done over a bolster can be beneficial if you are coughing (chest openers can actually exacerbate the problem, so avoid these if you have a cough).
  • Eating a “Yoga Diet” – one heavy in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products, and low in processed foods and sweeteners – strengthens your immune system so it can fight off colds. Apparently, too much sugar can be detrimental to your immunity as well as your teeth and waistline – those yogis really know what they are talking about!
  • If you feel a cold coming on, do Lion Pose every day till symptoms subside. This pose brings blood flow to the throat and literally drowns out the germs.
  • Give your tired muscles and joints a much-needed boost of energy with Vipariti Karani (lying with your legs up against a wall) or a shoulder stand.

Of course, if you feel really awful, the thought of any pose except the one where you lie in your comfy bed (not sure what this is called in Sanskrit), don’t push yourself. A gentle practice may help you improve faster, but pushing yourself is “unyogic”, according to Dr. McCall: “When your body is tired and achy, it is sending you a message to rest…Downshift to a more gentle practice until your body signals that it is ready to resume. Even if an energetic practice gives you a temporary lift, it might delay your recovery.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the second this cold lets me out of its death grip, I won’t be rushing back to yoga class. Beyond all the other benefits I get from attending, the immunity boost is worth its weight in gold.

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