With news headlines warning us of the spread of the Corona flu virus, now is the time to take steps to boost our immune systems. High on the NHS list of ways to stay healthy this winter are getting good sleep, reducing stress, and eating foods such as berries and garlic. You can find effective help for the first two – sleep and stress reduction – with a practice of restorative yoga.
The roots of restorative yoga are with B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped bring yoga to the West in the 1950s. He invented a style in which we use props to rest and relax in poses longer – sometimes up to 30 minutes. One of his former students, Judith Hanson Lasater, brought restorative practice into the mainstream creating a special teacher certification, which I completed in 2013. I include restorative poses in most of my classes, but also run three-hour purely restorative workshops, which are particularly lovely to do at this time of year.
Restorative yoga creates the conditions for the ‘relaxation response’, a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson in his book of that name published in 1976. It refers to a neurological response that tells us we are safe, pulls us out of “flight or fight” mode, and initiates the body’s self-healing process. We switch over from worrying about staying “safe” to fostering the longevity systems of longterm health, including digestion, elimination, reproduction, growth and repair, and immunity.
Physiologically we are stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn supports our immune system. Modern science can now measure and explain what the yoga tradition has passed down through writings and teachings through cennturies. A review of 15 randomised controlled trials in 2018, in which the immune system response was measured in blood or saliva levels, found yoga was an effective way of boosting the immune system.
The effects during a three-hour workshop are cumulative; after the first pose, such as an inversion or recline – supported by the wall, bolsters, blankets and blocks – we start to arrive physically and mentally and to leave behind the general day-to-day responsibilities and worries.
We enter the next pose already relaxed and start to go deeper. But we don’t fall asleep. Instead we enter a state of consciousness, which in yoga is called Pratyahara or the ‘withdrawal of the senses‘. Over the course of the afternoon, we will experience five or six supported poses – and after each one we feel even more relaxed and rested at a deep physical and mental level.
In a chronically stressed condition, the body’s capacity to fight infection and heal itself is compromised. And as Judith Lasater writes in Relax and Renew, “the antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply.”
Read more on restorative yoga
New research on how yoga boosts the immune system: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201802/new-research-how-yoga-boosts-your-immune-system
Yoga for healthy aging blog:
How Yoga Helps Your Immune System: http://yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com/2016/07/how-yoga-helps-your-immune-system.html
The scientific basis of yoga therapy: https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/the-scientific-basis-of-yoga-therapy
Why restorative yoga is the most advanced practice: https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/why-restorative-yoga-is-the-most-advanced-practice
Restorative Yoga Health Benefits: http://www.oprah.com/health_wellness/restorative-yoga-health-benefits