Avoiding the Dreaded Summer Cold: Using Yoga To Boost Immunity

On the official list of Things You’ll Never Hear a Yogi Say, “When is this hot weather going to end?” ranks just below “I don’t think turmeric will help with that.” It’s no secret that yoga practitioners tend to love our warm weather. And according to the official meteorological calendar, in the Northern Hemisphere the seasons are allocated fairly, with winter and summer each lasting three months. But after slogging through a typical New York City winter, no one would blame us for claiming that winter feels a lot longer than summer. After putting up with months of snow, sleet, and a sun that seems to set not long after lunch, who doesn’t greet the first signs of summer with relief? But the delights of summer—hot days, breezy nights, sailing out of the house without a thought of a coat or boots—seem to fade to memory just as we’re getting used to them. The sad truth is that summer just doesn’t last long enough, which is why it’s so unfair to have to sacrifice one moment of it to the dreaded summer cold.

If you think that summer colds are worse than their winter counterparts, you’re not alone: according to recent research, while summer colds are not actually more severe, the perceived unfairness of catching a cold in the summer can actually make them feel worse. In cold and flu season, when half the people you know are congested, coughing, and contagious, at least you can enjoy solidarity among the suffering. But a summer cold is more isolating. Chicken soup and a good book might be comforting in snowy weather, but none of us wants to waste a beautiful balmy day in bed, fighting chills. And nothing is worse than a stuffy nose when it’s humid outside. That’s just plain wrong.

Yet summer colds persist, and air conditioning may be a culprit. Part of the reason that colds are more common during the winter is that rhinovirus—the virus that causes most colds—multiplies in the cells of the nose, and the body fights the virus more efficiently if those nasal cells are warm. That artificially cooled indoor air that helps us survive a hot summer in comfort also creates a frosty haven for rhinovirus in our nostrils.

Most of us can’t avoid air conditioning completely in the summer (we may not want to) but we can improve our body’s natural immune response to help it fight rhinovirus more efficiently, and yoga can help. Below are five yogic tips to beat that summer cold back to the winter where it belongs.

Before You Get Sick

1. Boost immunity with your asana practice.

Good news: if you keep to a regular practice on the mat, you’re already doing your part to support your body’s immune system. Even fifteen minutes of yoga each day can lower cortisol levels (which compromise immune response), oxygenate the blood, improve circulation, and stimulate the lymphatic system. So once that air-conditioning kicks on, let the heat outside act as reminder to boost your tapas—sometimes translated as burning discipline—and keep up that daily physical practice to keep your immune system humming.

2. Incorporate pranayama and meditation into every practice.

The well-documented positive effect of yoga on heart-rate-variability (HRV) is a topic for a full blog post. What you need to know now is that yogis who incorporate pranayama and meditation as well as asana into their daily on-the-mat practice are generally better at down-regulating the parasympathetic nervous system via HRV. Lowering HRV allows the body to adapt to stress with greater ease, which aids in the effective functioning of immune processes. So begin your practice with kapalabhati, or use ujayi breath throughout, and take advantage of savasana to notice your breath and observe your thoughts—a simple but powerful mindfulness meditation.

3. Improve your sleep with yoga nidra

Proper sleep hygiene is absolutely essential to proper immune function. This cannot be overstated, especially in our fast-paced, hyper-driven society, where sleep is so undervalued that the healthcare community has actually had to create the term “sleep hygiene”. I’m going to assume that you’ve already established a nighttime routine that includes putting screens away at least an hour before bedtime and engaging in a down-regulating sleep-preparation ritual, right? (If you need help establishing a yogic sleep-hygiene routine, it’s available here.)

If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, try a recording of yoga nidra (literally “yogic sleep”) specifically designed to promote sleep. Not all yoga nidra meditation has the goal of inducing sleep, so it’s important to seek out options that reference sleep in the title. YouTube has scores of options, and you can tailor your search endlessly: there’s sleep-inducing yoga nidra for lucid dreaming, ASMR, goal-setting, you name it. Here is a simple option that I’ve found effective.

If You’re Already Sick

(NOTE: these suggestions are for a cold. If you have the actual flu, physical activity is not advised until you have recovered. As always, it’s best to check with your doctor before exercising when you’re sick, and to remember the Ayurvedic principle that “All healing begins in rest”.)

That pesky rhinovirus only needs the temperature in your nasal cells to drop four measly degrees before it starts multiplying, and rhinovirus is everywhere, even in summer. So if, despite your best efforts, you got sneezed on in an elevator and then spent the day in your air-conditioned workplace and woke up with a head or chest full of phlegm, here’s how yoga can help:

4. Tailor your practice using symptom-specific asana

While it’s only common sense to reduce the intensity, and probably the duration, of your physical practice when you’re sick (especially if your symptoms are below the neck) a gentle practice on the mat may help ease your symptoms if you include certain poses. Just make sure that you hydrate continually—even more than usual—and it’s probably best to avoid hot classes or anything that causes elevated perspiration while you’re sick.

With that in mind, consider incorporating the following poses into your practice:

• Gentle, slow Surya Namaskar (A or B) is excellent for stimulating the lymphatic system, which will help in the drainage of toxins. One round of Sur. A on each side contracts and extends almost every point in the body where lymph nodes reside, essentially acting as a kind of “lymph pump”. Just take it easy—three reps on each side is probably plenty.

• Most inverted poses and forward bends, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana or Paschimottanasana, will divert blood flow to the sinuses and ultimately assist in clearing congestion. If you have severe nasal congestion, inverted postures might be uncomfortable, and you will probably need to breathe orally, which will likely be the opposite of what you’re used to, so keep water nearby to lubricate the mouth and throat.

• For bronchial congestion, consider a supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (place a block under the sacrum and keep arms alongside the body) to open the chest and increase blood flow to the upper torso, specifically the lungs. If you’re not feeling up to it, Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) can accomplish the same goal more gently.

• Other helpful poses for a chest cold include Ustrasana, Gomukhasana, or a gentle vinyasa from Balasana into Salamba Bhujangasana.

5. Help clear your sinuses using jala neti

Also useful in cold prevention as well as in allergy prevention and treatment, jala neti is simply the use of a neti pot to irrigate the sinuses with a saline solution. Once a specialty item in the West, neti pots and accompanying saline mixes can now be found at major drugstore chains. You can find video instructions for performing jala neti here. Just be sure to use purified water (distilled water is fine) at room temperature. Jala neti is helpful in thinning mucus and reducing nasal and sinus congestion and inflammation. If you’re in the throes of a summer cold but you’ve resisted nasal irrigation because of a fear of inhaling water, I feel you. I urge you to take a deep breath and try it, slowly, following the video instructions provided by the link. It’s quite a bit easier than you think.

No one likes a summer cold! But our practice as yogis offers us unique and abundant tools to protect ourselves and speed recovery. Follow the tips above, and with a bit of luck you’ll find yourself back on the beach where you belong in no time.

Yogic prevention and treatment of all illness traditionally resides in the art and science of Ayurveda. If you haven’t explored Ayurveda yet as part of your journey as yogi, you can take the first step by determining your dosha here.

___________________________________________________________________________________

goforth.jpg

Molly Goforth is a yoga and meditation teacher and a student at Prema Yoga Institute. She specializes in accessibility and trauma-informed yoga teaching and practice.