The Sanskrit word for “Bless you!” is Bhagavadanugrahapraptirastu!, and if you’re a New York City yogi, it’s probably a good idea to learn it. New York makes the cut when it comes to the top five worst states to live in if you have seasonal pollen allergies, and there’s plenty of suffering to go around: because of our great American variety of allergen-producing flora, every region in the U. S. offers it own unique aggravations for your histamine supply. Moreover, rising temperatures across the globe have lengthened spring and summer at both ends, creating an allergy season that begins as early as February and lasts as late as November, depending on where you live. If you travel cross-country frequently and suffer from seasonal allergies, God help you: your allergy season is basically ten months long. Bhagavadanugra-hapraptirastu! indeed.
The Three As
According to Ayurvedic medicine, allergies are the result of an inefficient immune response: a poorly calibrated or depleted immune system perceives a basically harmless allergen as a threat to the body and releases histamines to attack it. It’s this over-production of histamine that causes the classic allergy symptoms: a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, itching, and so on. Antihistamines, the go-to allopathic treatment for allergies, can result in particularly adverse side effects for yogis, such as dehydration and fatigue. (Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, causes both.) Happily, yoga and Ayurveda offer a protocol for combatting the root cause of allergies, with the primary goal of strengthening the immune system so it can respond efficiently to allergens. In short, to conquer allergy season, remember the Three As:
• Strengthen the Abdominals
• Increase Agni
• Reduce Ama
Agni, the Hindu God of Fire
In the Ayurvedic conception of wellness, proper immune function is linked to sufficient agni, or digestive fire. Weak digestive fire results in poor digestion, which in turn results in the production of ama, a toxic by-product of undigested food. (If you want to know how ama shows up in the body, invest in a tongue scraper.) Excess ama compromises immune function and makes allergic reactions more likely. From an Ayurvedic perspective, if you want to minimize allergic reactivity, you must ensure that you are fully digesting your food by eating appropriately for your dosha. If you have yet to determine your dosha, you can take an Ayurvedic Constitution quiz here.
Provided that you are eating to balance your dosha, the first step in boosting agni is strengthening the abdominals, including the solar plexus. Asana that target the abdominal muscles include phalakasana (plank pose—make it more intense by lowering to the forearms) purvottanasana (upward plank) utthtita trikonasana (extended triangle) and virabhadrasana (warrior) III. Strengthening the lower back muscles will also contribute to your core strength, so make sure that your on-the-mat practice includes plenty of vinyasas (adho and urdhva mukha svavasana are both excellent for increasing back strength) as well as urdhva danurasana (bow), salabhasana (locust) and/or setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge).
In addition, try practicing the simple but highly effective pranayama/asana hybrid agni sara. Considered an indispensable practice in Hatha yoga, agni sara (literally “essence of fire”) targets the solar plexus, lower abdominals and pelvic floor muscles. The practice stimulates the digestive system and aids in proper elimination of waste. Efficient elimination derives from proper digestion; because ama is literally a waste product, it’s impossible to overstate the role of thorough elimination in peak immune function. You can view a step-by-step guide to agni sara here. For beginners: start in sukhasana or malasana and contract the lower abdominals. Breathe deeply into the belly and pelvic floor, pulling the navel firmly towards the spine on the exhale and relaxing the belly fully on the inhale. Three rounds of ten breaths—ideally on an empty stomach—are sufficient.
Heating spices such as turmeric and ginger help balance kapha dosha.
Finally, in the Ayurvedic model, allergic reactions such as sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes are considered a consequence of the heavy, wet qualities of excessive kapha dosha. Heating and drying yogic practices combat vata and pitta vitiation (impairment) and balance kapha. If you’re anticipating the onset of allergy season, stimulate your inner fire with kaphalabhati (breath of fire) and aerobic exercise or hot yoga to “dissolve” the ama. If your allergy symptoms are acute, try cutting out heavy and oily kapha-aggravating foods (such as hard cheeses, gluten, sweets and dairy). Adding spices to your food and indulging in drying foods such as popcorn, white potatoes and dried fruit can also help in balancing excess kapha.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, approximately 36 million Americans suffer from seasonal allergies every year. If you are among them, take heart: your yoga practice needn’t be curbed by lethargy, dehydration, and other side effects of allopathic allergy medication. By keeping the Three As in mind and thoughtfully balancing kapha, you can address seasonal allergies yogically to ensure that you stay on the giving end of “Bhagavadanugrahapraptirastu!”
Would you like to learn more about the Ayurvedic perspective on health and wellness? All PYI therapeutics courses reference Ayurveda, and our Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy Course is offered yearly. For more information, visit our Trainings page.
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.