Exercise is often linked to better immune function, since it provides effects like increasing your infection-fighting antibodies and flushing bacteria out of the lungs and airways, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. Because it emphasizes continuous movement, yoga is in this category, but it may provide an additional boost when it comes to increasing your defenses against viruses.
“The physical benefits of yoga are seemingly endless and help stimulate the immune system,” says Kelly Clifton Turner, director of education for YogaSix. “A regular yoga practice can help you increase flexibility, build muscle strength and improve respiration through breathwork, which is an integral part of yoga.”
The emphasis on deep breathing in yoga is particularly beneficial because it makes the lungs and respiratory system more efficient and elastic, says Turner. That helps circulate well-oxygenated blood and aids the lymphatic system in removing toxins and fighting infection, she adds.
That type of breathing also aids in reducing levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for your “fight or flight” response. Along with the flow of movement that yoga brings, that can reduce stress and, in turn, lower the risk of illness.
A recent Harvard Medical School advisory on coronavirus recommended yoga as a solid strategy for reducing anxiety, as well as controlled breathing. Not only can that lower stress levels, but it can also lead to better sleep, which is another important strategy for immunity. Also, less stress can equal better, healthier eating choices. “Decreased stress, feeling better in the body and mind and a general sense of mindfulness all contribute to a person making better decisions off the mat, and that can aid in immunity,” says Turner.
Hot yoga, which is yoga done in a heated space, may be especially helpful for blood pressure, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions.
Researcher Stacy Hunter, PhD, director of the cardiovascular physiology lab at Texas State University, said this type of yoga, which combines breathing exercises and flexibility with heat exposure, intensifies the effect.
“Each of these has individually been demonstrated to reduce blood pressure or improve blood vessel function,” she says. “However, if you don’t have access to heated yoga, you can still get many of these benefits.”
For example, other studies have found non-heated yoga can have a similar effect on lowering blood pressure.
Why should you focus so much on lowering hypertension? Because there is a powerful connection between the immune system and cardiovascular function, which is why those with heart conditions find themselves at higher risk of contracting viruses and why they have more adverse responses when they do get sick. The connection goes in the other direction, too — when your immune system is compromised, it can end up raising your blood pressure.
Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many gyms and yoga studios nationwide — and across the world — are closed until further notice. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait to try yoga if you haven’t done it before.
Plenty of studios are putting classes online, with numerous free and low-cost options. That means you can get started at home with minimal investment, and you can take a class at home anytime, and at any level. Just do a Google search for “online yoga” and you’ll get plenty of choices.
Also, you don’t have to block out an hour of your day, every day, to see benefits, Turner says. Start with 15 minutes, maybe as a break in the middle of your day. Check out a beginning yoga or level 1 class, put together a few basic poses or maybe try some chair yoga. No matter what you choose, see it as an opportunity to breathe deeper, be more mindful and focus on your health.
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