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Yoga and Pranayama to Boost Immunity

Summary: Examining the health promoting benefits of yoga and pranayama (breathwork), with tips for practicing yoga to create wellness, together with main types of pranayama known to support a strong immune system

Sections in this article:

Boosting Immunity with Yoga and Pranayama – Overview

Can a few simple yoga stretches and a bit of ‘breathwork’ (pranayama) really boost our immune system? Apparently, yes! There is now a growing amount of scientific research showing that yoga and pranayama can significantly contribute to our health and wellbeing. These ancient practices seem to slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation.

In fact, the prestigious  Harvard Medical School Blog quotes: ‘Several recent studies suggest that yoga could slow the harmful physical effects of stress and inflammaging’. Inflammaging is the low grade inflammation responsible for many disease. Even more surprising is that some of the research was based on a very modest programme of yoga and pranayama following participants over a twelve week period.

These findings come as no surprise to followers of the Vedic Sciences. In fact, one enlightened Yogi and Meditation Master used the analogy: ‘Stress exists in our nervous system like tight knots, or sun-baked balls of clay. Yoga asana break up the balls into tiny pieces. And meditation flushes them out of our system!’[1]

Yoga and pranayama work synergistically with other Ayurvedic practices to produce an exceptionally strong immune system. In fact, Ayurveda has a whole range of strategies to boost immunity.

The term ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit actually means ‘union’. We can think of this, at least on one level, as meaning harmony between our mind, body and spirit [2]. A harmonious and properly functioning system automatically creates wellness .

Pranayama (yogic breathing) helps balance or activate the prana or life-force in our bodies. If we are feeling anxious and unsettled certain pranayama can calm us down and help us feel more balanced. If we are feeling tired and dull other pranayama techniques can wake us up.

In Ayurveda, a strong immune system is also linked to good digestion and specific yoga postures and pranayama exercise can help improve it.

Yoga for a Strong Immune System

The mantra with yoga is little and often! Ideally we should incorporate 10 or 15 minutes of yoga into our daily health creating routine. We don’t have to be obsessive about this, but if we can achieve this 5 days a week we will definitely see the benefits.

On a personal note, I have managed to do this for the last 40 years and although I am now 70 years old, I have maintained the same level of flexibility I had when I was 30. Wow.

What type of yoga to do? A good question, as there are quite a few different ‘schools’ of yoga around. Personally I have tried both Iyengar Yoga and Vinyasa ‘Flow’ Yoga and enjoy both. However, the style followed by the enlightened Masters I have met seems to lean more towards the classical yoga poses – typically of the sort practised by the Iyengar school. This also usually involves holding the position for at least 4 or 5 deep long breaths (20 to 30 seconds).

It’s good to do a sequence of asana too – rather than just picking random postures. When properly designed one asana becomes the warm up to the next. In fact, a brief warm up before beginning any sequence is useful in itself.

Do we need to go to a yoga class first? A class can be a good motivator and it is useful to ask for advice about existing or old injuries or health conditions. Also in a class the teacher can make subtle adjustments to our positions which can make big differences to the benefits. There is a Vedic saying: ‘well begun is half done’; so going to a class is ideal. But we also need to practice regularly at home to achieve maximum benefits.

However, if we can’t get to a class there are now some excellent yoga sequences on YouTube. If we are fit and well we can try these (but be aware of some contraindications – not all asana are suitable for pregnant women, those with heart disease, high blood pressure,  etc.).

A good sequence is provided by the Art of Living organisation. This takes around 12 minutes to do (although the instructional video is longer) and has been designed by experts in India. I do this routine daily and feel much better for it!

In addition to our favourite yoga sequence, we can also add specific asana to target our digestive system (improving digestion in Ayurveda is seen as a key way of improving immunity).  The sequence of eight poses to improve digestion given on the Yogajournal website is a good starting point. A set of asanas to help digestion was published on the Huffpost website – although some of these are more advanced.

Even the well-respected ‘Times of India’ carried an article on several yoga poses known to boost immunity. Another respected source – The Yoga Journal carried an article on ‘16 Poses to Boost Your Immune system’. These are aimed at heating the body and clearing congestion (important in the flu season) and also at restoring Ojas.

Practical Tips for Practicing Yoga for Health

As a yoga class participant (and not as a teacher) I offer the following tips based on my experience:

    • Yoga is best done on an empty stomach!
    • I find it good to do some form of warm-up before a yoga sequence. This can be something very simple such as shaking the hands, arms, legs, body or running on the spot, etc. I know I have done enough when I just start to breathe through my mouth – and no longer through my nose
    • Yoga is not about pain. If we get pain we stop! Yoga exercises are the complete opposite of being at the gym (where ‘no pain – no gain’ is the mantra)
    • Yoga is not competitive. We don’t need to go into the extreme positions shown by a teacher, or on a video, or from another class participant. Just moving towards these positions and remaining comfortable is good enough
    • Gravity is our friend – let it do the work! For example, we don’t need to use our own force to go further into positions such as deep forward folds, the plough, etc. The force of gravity ‘will do nicely’
    • An enlightened Yogic Master [3] said ‘the in-breath energises the body and the out-breath brings relaxation’. So we can use this principle to our advantage – on every out-breath we can relax more, and go deeper into the stretch
    • We can combine yoga with a pranayama technique called ‘Ujjayi breathing’ for even more benefits. This builds heat in our body and is fine to do with most asana and for a short sequence of asana (although some sources [4] advise against doing it continuously for a whole 90 minutes of a yoga class)
    • As a final ‘tweak‘ to our practice we can keep an almost ‘mindful state’ of awareness when doing our asana by trying to:  maintain stability, practice with gracefulness, having an awareness of what we are doing and aiming for perfection of the postures. Not easy, but worth a go

Pranayama Breathing Techniques to Strengthen Immunity

Pranayama is the name given to a wide variety of ‘breathwork’ or ‘yogic breathing’ techniques or exercises.

The ancient sages realised that the breath was a key connection between body and mind. Even if we are not able to control our mind we can control our breath. And certain patterns or rhythms of breath can help our mind settle down to a quiet and restful state where stress is released.

If we read books on pranayama we often find many different and conflicting instructions for the same named technique. Newcomers can find this very confusing. That is why it is good to get personal instruction in these techniques from properly trained teachers of yoga or meditation. Failing this there are now a few well informed resources on YouTube which I will discuss in the next section on specific pranayama.

The ‘Art of Living Foundation’ (a large Indian based, non-governmental organisation) teaches worldwide a range of pranayama techniques as part of its ‘Happiness Programme’ (Personal note: highly recommended). The techniques have been well researched in terms of their health benefits and published in prestigious scientific journals. The results are now available on the US National Library of Medicine:

‘Various studies have shown that the technique is simple and cost effective and can be used as a complementary therapy, together with ongoing conventional treatments, to help people suffering from extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and other physical problems. Studies have demonstrated that SK can play an important role in promoting a healthy lifestyle by improving immunity, antioxidant status, hormonal status, and brain functioning’ [5]. (SK is short for Sudarshan Kriya – a rhythmic breathing technique)

Pranayama techniques generally fall into two distinct categories. Firstly, there are those that are calming and balancing – for example, alternate nostril breathing or ‘Nadi Shodana’ pranayama. Secondly, there are those that are activating and energising, in that they put energy into the body and nervous system – for example, ‘Bellows Breath’ or ‘Bhastrika’ pranayama.

Not all pranayama techniques are suitable for everyone regardless of their underlying health issues. This is particularly true of the pranayama that fall into the activating category. We should therefore carefully check out any contraindications [6] before we start a particular practice.

Practical Tips for Practicing Pranayama

    • We should first research any contraindications for the particular pranayama
    • We can sit comfortably and easily with our spine erect ; but still relaxed
    • We can sit in a yoga asana such as ‘Diamond Posture’ (Vajrasana) – ideal
    • Or, we can sit in Lotus or Half-Lotus pose (Sukhasana) – good
    • We can even sit in a chair – provided we stay upright with our back straight – ok
    • We should practice on an empty stomach (say three to four hours after a meal)

Pranayama Breathing Techniques – Calming Category

 Alternate Nostril Breathing – Nadi Shodana Pranayama

Nadi Shodana (Shodan) pranayama (NSP) or ‘channel clearing breath’ is both relaxing and calming.

This simple breathing technique clears and purifies the subtle energy channels, known in Ayurveda as ‘Nadis’ (the concept of Nadis corresponds very roughly with the idea of ‘meridians’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine). Our Nadis can get blocked due to a number of factors such as stress, physical and emotional trauma, and the accumulation of toxins in our system.

NSP also helps us reach a state of mental, emotional and physical equilibrium by balancing the energies in two of the principal Nadis – the Ida (associated with right brain, cooling aspects) and the Pingali (associated with left brain, heating aspects).

Nadi Shodana Pranayama is said to be one of the very best anti-inflammatory pranayama we can do [7]. This is particularly important as inflammation is associated with the root cause of many illnesses.

It involves breathing deeply in through the left nostril, blocking this nostril then breathing out through the right, breathing in through the right then blocking it, then breathing out through the left. This is one ’round’. Sounds complicated – but is very easy to do. There are some good instructional videos on this technique from the Art of Living Foundation together with more in-depth articles.

Some sources say we should not practice this if we have asthma, COPD, and either flu, or a cold or fever.

It is good to do ‘nine rounds’ of NSP before we start to meditate, and nine rounds again afterwards. This really helps quieten the mind to begin meditation and also means we come out slowly and gradually at the end.

Nadi Shodana pranayama is sometimes also called ‘Anulom Vilom’ pranayama.

‘Ocean Breath’ – Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi (pronounced ‘oo-jy’) is another very simple pranayama with multiple health benefits. It is both calming and also develops heat in the core of the body.

Because of the slight restriction in the throat needed to perform this, it is sometimes called  ‘Ocean Breath’ as it sounds a bit like gentle ocean waves breaking on the sea shore. Fans of the Star Wars movies also call it ‘Darth Vader breath’ – as it sounds well, just like Darth Vader! In Ujjayi we breathe through our nostrils and keep our lips closed (both when breathing in and out). Ujjayi is also called ‘Victory Breath’.

If you have not done this before YouTube carries an excellent demonstration of Ujjayi breathing: (but we don’t need to use the arm movements shown at the end of the video – which really demonstrates its use in yoga asana).

Ujjayi targets the third principal Nadi; the ‘Sushumna’ or ‘Central Nadi’, where the heat generated clears this channel allowing more life-force or prana to flow. Ultimately this process leads to the awakening of the yogic Kundalini energy.

People attending certain types of yoga classes (particularly Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga) may already be familiar with this practice where it is taught as an ‘add-on’ to the asana. For beginners, only the throat restriction is made on the out breath (with inhalation being normal), but once we are comfortable with the practice we can do it on both the inhalation and exhalation. However, while bringing many benefits for shorter yoga sessions there have been some warnings not to practice this technique for the duration of a whole 90 minute yoga class [4].

‘Bee Breath’  –  Bhramari Pranayama

This is called ‘Bee Breath’ because we make the buzzing or humming sound like a bee when we breath out through our nostrils. In fact we can hum the letter ‘M’ as we breathe out through our nostrils with our mouth closed. We use our fingers to close our ears so we hear the sound internally through our heads. Very Simple. There is a detailed and excellent explanation with video  on the UK’s Art of Living website.

This pranayama also has many benefits such as lowering stress and anxiety, calming nerves, reducing anger, helping throat infections etc.  It is also said to help with the management of Diabetes.

There are no contraindications with this technique, but we should do it on an empty stomach. We can do three or four repetitions every day.

Pranayama Breathing Techniques – Energising Category

 ‘Bellows Breath’ – Bhastrika Pranayama

This is a really energising pranayama that literally puts ‘fire’ (increases the Ayurvedic principle of Agni) into our system.  It helps energize both our body and mind too. In terms of health, it can help with respiratory problems and remove toxins from our system.  Surprisingly for such an energetic practice, it can also balance our Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha). On a personal note I do this regularly and love it!

Bhastrika is a bit more of an advanced pranayama and, although it brings many benefits, there is a quite a long list of contraindications for this practice which we should check out before beginning it. There is a more in-depth article on Bhastrika on the Banyanbotanicals.com website – including a detailed list of contraindications.

There are a number of variations of Bhastrika – and YouTube carries videos of them all! My personal favourite involves briskly moving the arms too. This feels perfectly natural and really empties the lungs on the out breath – provided it is done ‘like a warrior and not like a wimp’!

It is good to do three rounds of about twenty breaths each – with a reasonable pause (of a minute or so) between each round.

‘Shining Head Breath’ – Kapal Bhati Pranayama

This energising pranayama has many health benefits. It increases metabolism, clears the subtle channels, improves blood circulation and is also good for weight loss.

It is called ‘shining head’, or ‘shining skull’ breath because it makes us ‘glow with radiant health’! Kapal Bhati is sometimes writen as ‘Kapalabhati’ – all one word.

Again, this practice is not for everyone and there are quite a few contraindications, such as if we have heart conditions, respiratory problems,  suffer from diabetes, high or low blood pressure, epilepsy or vertigo, have hernia or stomach surgeries, or are pregnant, etc.

This pranayama involves sitting comfortably with spine erect and forcefully contracting the stomach to expel air from the lungs. There is a YouTube video which demonstrates and  explains Kapalabhati well. It is good to do three rounds of about twenty breaths each – with a reasonable pause (of a minute or so) between each round.

Footnotes

    1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speaking about the benefits of yoga asana before meditation. Yoga was an integral part of all his advanced residential courses.
    2.  Yoga could also be interpreted on a more abstract basis as the union between an individual’s consciousness and the consciousness of the cosmos – see Vedic Model of Reality.
    3. Quoted from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar from his guided meditations.
    4. The Himalayan Yoga Institute have cautioned about spending an excessive time doing Ujjayi, particularly when combined with asana
    5. Full quotation from article in US National Library of Medicine:“Yoga and breathing techniques have become increasingly popular in recent decades. Sudarshan Kriya (SK) is a type of rhythmic and controlled breathing that involves cyclic breathing in which long breaths are followed by medium and short breaths. Scientific research has been conducted to study the effects of SK on different physiological parameters. Various studies have shown that the technique is simple and cost effective and can be used as a complementary therapy, together with ongoing conventional treatments, to help people suffering from extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and other physical problems. Studies have demonstrated that SK can play an important role in promoting a healthy lifestyle by improving immunity, antioxidant status, hormonal status, and brain functioning. Through available scientific evidence and research, the current article aims to review the complementary role of rhythmic breathing (ie, SK) as a practical and effective tool to alleviate stress, improve health, and increase wellness.”
    6. Certain practices have specific contraindications which we should check out carefully before starting, for example: heart conditions, respiratory problems,  suffer from diabetes, high or low blood pressure, epilepsy or vertigo, have hernia or stomach surgeries, detached retina, pacemakers, asthma, COPD, back injuries or slipped discs, during menstruation, or are pregnant, etc.
    7. From teachers in the International Art of Living Organisation

Further Information on Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda