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As I write this, we are in the midst of a world-wide pandemic of Coronavirus. Perhaps more than at any other time we are concerned about our health and how effectively our individual immune systems are working. We in the yoga community are as concerned as everyone else, and looking for ways that we can help the situation by providing facilities for our students and others to practice yoga at home.
It is not all doom and gloom. At this stage, scientists still have a lot to learn about COVID-19 but one thing that most agree on is that in the vast majority of people who contract the virus, the immune system will rally to the challenge, and it will successfully search out and eliminate the virus from the body. Many of the people infected so far haven’t even displayed the symptoms of a cough or fever. This is all down to the evolution of our incredible immune system. So keeping our immune system as healthy as we can is even more vital at this time.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is the body’s defence against infections, which are caused by bacteria and viruses as well as fungi, parasites and cancer cells. As living organisms, we are permanently surrounded by microbes, good, bad and indifferent. We cannot, and should not even try, to live in a completely microbe-free bubble, because the immune system has evolved to encounter these daily challenges and they help to keep the system alert, sensitive and strong.
The immune system works in tandem with the lymphatic system, and consists of specialised cells, tissues and organs. It is in these organs that the white blood cells, the defence battalions, are created. In a healthy organism, when the immune system encounters an antigen, which could be any invading microbe with designs of taking over our cells, it mounts what is called an immune response.
We all have some level of innate immunity, but if the pathogen is novel, or arrives in large quantities, then the body will be unprepared. In this case, adaptive immunity will be required to deal with it. In healthy, strong immune systems, what most commonly occurs is that a new type of destroyer cell will develop in response to the arrival of a new microbe. These phagocytes, (this is from the Greek and literally means “devouring cell”), surround and kill the invading pathogens and will continue to reproduce themselves until the disease is overwhelmed.
At the same time, other cells, lymphocytes, are produced in the bone marrow, which will help the body to remember and recognise the attacking pathogen. The lymphocytes store this information so they can mount an even more swift defence in the event that the microbe returns. As we develop, we encounter vast numbers of pathogens and our immune system strengthens and builds up resistance in response to these attacks, which is why an adult is less likely to become ill than an infant or child.
If the body has encountered this particular microbe before, once the lymphocytes recognise the pathogen, they begin to secrete antibodies. Antibodies are special proteins designed to destroy that pathogen. The antibodies are then copied and released into the bloodstream in sufficient quantities to overcome the illness.
However, when the immune system is compromised in some way, or when the pathogen is particularly virulent, these responses can be less effective and more sluggish, leading to the pathogen multiplying more quickly than the immune system can cope with. As we age, the organs which produce these antibodies shrink and become less productive; scientists speculate that this may be why older people are so much more susceptible to developing the fatal respiratory complications associated with COVID-19.
What you can do to help boost your immune system
The best way that we know of to help strengthen your immune system is to develop a healthy lifestyle. If you are already a yoga practitioner, you are likely to be following these general principles, but here is a list in case you are not sure:
- Don’t smoke
- If you drink alcohol, make sure that it is in moderation
- Eat a balanced diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables, and avoid refined foods
- Ensure that your sleep is regular and sufficient
- Avoid getting stressed – stress compromises the immune response
- Take regular exercise
How can yoga help immunity
Research into the role of yoga in the immune system is, like most non-pharmaceutical interventions, still patchy and under-funded. However, those studies which have been done have had encouraging results. In 2011, Gopal et al investigated the effect of yoga practice on immune responses in medical students during their exams and found that those practicing yoga had less impairment of their cellular immunity during this stressful examination period. Other studies have found yoga to be effective in boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation in the body.
These results come as no surprise to those of us who have made yoga a part of our everyday lives. When you start, you just feel lighter and calmer after a yoga class, but soon, a sense of physical and mental well-being and integration become one’s default condition.
Why is this? I would speculate that it is because yoga is holistic practice, incorporating mind, body and breath. Most people are aware that yoga stretches, tones and strengthens the muscles, tissues, joints and ligaments. But yoga asanas are also designed to create a balance and harmony in all the different physical systems in the body. The practice of yoga boosts the metabolism, increases lymphatic circulation and hormonal secretions, and creates an equilibrium in the chemical balance of the body. As well as the physical benefits, this equilibrium creates mental and emotional stability; reducing the effects of psychological stress, improving sleep patterns, altering poor dietary habits, and encouraging healthy lifestyle choices.
What can you do?
Reading about yoga is not going to help much. You need to get on your mat and experience it. Don’t expect too much of yourself in the beginning. Just aim for one or two classes every week and maybe do 5 minutes at home each day. The most important thing is consistency, so don’t set yourself unrealistic goals.
Click here to register with us at the Maidstone Iyengar Yoga Centre and book your Free Trial. You can book a Livestream class with us, or visit us in the studio, or if you want to work at your own pace, book a pre-recorded class from the Library. Take the first step to a healthy lifestyle now!