A Better Immune System Through Yoga? By: Rebecca Powell Doherty, PhD
We are delighted to share this wonderful article written by contributing author, Dr. Rebecca Powell Doherty regarding yoga and immunity. Learn facts and findings on how yoga slows down the body, releases stress hormones and decreases inflammation that breaks down the immune system.
Walk into any yoga study and you’ll hear a constant stream of chatter about the benefits of yoga. Yoga improves strength, flexibility, joint stability, and the list goes on. One I hear often is folks who do yoga regularly claim to get sick less frequently and when they do get sick, they say they heal faster. As an immunologist I am intrigued by these kinds of statements, so I turned to the scientific literature to see if I could find corroborating evidence and a possible explanation for these claims.
First, consider the idea of stress. There are numerous studies and reviews which demonstrate the body’s response to stress, both chronic and acute (J Neuroimmune Pharm (2006) 1: 421–427). In an acute setting, we know it as the “fight or flight” response, an enervation of the sympathetic nervous system that floods the body with epinephrine, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate, delivering oxygen robustly to the necessary organs and muscle tissue. This is a fantastic response if, say, you’re being chased by a saber tooth tiger. RUN! NOW! FAST! The additional oxygen delivery makes it easier for your muscles to respond and for you to get away. Many people also experience this if they have an uncontrolled fear, such as a fear of heights or public speaking. Dry mouth, sweaty palms anyone? It’s not as useful in those settings, but evolutionarily speaking, the response is the same.
On the other hand, chronic stress can stimulate this response over an extended period of time. This can lead to prolonged increase in heart rate and blood pressure and what has come to be known as ‘adrenal fatigue’ or the body’s inability to properly regulate epinephrine and other hormones.
From an immune system perspective, this kind of chronic stress response leads to an increase in inflammatory mediators, compounds typically used by the body to respond to bacterial or viral infections or assist in wound healing by modulating the cells of the immune system. If immune cells receive stimuli continuously, they eventually stop responding, a state known as anergy. This is, in a nutshell, how stress can decrease an individual’s ability to respond to infections or heal tissue damage. In people with chronic disease states, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, this prolonged inflammation can lead to flare ups that cause organ, joint and tissue damage.
Knowing this, then, how can yoga possibly help? As we’ve already noted, the stress response, chronic or acute, is controlled via the sympathetic nervous system. To counter that, we have to find a way to initiate the parasympathetic response. We may not negate the stress response entirely, but we can certainly mitigate it a bit. So, how do we do it?
According to a paper published in the journal Nature in 2000, stimulation of the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve that runs from the brainstem all the way down through the thoracic cavity to the abdomen and regulates heart rate, respiration and digestion) attenuates systemic inflammation in response to bacterial toxins (Nature 405, 458-462. 25 May 2000). More recent studies in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery demonstrate that vagus nerve stimulation decreases gut injury and lung damage following trauma or severe blood loss (J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 August; 73(2): 338–342). Numerous other studies point to vagus nerve enervation as the crux between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. This suggests to us that, if we can find a way to stimulate the vagus nerve, we can potentially decrease the level of inflammation in our bodies, improve overall health and boost our ability to respond appropriately to injury or illness when they do occur.
Enter deep yogic breathing. Nope, I’m not talking anything fancy or advanced pranayama. All it takes is long, slow, controlled breathing. A review published this year in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine (Adv Mind Body Med. 2015 Winter; 29(1):18-25) points to controlled, rhythmic breathing and details the numerous studies that show this simple practice to be highly effective to alleviate stress and improve healthcare outcomes.
The best news of all is because the benefit is traced to the breath, absolutely anyone can use this tool. No asana is required. A simple meditation that focuses on breath control is all you need. This kind of breathing is certainly built into the yoga practice, but applied to any form of exercise or meditation the technique can be equally effective!
Happy breathing, yogis, and cheers to your improved health!
About Rebecca: Rebecca Powell Doherty, PhD has been studying science and doing research since 2001. She graduated with her B.S. in Biology and Genetics from NC State University in 2005 and went on for her PhD in Immunology at UNC Charlotte, graduating in 2010. She has been teaching Anatomy and Physiology, along with other science courses for 7 years. Somewhere along the way, she fell in love with this yoga stuff, completing her 200-hr teaching training in the fall of 2009. She’s worked to balance her yoga world with her scientific one ever since. She has, for several years, conducted translational research in hemorrhage and inflammation at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and taught at Queens University. She recently migrated to Blacksburg, VA with her husband and pup (Einstein) to pursue her master’s degree in public health for infectious disease.
Share Your Story Featured Yogi Lindsay Roselle
Happy July to all our yoga friends worldwide!
This months Share your Story featured yogi is Lindsay Roselle from Fort Collins, Co. Lindsay used yoga as a way to heal her body after a traumatic horse accident left her severely injured. Her recovery process inspired her to complete Yoga Medicine’s 200hr teacher training and to open her very own yoga studio, Mindstream Yoga. Lindsay is currently completing her 500hr teacher training with us and is using yoga as medicine in her community. Read Lindsay’s remarkable story below and share your own personal story with us at www.yogamedicine.com
My yoga practice has been a part of my life since I was a
teenager, but its medicinal benefit really became clear to me after a terrible
accident I had with my horse in 2010. As I was leading him back to his pen one
evening, he spooked and trampled me, which severely broke the middle and ring
fingers on my left hand and caused a traumatic head injury and small brain
bleed that left me in the Neuro ICU unit. Luckily the brain bleed resolved
without surgery, but the injury to my hand turned out to be more severe than I
expected. As the fingers healed, the connective tissue and new scar tissue over
the broken joints contracted, leaving the fingers in a bent position at the
middle knuckle and me unable to bend or straighten them at all. My yoga practice completely changed as I adjusted to not being able to support weight effectively on my left hand. I no
longer felt comfortable in arm balances that required supporting weight on the
hands, and even simple postures like Down Dog were a challenge. Adding to this,
my entire body felt different from the trauma of the accident, and my
confidence in its ability to move and support itself was low. I had been a
Division 1 college athlete and had a regular yoga practice for years, so needless
to say I was completely humbled (and somewhat frustrated) by how the body
changes as it processes injury and trauma. After months of physical therapy and
modified yoga, I ended up having surgery on the fingers and began the long
journey of rebuilding strength and flexibility in my fingers, hand, and arm.
Shortly after my surgery in early 2011, I began my 200 Hour Teacher Training
program as a way to hold myself accountable to a mindful healing process and
the reintegration of yoga into my life post-surgery. As I progressed through
training, my fingers began to move again, and my confidence in my body and
practice slowly came back. I was so inspired by what was happening in my body
that I started to write the business plan for the studio that I went on to open
in early 2012. When Mindstream Yoga, Inc opened I was incredibly excited to
share the power of yoga as medicine with a larger community, and have been
humbled and honored to see it help transform so many people’s lives since. I
attended my first 500 Hour retreat with Tiffany in September of 2012 and am now
completing the final case studies for my 500 Hour certification in Yoga
Medicine, which I expect to finish this fall. The inspiration to learn from
Tiffany and share Yoga Medicine with students at Mindstream is 100% a result of
the transformative healing process I went through using yoga as medicine in my
own body. Today I can truly say that I am grateful for the accident not only
because it inspired me to create Mindstream, but also because it led me to this
amazing YM community
Follow Lindsay on Instagram at @laroselle
Understand Your Hips to Build Stability: Yoga Journal Anatomy Column by Tiffany Cruikshank
“Many students come to yoga seeking more flexibility in the hips, but can too much of what we think of as a ‘good thing’ end up working against us? Once we become more flexible, we tend to crave the release we achieve from the deeper variations of hip openers such as single-legged pigeon, but by continuing to push further and further, eventually there is potential for the joints to become taxed and therefore the support that is so essential to the integrity of the joint diminishes and hypermobility can become more pronounced. One way to combat this is to start noticing what’s tight and what’s weak, and stop pushing deeper into the areas in which we have more flexibility. Balance is key. The simple act of cultivating mindfulness within your practice and honoring what you feel can help a lot.” -Tiffany Cruikshank
Click here to read the full article.
Share Your Story Featured Yogi Tami Apland
This month’s Share Your Story featured yogi is Yoga Medicine’s own Operations Manager, Tami Apland from Portland, OR. Tami began her yoga practice after a severe dance injury to her ankle prohibited her from physical activity. After reconstructive surgery and physical therapy, Tami turned to yoga in hopes that it would help her deal with the subsequent pain and depression she was facing as a teenager. Read Tami’s full story below and follow her online at https://instagram.com/tamiapland
Yoga was initially nothing more than a means to move my body since I was no longer able to dance due to an injury. When I was 14, I tore ligaments and tendons in my ankle on a trampoline that resulted in reconstructive surgery and subsequently, physical therapy. In addition to the normal angst that comes with being a teenaged girl, I also felt betrayed by my body and just angry in general. I didn’t do my physical therapy exercises at home and pretty quickly, I found myself dealing with a painful, sensitive and wickedly stiff ankle that I couldn’t do a whole lot with. Even the way my socks rubbed it was painful and irritating. With dance no longer an option, and me not being particularly athletic or social enough to get involved in sports, I decided to buy a yoga DVD. As a young girl who was brand new to the practice, I had no idea the impact it could (and would) have on my life.
13 years ago in Virginia, yoga wasn’t mainstream like it is now so I wasn’t motivated or influenced by fancy poses I saw on magazine covers or social media. My intention was simple and pure- I just wanted to be able to move my body again in a way that felt natural and good to me. Since I didn’t come to the practice looking to heal my ankle, its progress wasn’t something I was monitoring. I did, however, start noticing that it was getting better, little by little. Once I noticed the progress, I started doing things to focus more specifically on my healing. Eventually, after lots of practice and patience, the pain and stiffness that once ruled my life had been completely eradicated. To this day, so many years later, I am 100% free of pain and limitation in my ankle.
Over the years, I have used yoga as medicine in many different ways. I have used it to cope with depression and heartbreak. I have used it to strengthen weak muscles and lengthen tight ones, creating balance in my body. I have used meditation and pranayama to taper my anxiety and stress-levels, creating balance in my mind. I have also used yoga as a way to test and push my physical boundaries, which in turn has built mental strength and instilled a genuine sense of confidence in me. While this particular story is about how yoga helped me recover post-surgery, it has truly created a shift in all areas of my life. Yoga is without a doubt, my medicine.
Remember to Share Your Story with us at http://yogamedicine.com/share-story
Yoga Medicine Stories: Healing Through the Practice of Yoga by Karen Fabian
When we think about the practice of “medicine,” our minds often go to the idea of surgery, pills, doctors and hospitals. But what about a yoga mat? Do we ever think of a yoga mat as a place where medical intervention occurs? If you teach yoga, you’ve most likely seen its impact medically. In my experience as a teacher, and especially in working with people one on one or in small groups, I’ve seen this first hand.
When we talk about intervening medically, we’re talking about healing. Healing occurs in different ways; just taking a few deep breaths can be a healing action. As we shift our mindset to envisioning medical care in a more holistic way, (some medical schools actually include yoga classes for doctors as part of their training now) we can start to expand our idea of what it means to heal ourselves.
I’ve worked as a Rehab Counselor, a Social Worker and also completed 2 years of the Physical Therapy Program at Boston University. I’ve worked in clinical settings and have seen the impact of rehab on patients. When I started teaching yoga, I realized it was a beautiful amalgam of my work in clinical settings, my academic and healthcare experience and my love of yoga. I love seeing how yoga shows up in a healing way. Here are some short stories from my own teaching and practice that illustrate the idea of Yoga as Medicine (*names have been changed):
I once worked with a man in his early 70’s who had lived with diabetes for many years. Bob’s neuropathy was at the point that he could no longer feel his feet. He got around by looking down and literally “willing” his feet to move. More often than not, he would bump into things. When he saw me for our first session, his hand was bandaged from walking into a parked car. He couldn’t transition from standing to the floor in a connected way; instead we did standing postures first, balancing second, poses on the belly and then poses on the back. We worked close to the wall and used a chair in some cases. He shared stories from college when he played basketball and it was quite evident he still had the spirit of an athlete, even though his body had changed. After one of our sessions, he declared he was ready to go to a group class. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he walked into the studio and practiced in his own way, modifying and resting when he needed to rest. Bob was a beautiful example of a true yogi.
Healing can also mean taking action in order to make our health a priority. We can all relate to the challenge of finding the time to practice. Susan’s babysitting coverage fell through right before our session. Determined to stick with her schedule to practice, she called and asked if she could bring Maddie. When they arrived, Maddie had her art supplies in hand. While mom practiced, the young girl busied herself with drawing, my dog, Bailey Rose, at her side. At the end of the session, while mom was in savasana, Maddie came out and quietly lay beside her. Healing can sometimes mean taking the time to do the right thing for yourself and resting with those that you love.
Mary had injured her shoulder with a slip on the ice and snow. She had experience with yoga but was concerned about how she’d manage with her injury. Mary was attending Physical Therapy and it was one of the instances where my work with a student was in conjunction with treatment. After our sessions, she’d visit the therapist and report back to me with the therapist’s feedback. Working with her was a true lesson in anatomy as we modified poses to increase accessibility, flexibility and strength and talked about muscles and key actions in the body (she was a nurse as well). Her mind held the memory of regular practice; her body held the muscle memory. This served her as we moved through each posture. We’d start each session with an overview of how she was doing functionally and end each session with meditation. After a few months of private sessions, Mary and her friend attended a special weekend workshop I was hosting. It was a true joy to see her practice in a group setting, while honoring her individual needs.
Yoga Medicine means using yoga as a tool for healing. How it looks is up to you; how one finds healing is often a mixture of traditional eastern and western interventions. We know as practitioners and teachers that yoga can be an integral part of healing the body as well as the mind. We know that yoga’s look and feel will be different depending on the person. Our challenge as teachers is to help our students find their own way to experience yoga’s healing qualities on their mats and in their lives.