Can I practice when I’m sick?
It’s a question we get at the studio often. As with most yoga-related questions, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
First and foremost, if you have something contagious, please stay home and keep it to yourself. We once had a student undergoing treatment for a persistent MRSA infection practicing at the studio for four months without telling us.
Lucky for all who were practicing at that time, our sweat contains powerful antiseptic peptides in dermcidin. The best feature of dermcidin is that it attacks the microbes’ cell walls, not something to which a microbe can develop resistance.
Can you guess how many students have contracted MRSA at our studio? You’re right. None. The sweat-effect is amazing and powerful. With that said, the chance of transferring a few microbes on the door handle as you leave just isn’t worth the risk.
As a general rule, we say, “From the neck up, come to class. From the neck down, stay home.”
If your symptoms are sneezing, post-nasal drip, cough, even a head ache, you should be okay to take class. If your symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, body aches, and chills, you’re probably better off in bed. Or at your doc’s office.
Why you should practice.
- Circulation: The “miracle cure” of yoga lies in it’s direct stimulation of the circulatory system. Through tourniquet-like compression and release of tissues in the body, we encourage and improve the movement of blood through the body, helping the human body’s systems to do their jobs better. Chronic stress and lack of movement can limit circulation to “non-essential” systems like the digestive, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Yoga helps to restore circulation to better-than-normal levels. This improves your ability to heal.
- Lymph: One of our most important components of the immune system doesn’t have it’s own pumping mechanism. Our lymph nodes circulate lymph and white blood cells, filter invading microbes and mutant cells, and remove edema from the body. This powerful system only works if you move your body. Through postures that flex and extend the trunk and the hips, we directly palpate the lymph nodes and facilitate the movement of lymph throughout out the body. The great news is that this movement doesn’t need to be intense or strenuous to get the desired effect. Gentle movement is enough to produce benefits.
- Breathing: Breathing exercises also have positive effect on the lymph nodes. Simple abdominal breaths where the belly rises and falls can move four times more lymph than chest breathing. Most common colds and flus also include symptoms that restrict the breathing or allow mucus to settle in the chest. The deep and rhythmic breathing practiced in a yoga class can help to keep the bronchi clear. Don’t be surprised if breathing exercises make you cough. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Decongesting: Chronic congestion can lead to ear or sinus infection. Postures that invert the head can help to drain the sinuses and eustachian tubes. Many students find postures like Rabbit or Separate-leg stretching cause a sense of clearing. For students with an active sinus infection, theses poses might be torture. The moist, humid air of a hot yoga class is the only place many students recovering from a cold or the flu can actually breathe for a few minutes a day.
- Mood: Being ill, especially chronic illness, can do a number on your mood and outlook. Yoga has been shown to improve levels of the “happy hormones” like dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and oxytocin in practitioners. A preliminary study at Mass General in Boston shows a direct negative correlation between numbers of classes taken and reduction in depression symptoms. Not only will your hormones get a boost, you’ll get out of the house and be around a community of healthy people who can offer you emotional support and even a few laughs during your recovery.
Why you should stay home.
While we appreciate the concept of sharing-is-caring, when it comes to disease, we don’t buy it. If you have something contagious, please don’t share it with your yoga friends. Just like in school, if you’ve vomited in the last 24 hours, stay home and wash your hands a lot. Meningitis, MRSA, lice, TB, flu, strep, and stomach bugs are just a few of the highly contagious diseases you should enforce a self-quarantine over.
Next, we get into the questions. Are you a chronically over-scheduled person? Are you over-worked, under-slept, and over-trained? For some of us, the most compassionate thing we can do for self-care is to stay home, make a cup of tea, and binge watch Shameless on Netflix.
What about chronic illness and fatigue?
You sweet, suffering yogi. You have all of my compassion. I know how difficult it is to suffer day-after-day with no end in sight. Living with chronic disease and adapting your life to this “new normal” while simultaneous searching for answers and cures is exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally.
In my experience both as a teacher of students with chronic illness and as a patient suffering from chronic fatigue, I don’t think you can afford to cut yoga out of your self-care routine just because it makes you tired and is hard.
At the request of my doctor, I cut yoga out of my life for one week during my recovery. I rested, ate well, walked, and took my supplements. Each day, I felt worse than the last. It was a wonderful wake-up call for me. When I returned to class, I didn’t feel good or strong. I wasn’t even able to string more than two poses together in a row. After class, I didn’t get the yoga high I was used to, but I didn’t feel as terrible as when I didn’t have yoga in my life.
Practicing yoga with a chronic illness requires a radical shift in how you view yourself and your practice. Yoga is a healing modality. Yoga has the ability to support your body, your mind, and your healing. It also has the power to deplete and exhaust you. The difference is in how you approach your practice.
The beauty of yoga is that you can tailor each class to your exact abilities on that day.
The first phase in my healing was the mental shift. It took a long time and a lot of work to ignore the voice in my head who said, “It doesn’t matter how you feel. Keep going.” That powerful voice of perseverance that had helped me through so many challenging times in my life, was now destroying my health. If I pushed too hard in class, I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I’d get shaky and my teeth ached.
I learned to treat yoga as a “get to” (not a “have to”) and class-after-class struggled to let go of my long-held view of myself as someone who is strong, tough, and steady. I learned to use yoga as my therapy and to tread gently with my tenuous health and strength.
I heard from many specialists, loved ones, teachers, and friends during my recovery that maybe I should stop practicing Hot Yoga. I heard that Bikram Yoga was too Yang, too Pitta, too much internal fire. People told me it was a depleting practice.
Trying not to be pig-headed, I tried heeding their advice, but my experience did not match their hypotheses (which, I must add, were based on conjecture, not science). Luckily for me, at the same time I was suffering from Post-Viral Syndrome and heart damage, I also had two students with serious illnesses practicing by my side. One woman suffered from Chronic Fatigue linked to Chronic Lyme and another woman suffered from Adrenal Fatigue after major life stressors and breast cancer treatment.
We were all told the same things. Each of our doctors told us to stop practicing Hot Yoga. As each of us tried limiting our practice or cutting it out all together, we each returned to the hot room feeling no better and looking for answers. Not-practicing didn’t heal any of us. It didn’t calm our inner fire. It didn’t balance our Yang and promote healing. It just took away our yoga. I took strength from those women, my compadres in suffering, to continue on the path that felt right for me despite the unfounded advice of our physicians.
A good first step for yogis with chronic disease, chronic fatigue, lyme, adrenal fatigue and the like is to start by practicing only one set of each posture. For Type-A yogis, this will not be easy, so you’ll need to solicit help from your teachers. My teacher (husband) used to stop the class until I sat down. That was the kind of loving-firmness I needed to take my health seriously. It only took holding back the class twice for me to self-regulate.
When you reflect back on all of the “reasons to practice” when you’re sick above, they’re all aspects of healing that you need during chronic illness. You simply must be more gentle, kind, and less demanding of yourself. There is no way to bully your way through chronic illness.
You can use yoga as a tool in your compassionate healing.
Sara Curry is the owner of a Bikram Yoga studio in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She has been teaching yoga since 2003 after her recovery from herniated discs ignited a desire to share the healing power of yoga with others. She is also Vice President of Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action, a local non-profit making yoga accessible to at-risk and high-needs populations on the Seacoast of NH and ME.