Practicing Yoga While Sick

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 Toe Street



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.


BBL Gets a Makeover!

In 2012, we started a program at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth called Bikram’s Biggest Loser. This program was motivated by my older sister’s inspiring story. Read it here.

In a nutshell, my sister, Gina, found her way to the yoga on a regular basis nine years after taking her first class and hating it/herself. She battled self-hatred and obesity most of her life and found love and respect for herself on her yoga mat.

In the world of yoga, fat people are greatly underrepresented. Did you notice I said fat? I said it on purpose. “Overweight” implies that there’s “right” weight and, frankly, I’m done with that dogma.

While more than a third of Americans are categorized as “obese“, the percentage of practicing yoga students who fit those characteristics hover near the single digits. I wanted to change that.

Around the country, “Fat Yoga” studios have opened catering to obese yogis. Studios added “Curvy Yoga” or “Yoga for Round Bodies” and that never sat well with me. At our studio, we never differentiated between kids and adults. We don’t offer special classes for athletes or the elderly. Why would we exclude people from our regular schedule based on their weight?

How would it serve anyone to isolate fat people to a single class once a week?

A beautiful thing happens when all yogis practice together. It promotes the understanding that we are all the same on the deepest levels. I wanted something different for BYP. I wanted inclusion.

I wanted people to know that BYP was a safe place to practice yoga for anyone. I wanted students who had a BMI over 30 to know they wouldn’t be the only fat person in the room. I wanted to spread the word that my teachers knew how help people get into poses if there were big breasts or big bellies in the way, or how to approach a pose if thick thighs made the traditional execution impossible. I wanted people to understand that no matter who you are and what struggles you face, we were not going to judge you.

We modeled the program, at first, after the popular TV show The Biggest Loser. Not for the rapid (and reportedly dangerous) weight loss, but for the trainers’ intense belief in the participants’ abilities to achieve that which they did not yet believe in themselves. On TBL people’s ideas of themselves as quitters and losers transformed to that of achievers and athletes. We saw that happen in our students every day at yoga.

We knew the tantalizing draw of weight loss would bring in lots of clients. We were featured on the morning news and 43 people registered for our first challenge. Nationally, most people report that they try their first yoga class for either weight loss or fitness goals.

And people did lose weight. A lot of it. Our first winner lost 71 pounds and cut his cholesterol in half. One woman dropped eight dress sizes, four inches off her thighs. In five years, participants have lost nearly a collective ton of weight.

Some people didn’t lose weight. Not a pound. A few students even gained weight, but something else important was happening. People’s lives were changing. They were standing up for themselves at work. They were lowering dosages of blood pressure medication or going off anxiety meds. BBL participants found community, made friends, and felt a part of something. They rallied each other when they wanted to quit. They quieted that evil critic in their own heads. They learned to look in the mirror with pride, not shame.

I have a secret to share. I never cared if anyone lost any weight.  

I only cared that people found health and wellness and happiness. I knew that the potential for weight loss would draw people to the program because that is the song of our culture. Lose weight and be worth something! My vision was that if I could get them to show up, people would learn to love and respect themselves on the mat and the rest would fall away.

My vision came true. It worked.

Everything I thought the program could be, it was and even more. Last year, we added the Fueled and Fit program with nutritionist Erin Holt. Erin’s life goal is to get everyone in the world to stop dieting forever and learn to eat and listen to their bodies so they can fuel themselves and feel good. She strives to help people heal their convoluted relationships with food.

With Erin’s work, the program dug even further into our deep-seated beliefs about food, body image, and self-worth. Last year’s program pushed us to make a big change in how we structure and name the program to better represent the power and efficacy of dedicating three months of your life to healing your self and setting your life on a new path for good.

Last season, we had optional EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) sessions with Cheri Keirstead. This year, we’ll offer these tapping sessions as a criteria of the challenge. EFT is a psychological acupressure tool that allows you to practice calming your limbic system while simultaneously talking through issues and thought patterns that underlie your biggest challenges. Some participants worried that the tapping was a little too woo-woo-weirdo for them, but the folks who actually attended the sessions saw amazing results. Hey, sometimes the crazy hippie stuff works.

In this blog post, Erin Holt addresses the intersection between woo-woo weirdo and science. Tapping works because you calm unconscious stress responses to emotionally-charged thoughts and memories while allowing yourself to put words to your feelings. Studies clearly show a naming emotions reduces neurological and biochemical response to them.

We made the choice to model the program after our successful Sober Yogis program as a challenge, no longer a competition. The challenge is to commit to yourself for 90 days. To dig deep into the parts of your life that are holding you back. To look at food as your fuel, not your enemy. To stop dieting forever. To heal your body and your mind. To gain control of chronic illness. To let go of patterns that no longer serve you. To create habits that will drive the rest of your life.

Participants who meet the requirements of the challenge win a month of unlimited yoga at their host studio. There’s no longer a BBL winner. With our new program, we all win. The goal is to take three months of your life to make changes to the way you move, eat, and think that will lay the groundwork for how you live the rest of your life.

We won’t be taking weights or body measurements. Instead, we’ll measure depression and anxiety scales, and social-connectedness.

This new format allows us to expand our reach with this program from obesity to a myriad of challenges like: PTSD, disordered eating, chronic illness, debilitating injury, depression, anxiety, self-hatred, trauma, addiction, anger management, stress-reduction, body dysmorphia and more.

It is with great pleasure that our team introduces to you the new and improved Commit to 90 program.


Visit our website for more information and details on the challenge rules and resources.

We look forward to welcoming you to this supportive community,

Sara, Jaylon, Emily, Erin, Cherie and all of the teachers at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth and Epping

BBL 3.0 Yeah


How much time does yoga take?. . . I have kids!! # Yogamythmonday

Be sure to check out our childcare options!



Breast Cancer and Bikram Yoga

September 27, 2013

Hi, I’m Bridget. I’m your yoga teacher and I am seven months cancer free. During a routine mammogram in January they discovered a large area of concern. On that Wednesday doctors performed several wire insertions, core samples and a biopsy. While the procedures were not incredibly painful, I was anxious and didn’t know what to expect or what to feel from one to the next. I practiced breathing slowly in through the nose and slowly out through the nose to head off the rising panic and to give myself a calming focus. I get savasanas now and how comforting it is to be still in the standing series.

They sent me home with ice packs, gauze, bandages and a very misshapen profile. The swelling continued as did the bleeding. I stopped practicing that week. And then I started to talk myself out of teaching that Sunday morning class. You know how it is. Just like with my practice or rather my excuses not to practice: “Ok, you can stay home just this once. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break and, of course, oh why not?!? This is the perfect excuse.”

I taught the Sunday class not because of any great feat of courage, but because I listened. You can do this: one breath at a time, one posture at a time….you’ve got this. And as a post script, the next time you think someone is judging you for what you’re wearing or what your postures look like, let that thought go. They are not looking at you.  And if they are, its about them, not you. Because I couldn’t raise my arm or wiggle into a snug fitting elastic top, I wore a loose button front shirt. The only shirt I had was tacky and Hawaiian. And no one noticed, or at least no one said a word…

On Monday the biopsy results confirmed breast cancer, specifically ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS. I am very fortunate. DCIS is the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer.

I don’t remember the next few weeks very well. During the day I had an incessant urge to get things done; at night I couldn’t sleep. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to go online to research the possibilities. I poked around looking up a few definitions here and there and when things became too scary I logged off. Thankfully I did not venture onto any blogs. I do recall having one hissy-fit. I had an appointment to have my hair colored. As I grabbed my car keys some of the thoughts and unknowns that I had stuffed began to spiral to the surface and I let them grow and take up too much space. The arms started waving, the voice grew very loud, the tears erupted and everything inside ripped wide open. Why am I bothering? This is a waste of money. I’m probably going to lose my hair anyway. Drama and probably a little fear. Its no different than being in the hot room. Don’t allow fear of the unknown or the attention-seeking drama to take over. If you do you will never move forward. So feel the feelings They will pass. Its okay to flop around like a fish the first class, but after that don’t be a drama queen. Just breathe.

I had to decide between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. A lumpectomy would be minimally invasive, but there would also be the risk of recurrence. It would be followed by radiation and five years of medication, or chemotherapy. Luckily for me the estrogen and progesterone receptors were positive so I would not need chemotherapy. In my case, if I chose a mastectomy, I would not require radiation or chemotherapy. And there might be that little added peace of mind that they “got everything”, although it comes with its own set of issues. My initial choice was to have a mastectomy, however that changed after learning that with a mastectomy I would most likely have a loss of range of motion and some degree of pain for some part or possibly the rest of my life. I decided to go through with a lumpectomy and marginalize the possibility of recurrence. The first surgery was not completely successful. Sixteen days later I had a second surgery with clear margins. I ended up with a partial mastectomy.*

I took my first class a week after surgery. It felt good to feel normal. It was comforting to go through the routine of the same twenty six postures with two breathing exercises. It was a safe place to unburden some of the feelings and some of the tears without making anyone feel they needed to give me some there-there. How often is anyone able to be in the moment by themselves, in the company of a wonderful group of people all struggling together? It was a great cover except for the fact that my nose lights up when I cry. Read Bridget’s post about how she had to adapt her postures post-op.

In the beginning my range of motion was limited. I did not have the same degree of stretch that I had before surgery, but I was able to stretch! In my mind I stuck out in class and I felt embarrassed, when in fact, what I felt was ego. Prior to surgery I thought there were only a handful of arm strengthening/pectoral enhancing postures. Now I know better. They all do. You just have to want to work those muscles.

Every posture required a modification. I was not in pain when I practiced, but I was aware of where the edge was. If I started to force something I would be reminded with a sharp feeling or an immediate muscle constriction after I finished the posture. Savasanas in the Cobra series, wow… those were another story, but that was an easy fix: I did the third trimester pregnancy modification. Unlike my tacky Hawaiian shirt, someone noticed. A student practicing next to me smiled after class and asked if I was pregnant. I’m in my fifties…..

Two weeks after surgery I began a six week stretch of radiation. Think heavy-duty sun burn pain with a cheap spray tan discoloration. Added insult to injury. While the area was more sensitive, I don’t think the radiation limited my practice. During the day I felt fatigued and had no zip. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel tired when I practiced. I felt energized.

I finished radiation in time for Memorial Day weekend. I “woo-hooed” for three days and started taking a medication called tamoxifen that Tuesday. I will be on this course for the next five years. Possible side effects are weight gain, mood swings and, my favorite, hot flashes. So far I have been able to avoid the weight gain. I don’t feel moody or irritable although I heard my husband cautioning someone under his breath, “Just don’t look her in the eye and you’ll be okay”. And I’ve got the market cornered on hot flashes. Winter can’t come fast enough! But in the hot room… I feel absolutely fine.

My recovery has been incredible and for that I have to thank the yoga both before the surgery and while I heal. It helps me with so much: being present, being mindful, accepting myself with my abilities and limitations for that day…accepting you with your abilities and limitations for that day, and obviously all the stretching and range of motion. Sure, some days are more challenging than others, but that was true before all this happened. When I practice, I feel better. Muscles slide over each other easier, tendons have just a little more give and I have added strength and energy. When I don’t practice, I age very quickly. Simply stated, I can’t afford not to practice yoga.

I am not alone in class. Several students shared their experiences, their thoughts and helpful insights. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Maybe you have your own fears or questions and would like to talk about it. Please set your mat up next to me. You’re not alone. There is so much healing to be found in the hot room. It’s a shame not to reach out to it.

bridget headshot 2Bridget Dubravsky is a yoga instructor, wife and entrepreneur from Southern Maine. You can find her teaching classes at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth.

* Oh give it up already! There is so much scar tissue and traumatic swelling you can’t tell which side.


Pregnancy Blog 2: 30-Day Challenge at 5 Months

So September is our annual 30-day challenge and I really felt like it would be my last opportunity to do a whole bunch of yoga for a long time.  I’m 22 days and 22 classes into it and feeling great, but I have to admit, this is the hardest challenge I’ve ever done.  I really can’t stay hydrated enough to make amniotic fluid, breast milk and do a double, so I’ve got to be able to get myself in to the studio every day.  That means no Sunday breakfast with the family because it’s football season and I’m not going to miss a GAME!

Helllllooooo Relaxin.  I’m sure a lot of what I am feeling is from finally being able to do yoga every day (which I haven’t done since Bella was born due to babysitting schedules and all of that), but I’m really starting to feel the pressure and loosening in my pelvis and groin.  I can really feel the effects of the relaxin in my sacrum, groin and symphysis pubis in gentle pose and straddle splits.

My uterus is big enough now that laying on my back no longer feels right, especially in a roasting and rocking class.  I just can’t catch my breath until I lie on my side.  It takes the pressure and weight of the uterus off the aorta and vena cava, which improves the circulation to the lower body and the return of blood to the heart.

This month, I’ve also been ravenous.  I am eating lunch and thinking about what I’ll have for a snack in an hour.  I had a little epiphany, though, about drinking water in class.  I think for a lot of people, that desire to pound water in class comes from being hungry, especially for people who don’t eat before the morning classes.  As I’ve been hungrier this month, I’ve found I want to chug water to fill the void, when really what I want is a seafood salad sandwich.  With pickles and salt and vinegar potato chips.  Or a slice of yellow cake with chocolate frosting.  Enchiladas covered with cheese.  Or some dried papaya (no sulphur, no sugar).  Have you tried that stuff?  It’s like candy.

My one word of advice about the water and this isn’t for pregnant ladies: I know it feels like it can, but the water can’t save you. 🙂


Pregnancy Blog 2: End of the First Trimester

I started doing the pregnancy modifications this week.  Locust and floor bow haven’t been feeling good for a couple of weeks anyway.  I’ve been faking my way through a little bit.  Some of the modifications feel silly because I don’t have a big belly in my way, but I know that my uterus is above my pubic bone already, so I know it makes sense.  I just feel a little silly.

We heard the baby’s heart beat last week.  It was good timing.  I was at that stage where the morning sickness was getting much better and I am still not showing, so I’d have these moments throughout the day thinking, “Am I really pregnant or did I make this all up?”  164 bpm.  Not as fast as Bella at this stage.  She was 170; I wonder if that means it’s a boy…

I’ve had a couple of people ask this week if I was doing the pregnancy modifications in class just for fun, to try something new or trying to help Jenn learn them.  🙂  It would be nice if I had a belly so people wouldn’t think I was going off on a tangent and doing my own thing.  Soon enough.