Should I Practice Yoga When I Am Sick?
This question was asked this week by a dear student who loves to practice daily and comes regularly to class.
Many of us aspire to develop a daily Yoga practice. It can be a challenge to become established in a regular home practice in the beginning, but once we have a regular practice that practice becomes a great source of support in our daily lives and many of us Yoga practitioners struggle on the days when we cannot practice.
In the recent “Introduction to meditation” course the students learned that Patanjali Maharishi in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tells us that success in Yoga is attained by continuous practice over a long period of time. Patanjali also tells us that sickness is one of the obstacles on the path of Yoga and meditation. Of course when we are sick it is likely that our Yoga and meditation practice will be affected. Some bodymind types will want to push through the illness and may succeed. Others will feel floored as soon as they try to move into practice. I believe it’s possibly very much to do with our Ayurveda constitutional types: some types are inherently stronger than others. I know myself that when sick I am quickly depleted if I try to do asana practice and that aligns with the nature of my personal constitutional type. Kaphas have good endurance, Vata types have least endurance and are the most fragile of the types.
My personal rule is like this. When the body is acutely sick, with a virus and/or temperature, I do not do asana and pranayama. Definintely please do not practice asanas and pranayama when there is fever in the body. The body wants to rest and reserve energy for healing and recovery. I might practice prone breathing exercises with a visualisation, picturing my inhalation bringing in fresh prana which floods every cell in my body, lending strength and light to the immune cells. I might also practice Yoga nidra, a deep rest healing state. So it is not that I stop my sadhana, Rather I adapt it according to the condition of the body. Swami Sivananda taught us to “adapt, adjust, accommodate” and these three words are wonderful to remember in so many life situations, and when we are sick and succumbing to infection, fever, viruses.
In Yoga Therapy, we say that when there is pain in the body, above a level 5 on a scale of 1-10 then it is better to rest and take healing therapies. Between 1-5 levels of pain, we can begin a professionally tailored personal Yoga practice, adapted again to our current circumstances to help relieve the pain. You know, originally Yoga was always given 1-1 from teacher directly to student and specifically created to meet what the teacher saw as the student’s greatest needs.
My Yoga therapy teacher, Mukunda Stiles, was a wonderful Yogi who has sadly passed away already. One of the valuable things he taught us during my few years under his guidance is that “sometimes it’s appropriate not to practice”. I am so thankful to have heard this. We all tend to push the envelope and I am as guilty as anyone of doing so. Hearing these words from such an evolved Yogi has given me the permission to let my body rest when it is sick. I mean, we all know, that generally we get sick in any case when we have been doing too much, right? The body asks us to stop and we don’t listen, so it finds a way to make us stop. Does this resonate with you too?
Our doing too much burns what we call “ojas”. I will write about ojas another time, but for now let’s equate it to our immunity and inner constitutional strength. There is an inherent ojas that we were given by birth, and there is an ojas which we build and sustain through lifestyle and dietary choices. Ayurveda understands that sadhana (sustained spiritual practice) can support ojas but also when done intensely can burn ojas. When we are sick and ojas is already working hard at recovery of body and mind, then practice will perhaps challenge and deplete further our ojas. Ojas at these times is probably already weakened through the lifestyle and/or dietary habits that helped us get sick in the first place. It needs time to replenish and strengthen so it can do it’s work to help bring body and mind back to health.
In the case of chronic ailments, it is a very different story. In this case, the most powerful medicine you can give to yourself (IMHO!) is a personally tailored Ayurveda and Yoga daily practice. Nothing that we take from a bottle, whether it’s a herb or natural supplement or a pharmaceutical medicine….nothing like that can give us health! It can take away symptoms and help to create the environment for healing in some cases, but it is our lifestyle and diet adapted to suit our age, climate and dosha (Ayurveda type) that will help to restore and support good health. In Ayurveda the three pillars of life are said to be food, breath and sound. These three pillars therefore sustain our health and well-being. An Ayurveda and Yoga personal practice boosts all these three pillars of life so that they can work to restore the body and mind to their natural state of equilibrium and exuberance. The practices will charge the bodymind with fresh prana (life force) and pacify the doshas (humours of Ayurveda) and gunas (attributes of nature).
As we get older, maybe even as young as mid-30s when we start to experience little niggling symptoms in the body already, then we need to begin to support and maintain ojas. Adapt, adjust your Yoga practice, diet, and lifestyle to accommodate your age, environment, dosha and perhaps hereditary strength or lack of, and you will go a long way towards keeping at bay many of the troubles which are seen to be an inevitable part of ageing. They are not an inevitable part of ageing according to Ayurveda. They are often an effect of wrong living. Right living is:
Proper diet, proper movement, proper breathing, proper relaxation, positive thinking and meditation, all adapted and adjusted to age, season and dosha.
1-1 Yoga Therapy, Yoga and Ayurveda sessions can give you a personally tailored posture, breath, nutrition, relaxation and meditation programme to address a range of symptoms including:
stress, fatigue, insomnia, back pain, menstrual problems, menopause, joint pain, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, IBS, constipation and other digestive complaints.
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