There have always been those in the yoga and ‘wellness’ communities who have distrusted science and ‘conventional’ medicine. However, it does seem to be a growing – or at least more visible- trend, along with a distrust of experts of any kind, with many claiming that it is part of some global conspiracy (There may be a conspiracy – but that isn’t’ it!) Those of you who are, or who know, scientists involved in research know this, and find it laughable. Science is a good thing. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin for knowledge. It is how we know things.
Yoga cures old age (no, not really!)
There are many claims, like the one above, in the widely read yoga texts about the benefits of asana and pranayama practices on the various organs and systems of the body, and it is still common to hear yoga teachers repeating some of the more questionable claims as though they were facts.[i] However, it is specifically yoga’s effects on the immune system that I want to talk about here. This was prompted recently, by Russell Brand (who is not a yoga teacher) sharing an ‘immune boosting’ Kundalini yoga breathing exercise on his Instagram page.[ii]
I have many issues with this, but the first and perhaps most important one is – can a yoga exercise ‘boost’ your immunity?
The short answer is no, because ‘boosting’ the immune system isn’t even a thing. The longer answer, is, our immune systems are way more complex and less easy to influence than that. That yoga, or diet or supplements (or any of the other things that people have to sell) can make for a better immune system misunderstands and misrepresents how the immune system (not really a system at all) actually functions. I link to some videos below for an excellent overview.
What is Yoga good for then?
There is really good evidence for yoga’s efficacy in reducing stress, and thus influencing the ways in the which the body negatively responds to stress, such as reduced immune function. So, whilst yoga can certainly play a role in helping to restore healthier immune function, to say that this means specific yoga postures or breathing exercises ‘boost’ the immune system is a stretch. To make such a claim is misleading and it’s unethical. I link to a review of studies below, for evidence relating to yoga and immunity.
Perhaps more significant, is Brand’s influence. He has 2.2 million Instagram followers, and that particular post had over 173,000 views, with many positive comments. Such reach and influence carries power and responsibility. He does say that he’s not a qualified Kundalini yoga teacher at the beginning of the video, but even if he was, the health claims are spurious. Does he know what he actually means when he tells people that the practice will ‘boost’ their immunity? Really?
Furthermore, this ‘immunity-shaming’ dog-whistles a much more insidious and inherently ableist narrative that has additional classist and racist undertones. Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a constant, unrelenting rhetoric amongst ‘wellness’ professionals about Covid-19 and immunity. The suggestion (and in many cases outright claim) being that ‘healthy’ individuals with a robust immune system don’t have anything to worry about. Added to this, is the oft repeated ‘existing medical conditions’ qualifier, presumably used to reassure the rest of us that – don’t worry- it’s only sick, old and disabled people that are dying.
What do people actually mean when they say that it’s only people with ‘underlying health conditions’ who are dying from Covid? That these people are expendable? That they are somehow responsible for, and therefore deserving of, their fate? Even if they could try and justify that attitude for – say –smokers (which, by the way, they can’t) what about those people classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ who have conditions that have absolutely nothing to do with their lifestyles? [iii]
Many people live with health conditions and disabilities, or receive medical treatments which mean that their immune function is inherently compromised. I have a relative, for example, who doesn’t have a spleen because it was surgically removed.[iv] I also work with people whose immunity is compromised because they are going through cancer treatment.
That serious health inequalities exist amongst those with low incomes, precarious housing, and among people of colour, makes the whole ‘let’s do yoga to boost our immune system’ conversation even more distasteful. It promotes ideas of health and wellbeing that are – like the privilege of eschewing essential vaccination – blinkered, unscientific and, frankly, harmful.
[i] The Yoga classic BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Yoga’ is full of such claims.
[iv] [iv] The spleen has a significant role in immune function, removal can lead to compromised immunity https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/spleen-problems-and-spleen-removal
The Immune System
My favourite A&P resource Crash Course present no-nonsense, factual, well researched and entertaining videos. Below, two on the immune system for an excellent overview. Worth noting is the difference between innate and adaptive immunity.
Yoga and immunity
I am linking here to an excellent course by my colleague Charlotte Watts which explores a good solid evidence-based approach to yoga, the nervous system, and immunity https://www.yogacampus.com/courses/specialist-training-courses/teaching-yoga-for-immune-and-respiratory-health