Should You Practice Yoga When You’re Sick?

Zainab Zakari
Should You Practice Yoga When You’re Sick?

It’s that time of year. As we welcome the New Year, we welcome cold and flu season, too. In many ways, it’s no surprise that end of the year deadlines and holidays take a lot out of you; there are so many reasons to run around on very little sleep and, shall we say, not the best eating habits. We’ve all been there (I say this as I use my 20th tissue and drink my up-teenth cup of hot tea while typing this column). For yogis, the cold/flu season presents quite a conundrum. Should you practice yoga when you're sick?

Your Mom Won’t Like This; The Answer Is Not Always No

Most moms and the medical community would most likely say no, but for yogis who are reluctant to miss mat time (myself included), it’s not necessarily that easy. Plus there are times when a moderate yoga practice can actually be helpful to fighting off a bug. Poses like twists, backbends and inversions offer some great internal butt kicking moves that support our immune system. And even gentle stretches and movement can do a lot to energize us and boost our spirits enough to get over an illness.

There Is A Big “BUT.”

However, the key phrase in this is a moderate yoga practice. In my experience, when I’m on the verge of getting sick, and I pushed myself in a particularly challenging practice, I invariably got sick. In those instances, I’d exhausted myself so much that I’d weakened my immune system long enough for an illness to swoop in. So there are still things you need to be mindful for if you’re deciding whether to roll you mat out near a tissue box.

Before we go further, the requisite cautionary advice from your doctor, your mom and your yoga teacher must be said. This column is only considering your basic non-life threatening wintery ailments like the pesky cold. Anything more serious, it would be best to consult your doctor first before coming up with your own tailored routine.

  • If you’re on the verge, teetering between a full-blown cold or adequate health: My recommendation: If you decide to practice, be gentle and watchful. Practice at 60-70% rather than the full 110%. Rest more, rehydrate more, and play it by ear. Sometimes a gentle practice can leave you feeling more energized. However, if you feel your strength lessening or you just feel worse, then you can rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana) or Corpse Pose (Savasana) or shift gears to some gentle seated stretches, so you can still move, but avoid stressing your immune system.
  • If you’re in the middle of what feels like the worst bug EVER: My recommendation: No physical practice. Your first order is to rest, rest, rest in addition to whatever healing regimen your doctor prescribes. You could also use this time to work on other elements of yoga, from meditation to very gentle, cleansing breath work. Remember yoga is still a form of exercise and as such, you could be taxing your already weak immune system by getting on your mat at this critical time. Plus, if you practice in a group setting, you risk spreading germs to others in the class. Hot, steamy yoga rooms can be nice incubators for germs, unfortunately. So you not only have to think about yourself, but about the health of others around you as well.
  • When you’re on the mend: My recommendation: Return to your practice gradually. Be patient and mindful of your healing body. Similar to when you’re on the verge of a cold, it is best to practice moderation. Resist the urge to hot-dog it on the mat too soon or you risk weakening yourself again. Instead, now is the time to dedicate to building your strength back, so that you can practice happy another day.

The Best Medicine: Nourish Yourself Inside And Out

Consider one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: “Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained—these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles” (1:30). Without a healthy body, it can be hard to do or focus on anything else effectively. So be compassionate and nourishing to yourself. Integrate your mindful, body-happy asanas practices with a good daily dose of Vitamin-C, Echinacea, or your favorite natural preventives. Up the intake of healthy nutritious food and, of course, there’s nothing like a good night’s rest to help you ward off any potential bugs.

Practice healthy so you can practice happy for a long time!