The great yoga therapy teacher training adventure continues! The fourth weekend of the training (YTTT) at re:source yoga focused on Immunology, the branch of biomedical science that covers all aspects of the immune system. Immunology also happens to be one of Carina Raisman’s (our YTTT teacher and guide) specialties – her undergraduate degree is in Microbiology and Immunology.
This module built on what we learned in the physiology work from the previous weekend, looking especially at the close relationship between the immune and nervous systems.
An Exploration of the Body’s Defense System
The immune system is the body’s defense system. It works as the body’s “alarm system,” responding to triggers and stressors. The immune cells – white blood cells, phagocytes and other specialized cells – circulate through the lymphatic system to protect the body against disease.
The main functions of the lymphatic system are to remove excess fluid from the tissues, absorb fatty acid and transport fat to the circulatory system. Lymphatic circulation spans through the whole body – while systemic circulation (ie, blood flow) goes from the heart to the periphery, the lymphatic circulation goes from the periphery to the heart.
In the practice portions of the weekend, we learned that subtle actions can affect the system. For example, in the immune boosting sequence, we flexed and tensed the extremities (fingers and toes) to assist the lymphatic circulation from the periphery of the body to the heart.
Yoga and the Immune System
There are other ways yoga can benefit the immune system. The lymphatic system follows the muscle chains and responds to points of tension. The muscular contraction in asana practice distributes the energy within the immune cells along a “line of force.”
Asana isn’t the only yogic practice that supports the immune system. Breathing techniques such as kapalabati, uddiyana bandha and rhythmic breathing have a positive effect. These techniques regulate the movement of the diaphragm, which puts pressure on the lymph vessels and helps move the interstitial fluid (tissue fluids) through the system.
For the practice portions of the weekend, we worked with the immune boosting sequence, as well as restorative yoga, self massage with a tennis ball along the lymphatic system, and yoga nidra.
In general, the yoga postures which benefit the immune system include inversions, twists and restorative postures. Anything that helps the body and mind relax facilitates immune function, as it is intricately connected to the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s rest and digest process).
Methods of Response
The nervous system and immune system are interrelated, as they are both driven by the same neurons and hormones.
The nervous system is an adaptive response – in order for it to adapt to stressors, it has to assimilate and process information. The immune system, on the other hand, is a conditioned response – it relates one thing to something else from past experience.
Yoga serves as a method of stress management (the ability to adapt to any situation). In addition to soothing the parasympathetic nervous system with breath and relaxation, asanas also train the central nervous system to adapt by putting our body in new shapes. This in turn trains our nervous system to adapt to differences – the more we can adapt to any situation, our system can adapt to any threat.
Relationship between Behaviour Patterns and Movement Patterns
Lymph follows the blood veins, which rely on muscle movement and contraction. Our blood works on a supply and demand model. When we only use a limited set of movements, these movements compensate for other unused parts of the body. Using only a certain set of muscles means blood, and in effect lymph, flows only to those areas, while the others deplete.
Limited movement relates to limited immune functioning. As well, limitations in the body indicate limitations of the mind. Quite simply, an open body results in an open mind. When we create new movement patterns, we create new possibilities for the life force to flow within us.
The Therapeutic Possibilities
The immune system is a pattern – investigating this system is about breaking patterns. Just as when we examine our minds, we break habitual patterns that no longer serve us.
In our yoga therapy work, we move from the external to the internal (the symptom or “problem” to the inner states which may be perpetuating the symptom). The yoga therapist provides conditions for healing to happen, based on knowledge, intuition and information. The goal is to minimize and manage symptoms, and guide people to expand their sense of self by not identifying with the disease, disorder, condition.
The possibility of therapeutic yoga is to invite people to be open to other their full potential while relieving their symptoms. The definition of self becomes unlimited.
Idea of the “Self”
Our thoughts impact the immune system: our body believes everything we tell it. Carina offered some interesting advice for empowering our health and our lives: “If you’re not getting the right answer, perhaps it’s because you’re not asking the right questions. Ask constructive questions. And don’t believe everything you think.”
On a holistic level, the main function of the immune system is to establish and maintain a sense of self, and to prevent, detect and eliminate all “non-self.” But how does the immune system determine what is self and what is non-self?
The “physical self” is based on the idea that the self ends at a barrier: the skin, which is an organ of the nervous system. Our fight or flight response is related to the interaction of the skin, affecting how we adapt to our environment. And as we learned in our nervous system module, the failure to adapt is stress.
But when we create new patterns within our physical body, we open ourselves to new possibilities. By expanding our definition of self to include other levels of consciousness, even more possibilities are created.
In yoga, the individual self is an incarnation of universal force, beyond physical form – the universal sustains and fulfills us from within. Our health as a whole is dependent on this. While a strong and vital immune system is important, Carina reminded us that love is the driving need of survival.
Health is more than the absence of disease. Just as the systems of the body interface and support each other, our relationships maintain our health on all levels. Community is fundamental to health. The community of the body illustrates perfectly the difference between Illness and Wellness – I and WE.