Should You Practice Yoga When You’re Sick?

Photo by Jerry Webb

This time of year, we’re often motivated toward goals for self-improvement and health. Unfortunately, this is also the season of stuffy noses, sore throats and the occasional flu bug. When illness has you feeling down, you may wonder, “Should I still practice yoga?”

Though we cannot speak on behalf of doctors, most yoga teachers that I know suggest sticking with your practice during times of illness—though your “practice” may differ from when you’re feeling physically well. Asana, especially in gentle forms, is inherently healing and balancing to the body. Same goes for meditation and certain purification and cleansing practices.

The important thing to remember if practicing while sick is to be gentle and listen to your body (sometimes the most yogic thing you can do is rest!). Here are some tips to help you do so:

1. Gentle movements are the key to recovery. I once heard a yogi say she preferred hot power vinyasaclasses when she was sick because they heated her body and helped her “purge the virus.” While this might initially seem to make sense, most yogis agree that you have to take it easy when your body is working hard to fight off illness. If you feel the need to heat the body for cleansing purposes, choose less vigorous options like hot showers, warm broths, ginger tea, and vitamin rich, medicinal foods. Combining inner nourishment with gentle movements that stimulate flow of lymph fluid that supports the body’s processes (rather than over-tax them) is the path that will be most healing when you’re feeling under the weather.

2. Remember that yoga is more than asana. Getting sick might be a perfect opportunity to practice the other limbs of yoga we all too often ignore. In fact, the limb of niyama (which comes before the limb of asana), is divided into five parts, which can and should be practiced while sick. For example,shaucha, or purification, can be done through bathing, nourishing food choices and using a neti pot to cleanse nasal passages. If that’s not enough, consider meditating on the concept of samtosha and use this as an opportunity to make peace with modifying asanas, or choosing a twenty minuteShavasana for your physical practice. The last niyama, ishvara pranidhana, or devotion, refers to surrendering to a higher intelligence beyond our limited notion of self. Sometimes being sick can be a much needed reminder of our human-ness. When we see it as such, it can be a humbling gift.

3. Embrace the benefits of “Eastern” and “Western” traditions. It is tempting to think of “Eastern” medicine as holistic and natural, while viewing “Western” medicine as modern and conventional—and to view one as better than the other. As a yoga teacher, I encourage students and loved ones to consider holistic approaches to healthcare, while also recognizing that sometimes, we have to seek the advice of a doctor. Be pragmatic on your path to wellness, incorporating the benefits of meditation, yoga, Ayurveda, and other “holistic” practices, while remaining open to modern medicine. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive anyway—partnerships between Eastern and Western health practitioners are increasing, with holistic health methods now frequently utilized in hospital and clinical settings. Consider that while you may treat food choices as medicine and practice restorative yoga at home, it may also be wise to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to control a fever, or take a decongestant if you’re having trouble breathing during a cold. Remaining open to all forms of healing softens the rift between the Eastern-Western divide, and creates more harmonious spaces in which wellness can flourish.

Whatever form of yoga you choose to practice when you’re feeling under the weather, proceed with kindness and compassion for your ailing body. And just as you would for a pose that feels uncomfortable or unsafe for your body—if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Your mat will always be there tomorrow.