Updated: Aug 15
You might have read the title of this article and thought, What the heck?! There go those yogis again, adding to their claims that yoga can help everyone with their problems. There’s yoga for back pain, yoga for arthritis, yoga for headaches, and so much more.
But really, yoga for COVID-19? Isn’t that a huge leap?! Probably not.
In a paper recently published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Bushell and colleagues from MIT, UC-San Diego, Harvard and the Chopra Library for Integrative Studies, make the case that complementary practices including yoga asana, meditation and breathing practices may be helpful in “…treating and/or preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection and… [reducing] severity of COVID-19 disease, including its collateral effects and sequalae”.
Why do these leading scientists believe that yoga can be helpful in managing COVID-19? Well, it’s because many studies have demonstrated that yogic practices not only have anti-stress and anti-inflammatory effects, they also have been linked to enhanced immunity relevant for lung health, acute respiratory infections and viral susceptibility, all conditions facing us during this world-wide pandemic. Indeed, Dr. Mehta and colleagues report in the Lancet that a hyperinflammatory response to a SARS-CoV-2 infection is the primary pathway to COVID-19 disease morbidity and death. So what’s the science backing up the belief that yoga practices can help with COVID-19?
First, there’s the discovery that inflammation could be controlled through the vagal nerve complex, a big player in the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes a “relaxation response” in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. Add this to the findings that yoga practices are capable of significantly stimulating the vagal nerve complex not only in stress-based situations, but also in inflammatory-based diseases and you have a plausible scientific case for promoting and practicing yoga as a strategy to manage the risks of COVID-19. For those of you with some understanding and knowledge of stress and inflammation, we’re talking about a diverse range of yoga and meditative practices that have been associated with a reduction of pro-inflammatory markers (natural killer cells [NK], interleukin (IL)-12, IL-6 and C-reactive protein [CRP]) and increases in anti-inflammatory markers (IL-10), along with an uptick of Type I interferon signaling, a factor linked to SARS-CoV-2 treatment.
Another possible link between yoga practices and COVID-19 is melatonin. That’s right! Melatonin, the sleep hormone that yogis associate with the “third eye” and the pineal gland.
Although there’s not as much research compared to inflammation, there are a few compelling studies that show that a regular practice of meditation and/or yoga is associated with elevations in melatonin. The emphasis is on regular because some studies have shown that levels of melatonin can decrease during seated meditation and pranayama.
Right now you’re probably thinking, how is sleep associated with COVID-19? The answer is, “It’s not, really”. As it turns out, melatonin plays a role in a wide array of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-viral and immune enhancing actions on multiple organ systems including relevance for respiratory diseases. How? It appears that melatonin biochemically senses the inflammatory and viral nature of its milieu interieur (the body’s internal environment) and then up- and downregulates its anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and immune-enhancing actions as needed.
As we all know, social distancing is a sound recommendation for stopping the spread of the coronavirus (along with wearing a mask and frequent hand washing). Nevertheless, social distancing can be a serious stressor leading to social isolation for many people. Add the uncertainty of employment, caregiving, economic survival and health, and these stressors can combine to overwhelm the immune system. There is strong evidence meditation and yoga practices have positive effects on the immune system, resiliency and overall mental health, with some scientists suggesting that loving kindness and compassion meditation practices could counter the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic from both an individual and societal perspective.
There is scientific evidence that supports yoga asanas, meditation and pranayama for fighting viral infections, reducing inflammation and enhancing immunity. These outcomes have the potential for benefitting all of us during the COVID-19 global pandemic.