Monday, October 21, 2013

The Immunity Community, a Yogic Perspective

Last week, I received a flu shot and was reminded of just how amazing my body is.

As I felt the effects of the virus moving through my body, I reflected on what was happening inside, a similar practice that I ask people with cancer to do every day. My body scan took me on a tour of my immune system, a vast network that recruits participants from every other system.

The Concept of the Immune System

What is the immune system? Can I point to its physical location, like I would point to my respiratory system, or my skeletal system? The answer is no, because my immune response is a holistic one. If I take a look at my experience with my flu shot, I catch a glimpse into this holistic system, a complex Rube Goldberg-like series of chain reactions.

Act I: Enter the Pathogen

I'm not a fan of getting poked with needles, so the first response that I experienced was my nervous system's stress response. As soon as the nurse walked into the exam room with the prepared needle, my breathing sped up and my heart beat faster, triggered by my desire to get away from what my mind perceived as a threat. I used my senses - eyes and ears - to discern this potential threat.

If I had been given the spray version of the flu shot, my nose and respiratory system would have been next to be triggered. Instead, I received the shot in my arm. My nervous system, skin, muscles, fascia, blood and lymph vessels were affected immediately by this breach in my defenses. Within 20 minutes, I could feel my body's effects to receiving the foreign pathogen as my upper arm, the deltoid muscle, grew sore. By that evening, mild soreness had spread to several joints, and my skin felt mildly tender.

Act II: Community Response

The flu virus was delivered into my system via the blood circulating through my muscles and the rest of my body. Running parallel to the circulatory system is the lymphatic system, a network that looks like a fishing net with masses at the larger intersections, called lymph nodes.  A high concentration of lymph nodes are located at my neck, armpit, chest, groin and abdomen. My lymphatic system acts like an intelligent garbage-collection service for my body: it slowly drains through my body, allowing the blood cells to attack potential threats, which they then identify and store the information about for later protection. Like a very well-connected agent at the airport security checkpoint, my lymphatic system will inform the rest of my lymph nodes about a threat - in this case, the flu virus - so that when it appears on the scene again and tries to drain through another node, my body can disarm it before it does any damage. The limitations to the incredible lymphatic system are that it has no pump to drain the lymph fluid through my body, and the fluid only moves in one direction: from the periphery in towards my abdomen.

I can support this lymphatic network several ways. By practicing diaphragmatic breathing, I massage my thoracic duct, a large gland that runs through my respiratory diaphragm and "escorts" the lymph fluid out of my body. I can also move my body and practice isometric exercises or massage my skin to encourages lymph drainage, because the cycling of muscles contracting and relaxing, or the movement of blood through the vessels that are close to the lymphatic vessels will promote lymph movement. Passively opening my joints, using gravity and my body position and reducing tension also supports lymph drainage.

Act III: The Yoga Ally

I awoke the day after my flu shot feeling uncomfortable, a mild headache brewing, and a sense that the systems we not running efficiently. Still in bed, I began a supportive routine, one that I teach my students with cancer so that they can also support their immune response.

Bridge Pose

    Windshield Wipers
  1. Neck circulation: I gently massage my neck, from ears to collarbones, then slowly shaking the head no, then slowly nodding the head yes.
  2. Armpit circulation: I gently massage the skin in and around my armpits, then from my elbows towards my chest, followed by shoulder circles and bridge pose, to stimulate the lymph vessels in my armpits and chest.
  3. Upper body twisting: keeping my knees bent and pointing upward, I twist my torso towards one arm, then the other.
  4. Knees to chest: closing/opening my hip joints by pushing my knees into my chest, then away, followed by circling my knees around my hips. 
  5. Ankles/knees/hips: imitating a frog swimming in water, I circle my ankles and hips,
    Banana Pose
    as well as bend my knees; after, I straighten my legs and focus on flexing and pointing my feet.
  6. Lower body twisting: with my knees bent and feet wide apart, I keep my torso still and drop my knees from one side then the other (slow windshield wipers).
  7. Side bends: I come into the banana pose by straightening my legs and moving them to one side with my arm extended overhead.
  8. Resting butterfly: Bringing the bottoms of my feet together and opening my bent knees out to the side, I open my arms as well, so that both my armpits and my "legpits" are being stretched.
    Resting Butterfly (with props)
  9. Seated breathing: I focus on expanding my ribs in all directions as I inhale (diaphragm moves down), then narrowing my ribs inward (diaphragm moves up).
  10. Meditation: with each breath, I focus on what my body is doing to manage this pathogen. I notice all my systems that have rallied to take care of it, and breathe out a sense of gratitude for all that my body does.
    Breathing, Meditation

This sequence is constantly evolving and growing, and it has been greatly influenced by many teachers, students and research, including: Tias and Surya Little of Prajna Yoga, Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal of Therapeutic Yoga, Tari Prinster of Y4C, the Lymphoedema Support Group.


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