If you’ve been practicing yoga for awhile, you’ve may have uttered the phrase, “Yoga is good for your immune system.”

Lately my students have been asking me, what exactly is the immune system and how does yoga help it?

The yoga world is full of fluffy euphemisms and vague unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of yoga. Sometimes, they are true (and sometimes they aren’t), and I hope that this article will help bridge the disconnect between what yogis say and what yogis know. First, we will go over the basics of the immune system and then return to the issue of yoga and immunity.

There are ten times as many bacteria cells living in/on you as cells that are actually you. These are mostly “good,” or innocuous bacteria that co-exist peacefully within us. Sometimes, the good bacteria get a little out of hand and cause problems. Other times, it is the “bad” bacteria that get the best of us. And sometimes it isn’t bacteria at all.

The immune system is a diverse and expansive system designed to protect the body several ways. Our primary immune defenses are physical, mechanical, and chemical barriers, with the skin being the most important. Other barriers, like the mucous membranes lining our mouth and GI tract, are sticky to trap “bugs.”  Actions like coughing, sneezing, urinating, crying (and even OM-chanting!) help to expel or flush out unwanted bugs out of the body. Most body surfaces and secretions have enzymes designed to break up pathogens (any bug that can make you sick). Saliva, tears, milk, and mucus all contain natural antibacterial enzymes called lysozymes that target and break down the sugars on the cell wall of bacteria. Some body surfaces, such as the skin and lining of the lungs, have tiny little “host defense” enzymes to ward off various fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Most of the bugs that make us sick are single-celled organisms or not even cells at all (e.g. viruses). Thus, there are major structural differences in the cellular architecture of our cells and their cell (or lack there of).  This is the basis of antibiotics and other antimicrobials.

If an organism (virus, worm, bacteria, etc.) breaches the physical barriers of the body, the next line of defense is the innate immune system.

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