Looking for an easy way to decompress, get more energy and fend off winter colds -- without leaving the house? Just say "Om." A recent study in Psychosomatic Medicine shows that women who regularly practice yoga have lower levels of inflammation and exhibit reduced physical responses to stress. What's more, researchers in India found that the practice of yoga also helps the body resist the damaging impact that stress has on the immune system. Translation: Practicing the exercise regularly may fend off sniffles and sneezes. Meanwhile, another study from Boston University shows that yoga can raise levels of a mood-boosting brain chemical called GABA.
Yoga's deep breathing and deliberate postures calm the nervous system and stimulate immunity, explain researchers. But you don't have to twist into a pretzel to reap these benefits. Just 15 minutes a day of light stretching and focused breathing can do your body good, says Terra Gold, co-director of the Yoga and the Healing Sciences yoga teacher training program at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder of the wellness group Yoga Doctors in Los Angeles.
We asked Gold to put together an immunity-boosting daily routine for yogis and non-yogis of all levels."These postures are designed to stimulate key points for the lungs, kidneys and digestive tract," she says."They'll assist in lowering stress hormones that compromise the immune system, stimulate the lymphatic system to help rid toxins from the body and help bring oxygenated blood to various organs to ensure optimal function." What's more, certain poses can relieve an accumulation of mucus in the sinuses or respiratory system, says Gold, which eases sniffles and helps you breathe better. All you need to do the workout is a few blankets and a belt.
Extended Side Easy Pose
Sit with your spine in a neutral position and both sit bones on the floor. Extend your right hand to the right as you raise the left arm toward the sky. Stretch the spine, reaching through the fingertips. Keep your torso facing forward -- without twisting the spine -- and maintain a natural, steady breath. Repeat on the other side. Gold says this activates immunity points in the arm, hand and torso.
Lying with your face up, knees bent and arms at your sides, keep the legs hip-distance apart and the ankles under the knees. On an inhale, lift arms overhead and press firmly into the floor with your feet, raising your hips. On an exhale, lower arms and hips back down. Repeat 8 to 10 times, slowly. On the last repetition, hold in the upward position and breathe deeply for one minute (or as long as you can).
Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Sit in front of a folded blanket, knees bent and feet together. Loop a belt around your lower back, over the legs, and under your feet. Exhale and recline, lengthening the buttocks, sacrum and tailbone toward the heels. Rest arms at your sides. Hold for up to 10 minutes. Gold says this expands the chest, assists lymphatic drainage and stimulates immune points for the lungs, spine and low back.
Lie with two blankets folded evenly under your upper back. Press down firmly, using leverage to slowly kick your legs overhead. Lower your legs one at a time, ensuring that your neck is comfortable. Roll onto your shoulder blades and interlock your fingers. Touch the floor with your feet and press to lift your hips higher. (If you can't touch your feet down, bend your knees by your ears to distribute weight away from your neck.)
Warrior 2 Pose
Step your feet about 4 feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and turn your left foot in slightly and your right foot out to the right. Align the right heel with the center arch of the left foot. Exhale and bend your right knee over the right ankle, so the shin is perpendicular to the floor. Inhale and straighten. Repeat six to eight times, holding the last bend for up to a minute. Reverse feet and repeat.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Sitting on a blanket, slide your right foot under your left leg. Cross your left knee over your right. Press your left hand on the floor behind you, and your right arm on the outside of your left thigh. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and twist to the left, hooking the right elbow against the outer left thigh. Twist and lengthen for 30 seconds to a minute. Repeat to the right.
Skull Brightener Breath
This practice alternates short, explosive exhalations with longer, passive inhalations. Start by focusing on your lower belly, between the pelvis and the belly button. Quickly contract the belly, pushing a burst of air out of the lungs. Then release the contraction so the belly "rebounds" to suck air in. Do eight to 10 times, slowly at first. Begin with 25 cycles per practice and work up to 100 or more.