Many people make the claim that if you practice yoga, you will strengthen the immune system. Often these claims are not substantiated by knowledge of what the immune system is and how it works. Let’s explore the ways in which cancer and treatments for cancer impair the immune system and how yoga practice bolsters it.
The immune system is not a single, tangible part of the body like the lungs, heart, brain, or stomach. In one sense, the immune system includes all of the body’s parts and systems, being the interaction and union of all these systems (enclosed image is how I depict the immune system for myself and for my yoga teacher trainers). The goal of strengthening the immune system is to keep all the systems working together like working families in a large, healthy village. The failure of any one system threatens the health of the whole community—for example, if our bones are compromised from a break or osteoporosis (a side effect of chemotherapy) we will not be able produce new nourishing blood supply to feed our reproducing cells in other systems. Additionally, the immune system is constantly on the lookout for a new or returning cancer cell.
Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can compromise the immune system’s efficiency because they disrupt the development and balance of all cells, therefore stressing the body’s systems and increasing the risk of infection or other diseases. Specifically, treatments reduce white cells in the blood that are needed to form leukocytes, a natural immune protection. This is why it is so critical for active cancer patients to keep on “immune system alert.” Because yoga’s goal is to strengthen all body systems, the end product is an improved immune system.
On a molecular level, we find further support that yoga boosts the immune system. Recent research has found that yoga causes an improvement in gene expression within lymphocytes, which are our cancer-fighting cells, often referred to as immune cells, that are being produced in our body all the time. Gene expression “is the process by which information from a gene is used to make a functional gene product,” which in this case is to aid lymphocyte production. In this science-based way yoga boosts our natural defense against cancer. Every y4c yoga movement, position, or patterned breathing technique has one goal: to strengthen the immune system!