February 6, 2013

Should We Practice Yoga When We’re Sick?

Being sick stinks—but does coming down with something mean that you need to stay away from your yoga mat too?

I’m not a doctor, so you can take this advice with a chunk of sea salt. Rather, I’m writing this as someone who’s practiced yoga for 18 years, through severe illnesses, pregnancy, post-natal, colds, you name it.

Let’s start with what’s wrong. I’m writing specifically about practicing yoga during cold and flu season, not about something more serious. Always make sure you see a physician if you have concerns about your health.

Generally speaking, if you’re feeling sick above the neck (stuffed up nose, for example) it’s okay to exercise lightly. Moderate exercise can boost your immune system, whereas exercising intensely can deplete you. Where, then, does your yoga practice come in?

Personally, I love that I can tailor my yoga practice to how I’m feeling. 

While I thoroughly enjoy practicing at the Baptiste-style studio near my house, when I came down with the flu recently I obviously did not attend classes (which brings up another point—that it’s ideal to practice alone when you’re sick). Once I got back to the studio, however, a friend asked me if I had practiced at home during the days when I’d been absent. I responded that I had indeed, but that my practice was fairly gentle.

When I’ve got a cold, I certainly don’t want to push myself too hard or too far, but the simple, easy stretching movements and flow routines can limber up my stiff muscles that are achy after a lot of resting.

After this bout with the flu, my entire body hurt so much. I felt unusually tight and weak, so instead of taking the more challenging, slightly heated power vinyasa classes at the studio, I initially stepped into the shorter, cooler classes when I returned; and at home, I still went easy on myself. Today (a little over a week after I came down with said flu virus) is the first day I’ll be back in the challenging, hot room.

Here are some general guidelines for practicing yoga when you’re sick:

1. Listen to your body. If your body says rest, listen to it. You’ll get back on your mat, and illness can be perceived as a time to recoup and rejuvenate.

2. Take it easy. If your body’s telling you to hop on your mat, that’s great. Just make sure that you start out easily and don’t plan a long routine. You might even find that you stay seated on your mat most all of the time, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

3. Warm up. Hip-opening postures (for both the outer and inner hip) are excellent when you’re sitting and resting a lot—yet make sure you’re not throwing yourself into deep postures right away. If you’re not up for several rounds of your favorite sun salute, then at least make sure to warm up through cat-cow or poses that warm you up gently, like balances during table top position (extending one leg and maybe even the opposite arm while you’re on all fours).

4. Notice your breath. My terrible sinus history has come back to haunt me, and one of the most disturbing aspects of this is not being able to breathe. Breathing during your asanas is what makes it yoga. Even if you’re sick “above the neck,” if you can’t breathe well at all, then back off your practice.

5. Be patient. Make sure not to force yourself into a posture or a routine because your brain or your ego tells you to. You just mastered firefly pose? Awesome—it’ll still be there once you’re well.


Practicing safely and with awareness during light illnesses, like a cold, can help your recovery go more smoothly. It’s important to remember, though, that you won’t be sick forever—and that your yoga practice will wait.

So try to stay healthy in the first place by drinking water and getting enough sleep, but if, like me, you still find yourself under the weather, then use these tips when debating whether or not to get on your mat—and perhaps to re-consider your all-or-nothing approach to your yoga practice.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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