Yoga for Allergies Part 2: The Nervous System
A few years ago, I had a very annoying skin allergy. Wherever I scratched, my skin would bubble up: the condition is called Dermatographia, or “skin writing” in Latin.
I could write my name into my own skin--but then it would be so itchy I’d just scratch it out into a big swollen red mess.
I wasn’t sure exactly what triggered the reactions, so I went to an allergist to find out. He tested me for everything and came back with the news: “You are allergic to apples, pineapples, dust, and human touch.”
Allergic to human touch? I felt like Rogue from X-Men whose superpower is sucking the life force of anyone who touches her skin, so she has to wear long gloves everywhere. Except less powerful. And itchier.
The allergist then gave me a key piece of wisdom. He told me that my real problem was stress. Allergies are essentially your body reacting to a harmless substance or stimulus as if it were an enemy. When your nervous system is constantly in overdrive, your immune system behaves as if everything is a foreign invader. Allergies can sometimes disappear or recur, and doctors don’t know for sure why, but it seems addressing the nervous system (and your microbiome) can have an affect.
I had been relying on fast-moving Vinyasa Flow yoga classes to quell my anxiety. The fast pace and hard focus gave me no time to think my anxious thoughts. But as soon as the class was over, the thoughts would come marching back again. I was using those classes as a sort of analgesic--my anxiety would numb for the moment, but I wasn’t actually training my nervous system to calm down.
An important key to changing your habits is to start where you are. Stress and anxiety can have deep roots--you can’t just decide to calm down. I needed small, accessible ways to retrain my nervous system over time. So I started walking slower--taking the time to swing my hips. I stopped running for the bus. I started incorporating the following two yoga poses often, and I found them especially helpful:
Any forward fold is calming to the nervous system, partly because it opens up the low back ribs area, which is where your kidneys and adrenal glands are. This is the area that manufactures stress hormones in your body.
To do this pose, sit on a block or pillow with your legs extended out in front of you with your feet flexed. Fold forward from the hips, but allow the back to round gently and let the head relax.
2. Supported Bridge
This pose encourages the psoas to relax, which is a deep hip flexor muscle that originates near your adrenal glands--that same lower back ribs area. The psoas will activate under stress, and will often stay activated until we mindfully release it in a pose like this.
For this pose, lie on your back with your knees bent. Lift your hips and slide a block under your sacrum. Widen your feet and let your knees fall in towards each other. Focus on relaxing your belly completely.
With time, my hives abated. I still get them, but much less severely, and I see them now as a signal that I need to calm down. Of course I’m not saying that yoga can cure all your allergies, but learning to regulate your stress response can have far-reaching benefits, and who knows? It just might help.