The Yoga of Being Sick (Plus 6 Holistic Sick-Day Tips)
This week, I got sick. I’ve been feeling it coming on for weeks, and I finally woke up with that telltale sore, swollen throat that I know so well from my long and checkered past with strep throat.
I knew what to do, though. I got up, poured oil of oregano right onto my tonsils and waited. My face contorted, cups of saliva ran into my mouth, and I resisted the urge to vomit. I repeated this a few more times throughout the morning, and then made myself a nice cup of apple cider vinegar, honey, cayenne pepper, and hot water. No antibiotics for me, just disgusting yogic remedies administered through a day of sitting around watching Disney movies.
During this time of rest, I thought about the way I used to deal with illness when I was younger. I really took it as an insult: I would pump myself full of drugs so I could continue working and socializing as if I wasn’t sick. It strikes me that this is how many of us have learned to deal with our emotions, too: numb out as much as possible so that we can continue producing like good little robots.
The thymus gland, located right in front of your heart, is a key part of your immune system, and is the gland associated with the energetic heart center in yoga, anahata chakra. When you think about it, your immune system and your emotional heart have similar functions: they both try to figure out what is a part of you and what isn’t, and they each react when something goes wrong.
Getting sick, sad, angry, bitter, or jealous are pretty high on the list of things good yogis are not supposed to do. But yoga is not about avoiding discomfort. It’s a practice of learning better tools to manage all the things that will inevitably go wrong, and sometimes even transmute those things into something positive or useful.
When we are in pain, the body is trying to speak. Emotions must be felt and processed or they will get stuck in our systems. Sometimes we get sick because our emotions are stuck. If you refuse to cry, your body might water your eyes and run your nose through a cold so the emotion can escape through your tear ducts. (I’ve written about Gabor Maté before, who theorizes that emotional strategies can have a significant effect on human health.)
Yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff has a great line: “The great thing about yoga is that it makes us more sensitive. The problem with yoga is that it makes us more sensitive.” Any mindfulness practice helps us feel more keenly, and we get really bad at numbing things out. Numbing isn’t a great emotional strategy; luckily yoga teaches us much more effective tools.
Now when I get sick, I take myself seriously. I know that all the answers I need are in me somewhere, and if I listen hard enough, I can usually figure out what to do. Sometimes what I need is to go to the doctor and take some drugs. But often, all my sick bones want is to sit down, get quiet, hibernate, and take some time to reflect. There is often an underlying emotion that needs a chance to be processed in the quiet time required by a period of illness.
Catching a cold, then, is a gift, not an insult. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting here in a pile of tissues blissfully celebrating my disgusting mug of apple cider vinegar, but I understand now that I’m sick for a reason, and now is the time to slow down and take care. My heart and my thymus gland have important work to do, and it’s time for me to get out of the way and let them do it.
Here are some of my tools for dealing with common illness, specifically the threat of strep throat:
1. Start noticing the signs early, long before an illness manifests. Don’t ignore feelings of tiredness and being run-down. If at all possible, take a non-sick sick day. Don’t do any work, drink a ton of tea, do some restorative yoga, and watch movies or read books that make you feel good. You might never get to the stage of actually having the cold if you do this when you very first start feeling under the weather.
2. Oil of Oregano: I swear by this disgusting stuff. Again, in early stages of feeling ill, three drops under the tongue and a huge glass of water in the morning and evening will boost your immune capability a lot. For a serious sore throat, try three or four undiluted drops right onto the back of your throat. Keep it there as long as you can before you drink water, and spit the saliva that will come running. The oregano oil will kill the bacteria at the back of your throat and often head off the infection at the pass. This is really unpleasant, but it totally works. Wait a few hours before you try it again. Three times in the first day and then once or twice the second day usually works for me.
3. Hot water mixed with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of honey, a pinch of cayenne, and a squeeze of lemon is good to sip on. It will continue to help your throat.
4. Cinnamon tea: Boil cinnamon sticks, cayenne, and fresh ginger in a huge pot. Lower the heat to simmer and leave it to steep for awhile. When the water is amber coloured it will be quite sweet and soothing to the throat. Cinnamon is a great natural remedy.
5. Listen to your cravings carefully. Generally avoid sugar and dairy, and if your body is asking for orange juice, soup, meat, greens, whatever, there’s probably a reason. Stock up on good food.
6. Rest as much as you can, and drink lots of fluids. If the symptoms don’t improve in a day or two, get thee to a doctor. Antibiotics are really hard on your body, but if your sickness is serious, they may very well be a smart choice.