The other night, I attended a yoga class that was filled with an unusual number of sneezing, sniffling yogis. At one point, I turned around to grab my Yogitoes from the back of my mat, only to find it surrounded by a little mound of someone else’s used tissues. Normally, I’m not too much of a germaphobe, but this was a bit much.
We’re apparently in the middle of a flu epidemic here in Chicago, so it’s particularly unnerving to be in a small, heated yoga room with so many people in the throes of illness. I’d like to think that the yoga studio, of all places — i.e., a place of health and well-being — would be one public space where you didn’t need to worry about catching something. No such luck at the studio where I’ve been practicing…
All of this raises an obvious question: Should you practice yoga when you’re sick? There are actually several different, but related, considerations here, and I’ll discuss each in turn.
First, a yogi needs to think about her own well-being, and whether practicing yoga makes sense for her during an illness. Obviously, this depends on the nature of the illness, but let’s focus on the runny nose, sneezing, phlegmy variety that most us of deal with at one point or another during the winter. Personally, if I’m sick with these sorts of symptoms, there’s no way I’m going to class. I might, however, do a short home practice that is more restorative in nature. The main objective of these restorative poses, in my mind, is not to ignite some sort of magical yogic healing, but simply to keep the aches and pains of illness at bay. Reclined twists, supported backbends, or passive hip openers are generally my go-to poses when I’m under the weather. I’ll typically avoid any sort of inversion, including Downward Facing Dog, as inverting causes too much pressure in my sinuses and head.
A sick yogi ought to think about others, too. The people at your favorite studio, including your teacher, are your friends! So out of consideration for them, maybe take a few days or even a week off from yoga. I know this is easier said than done, and I’m definitely guilty of going to yoga class sick. When I’ve done this in the past, it’s usually been out of a misguided attempt to recover more quickly from my illness. (As far as I can tell, doing yoga does nothing to improve recovery time from a cold.) Or I just couldn’t stand the thought of missing my favorite class, so I’d go anyway, even if I were feeling terrible. Admittedly, this was a very selfish way to behave, but I’ve changed my ways and will no longer go to class when I’m sick. I only wish others would extend the same courtesy!
Yoga teachers should set a good example. Last week, I attended a class where the instructor was clearly very sick. Between her low energy and her having to pause every few minutes to wipe her runny nose, the class ended up being a serious dud. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder why she’d decided to teach when she probably should have stayed in bed. Maybe the studio couldn’t find a sub; that’s always a possibility. Or maybe this teacher literally couldn’t afford to stay in bed. After all, yoga teachers need to make money, and if they miss a few days of teaching, that could mean a considerable loss of income. (Most yoga studios, incidentally, do not hire teachers as employees, so they typically don’t get benefits like health insurance, sick days, vacation, etc. Yes, the labor practices of some studio owners can be kind of sketchy, but that’s a rant for another day…) All things considered, though, I still think it’s a bad idea for a yoga teacher to show up to class sneezing and coughing everywhere. It’s not fair to the students, it creates an unhealthy environment, and it sets a poor example.
A yogi’s motto shouldn’t be, “Must go to yoga today and every day, come hell or high water!” It’s okay to skip yoga class for a few days. It’s okay to be sick. Thankfully, we can practice yoga anywhere, and this is even more true when we cultivate a yoga practice that goes beyond asana. Not only can a sick yogi practice at home, but she can also cater her practice to her present condition. This, to my mind, represents a greater expression of responsibility to oneself, and to others.