What is hayfever?
Spring time signals the onset of hayfever for many people. Britain currently has one of the highest rates of hayfever in the world, with about 25 per cent of the population displaying symptoms. And many argue that climate change is likely to make the situation worse in the coming years as the pollen season becomes longer and more intense.
Hayfever is an allergy to airborne substances (mainly pollen from grass, trees or flowers) which lead to inflammation in the lining of the nose, throat and eyes. Hayfever is also associated with asthma and eczema. If you have one, you are more likely to develop one or both of the other two. They may also run in families.
So what happens if you suffer from hayfever? Your body recognises the airborne substances as harmful, for some reason. The immune system reacts, releasing large amounts of histamine, which causes inflammation, itching and irritation .
Treatments for hayfever
If you’re looking for alternative treatments to the chemical nasal sprays, eye drops, anti-histamines and anti-inflammatories available, there are a range of herbal alternatives out there – many of them can be found on our shelves in Wild Oats – come in and talk to an adviser (sales pitch over!).
The art of breathing and hayfever
But there are other things you can do to help. Yoga offers a number of practices which can be done alongside any treatment you are taking, helping you to deepen and gain control of your breath and strengthen your immune system.
They can even be practised on the go, while you’re sat on the bus or at your desk.
Simple breathing practice
Sit with your spine straight, on the floor in a simple cross-legged position, or on the edge of your chair with both feet firmly on the floor at hip-width. Make sure you are comfortable and warm, so you can sit for 10 minutes or so.
Become aware of your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice it and the effects it has on your body. Is it fast or slow? Is it shallow or deep? Is it long or short? Do you feel your chest or your abdomen move as you breath? Remember, nothing is right or wrong. You are just observing your natural and spontaneous breath.
Complete a body scan, from top to bottom, observing any areas of tightness or soreness. Release any tension you feel, any unnecessary holding.
Begin now to count the duration of your inhalations and exhalations, using a steady and rhythmic count. Over a number of breaths, try to equalise the duration of your inhalation with the duration of your exhalation. Continue this for several minutes without strain.
Kapalbhati Pranayama (Shining Skull breath)
Kapalbhati breath consists of a forced and rhythmical exhalation followed by a passive inhalation. Both inhalation and exhalation occurs through the nose. It can help clear the nasal passages, and can therefore offer relief from any nasal irritation.
Begin sitting as described above. Placing your hands gently over the abdomen area can help you get to grips with this practice in the initial stages. We need to be careful that our stomachs rise as we inhale, and fall as we exhale. It can be fascinating to notice how this may not be the case, as if we have somewhere down the line forgotten how to breath.
Begin slowly and do no more than 10 breaths (or rounds). Begin by exhaling sharply through the nose while pulling your navel in towards your spine. It can help to imagine blowing a fly from the end of your nose! Let the inhalation come naturally, as it will do, and let your stomach rise. As you become more familiar with the practice, you will be able to breathe more quickly, but never strain. Respect your body and where it is on any particular day, in any particular moment, as that will change.
Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
This is a calming, balancing and purifying practice which involves breathing alternatively through each nostril. Sit as described above.
Close your right nostril with your right hand thumb, place your first finger and middle finger in the space between and slightly above your eyebrows, and have your ring finger ready to close your left nostril when the time comes. Your little finger is kept out of the way.
Begin by breathing in through your left nostril, at the top of the breath, close your left nostril with your ring finger. Then, lift your thumb to release the exhalation from your right nostril.
Now breathe in through the right nostril, and again at the top of the inhalation, close the right nostril using your thumb. Release the exhalation through the left nostril by lifting the ring finger. This completes one round. Complete 5-10 rounds as appropriate for you and your body.
Over time you can work towards equalising the duration of the inhalation and exhalation, and eventually lengthening the duration of the exhalation to a ratio of 1:2. Again, I would emphasise the importance of never straining, particularly when it comes to working with your breath. It can take some time to expand your lung capacity, and such a process should never be rushed.
This practice works with your breath and has a lovely effect of opening your chest area where congestion can occur. I find it a nourishing and calming practice, and it rates as one of my favourites.
Stand with your feet in parallel, a few inches apart, and your arms down in front of you with your wrists crossed. As you inhale, raise your arms up in front of your body until they point upwards towards the sky. Take your shoulders back as far as they will go and take a brief moment to ensure that you drop your shoulders, creating space around your neck, between your shoulders and ears.
As you exhale, open your arms out to the side, to shoulder height, palms facing upwards. Feel the pleasant expansion of your chest as you do. As you inhale, raise your arms up back overhead and re-cross your wrists, ensuring that the same wrist remains on top. As you exhale, lower your arms back down in front to the starting position. Repeat 5 times, alternating which wrist is on top each time.
This practice can be particularly calming when done with your eyes closed. Enjoy!
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As well as deepening your breath and helping you to take more control of your breath, yoga can be hugely beneficial in maintaining calm and relieving stress and anxiety. This can be of particular help to hayfever sufferers, who according to recent research, are more likely to have higher stress levels than average .
Indeed, modern society is asking us to deal with a cornucopia of different stresses and strains, and I believe that yoga can offer a real and practical solution, encouraging us to slow down, reconnect to our bodies and minds, and re-educate us in the lost art of breathing naturally. How we forgot such a simple act is still beyond me…
 Research published in the Journal of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, which shows that 39% of hayfever sufferers also had higher stress levels than average.
Written by Olivia, Wild Oats office and marketing person, and a qualified Satyananda Yoga Instructor.