Coughs, Colds and Sinusitis

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Many people are plagued with recurring cough, cold and sinus congestion in winter months and at every change of season. These disorders, which represent a hypersensitivity in the upper respiratory tract, are classed as viral infections by medical scientists. However, the underlying cause is recognised in yoga as an excessive build up of the mucus element in the body. Because the symptoms arise in cold weather and at the change of season, the problem is one of imbalance of body heat.

Medical scientists follow a treatment regime of analgesics for pain relief and antihistamine drugs to suppress the build up of mucus in the nasal passages, and prescribe antibiotics as a precaution against secondary bacterial infection. Yoga, on the other hand, attempts to promote the mucus elimination which is recognised as an elimination of toxic waste. This is achieved most effectively using the shatkriyas in conduction with heat promoting practices.

The mucus secreting mechanism

The whole of the respiratory tree of passages leading from the nostrils into the lungs, as well as the whole digestive tract, is lined with mucus-secreting membranes. In the respiratory system this mucus is constantly being propelled upwards towards the throat by the regular beating of tiny cellular hairs called cilia. The combined action of mucus and cilia ensures that dust and pollutants in the inhaled air are trapped and expelled from the lungs, preserving purity of the gas exchange areas and the bloodstream. When mucus reaches the epiglottis in the throat region, it is either swallowed, passing down the oesophagus into the stomach, or expelled from the body by the cough reflex.


Cough is thus a normal physiological event. It has a protective and an eliminative function. When the inhaled air contains irritating substances such as automobile, industrial or cigarette smoke, the cough reflex is initiated as a protective measure. During repeated exposure, or if the body becomes excessively cold, production of mucus in excess of normal occurs. This is either in an attempt to clear dirt from the air (e.g. smoker's cough), or in response to a bacterial (phlegm forming) infection of the throat (laryngitis, pharyngitis), bronchi (bronchitis) or lung tissues (pneumonia), which gain a foothold due to low energy, excessively cold conditions. Thus, in all respects, a cough is a healing event, ridding the body of a toxic product. Suppression of a cough is not recommended, but rather the prescription of heating substances, daily practice of neti, kunjal and laghoo shankhaprakshalana in combination with fasting or reduced diet. Gargling with warm saline water is also beneficial.


Sinusitis, or inflammation of the sinus cavities which open into the nasal passages, refers to an excessive secretion from the mucus lining of those cavities, so that they become clogged and blocked with their own secretions. As a result, nasal stuffiness, headache, discharge and heaviness of the head are produced. Medical science uses the practice of antral washout to introduce saline water into the sinuses and wash them. This is a painful, time consuming minor surgical procedure which frequently proves ineffective. In yogic science, the same washing is achieved quickly and painlessly by neti kriya, where warm saline water is introduced into one nostril and the head tilted, allowing all the sinuses to be washed out before the stream of water emerges from the other nostril. Neti should be performed twice a day, and more often if necessary, to promote mucus elimination.

Medical scientists classify sinusitis as an allergic reaction of the immune surveillance system in which histamine is released into the bloodstream in response to some inhaled irritant such as pollen, dust, diesel fumes, or some gastric irritant taken in the diet. The reaction, also known as hay fever, is believed to occur due to innate hypersensitivity of the individual's immune system due to prior sensitisation. Antihistamine agents, which suppress the release of histamine and reduce the sinus reaction, are routinely prescribed. In addition, desensitising injections of the irritating antigen are given in an attempt to rectify the body's increased sensitivity to that irritant allergenic substance.

Yogic science understands hypersensitivity reactions as the arousal of a previously developed mental samskara or impression which has left a deep set memory and imprint in our psyche and in our cellular memory (surveillance system) as well. Neti kriya, which removes nasal mucus and aerates the sinuses, together with asanas and pranayamas such as surya namaskara and bhastrika, will overcome such hypersensitivity reactions. Daily practice of yoga nidra and meditation enables one to witness and resolve the underlying personal complexes and defective perception, which lie at the basis of such reactions.

The person who suddenly starts to sneeze when put into a tense situation, is manifesting essentially the same reaction. It is a physiological immune response, and it is also a deep subconscious mental impression surfacing from his past. The effect may be suppressed by blocking the cellular reaction. The cause itself, however, can only be uprooted by rebalancing the body's energy systems or nadis, which are deficient or malfunctioning, and by throwing light upon the deeper mental impressions and blockages which arise simultaneously with the reaction. Meditation, yoga nidra and objective self-analysis frequently enable the unconscious mechanism of sinusitis to be understood and transcended.

The common cold

The symptom complex commonly called 'cold' is an example of a disease which can definitely be avoided when the pranic energy or vitality of the body is high and the physiological functions are operating optimally. At the first symptom of a cold or sore throat, which represents a slight pranic imbalance, one should skip a meal, practise neti and kunjal kriya, and some energising pranayama. Then take a cup of hot tea with heating spices (ginger, pepper, garlic) and rest quietly, perhaps performing mouna (silence) to minimise waste of pranic energy. Almost certainly the 'cold' will never eventuate. If, however, a 'normal' heavy meal is taken, which will further deplete deficient prana, then work is continued normally, without any consideration for the impending cold beyond taking an aspirin, hoping to 'outrun' it, one will almost certainly succumb. The next day a full blown cold will manifest, continuing for five days or a week.

Even after one has come down with a cold, there are positive measures which can be taken. Neti and kunjal should be performed every morning, and neti can be repeated during the day whenever mucus congestion renders it necessary. Take a light vegetarian diet, free from mucus forming foods. Bathing should be discontinued during the acute stage, as well as asanas and pranayama. A steam inhalation often yields great relief.

Daily program for prevention of coughs, colds and sinusitis:

  1. Asanas - surya namaskara, shavasana, bhujangasana, paschimottanasana, sarvangasana, halasana, shashankasana.
  2. Pranayama - bhastrika, nadi shodhana and ujjayi.
  3. Shatkriyas - neti, kunjal, and also laghoo shankhaprakshalana (once a week as required).
  4. Relaxation in yoga nidra.

General recommendations

  1. Diet low in heavy indigestible elements like fats and oils, milk and ghee, spices, sweets and refined products. Adequate fresh fruits, vegetables and roughage.
  2. Perform full shankhaprakshalana at change of season to remove decaying mucus wastes from bowel and reset body thermostat.
  3. Regular meal times taking the evening meal before 7 p.m. Avoid overeating.
  4. Ensure adequate rest.