alan little’s weblog

yoga herx

31st October 2007 permanent link

Scott Sonnon explains the Herxheimer Reaction: apparently a common medical phenomenon among athletes who have recently stepped up the intensity of their training. Intense metabolic conditioning heats the body, like a fever, which kills bacteria, who then decompose and release toxins into the surrounding tissues for a while at a faster rate than the body can flush them out. Eewww. Result: fever, flu-like symptoms etc. a couple of weeks after you begin the new high intensity training regime.

This is interesting. Yoga teachers talk a lot about asana practice eliminating “toxins” from the body. I doubt if much yoga as commonly practiced is intense enough to bring on the sort of thing Scott is talking about – but ashtanga as practiced in Mysore probably is if anything is. And it was common folk wisdom among yoga students when I was there that “everybody gets sick in the first few weeks. After that you’re fine”. Guruji always greeted students returning to the shala after this initial sickness with a beaming smile “very good – big cleansing”

I was always in two minds about this. I always thought it sounded possible, not to mention encouraging – of course I want to believe my yoga practice is “cleansing” my body as well as my mind, who wouldn’t? But I'm wary of wishful thinking and pseudo-medical mumbo jumbo, both of which are all too common in the yoga community among people who at best barely half understand what they’re talking about(*).

Clearly we don’t absolutely need to invoke elaborate exercise-induced biochemical syndromes to explain western yoga students getting sick in India.

Take the Kavery Lodge Hotel in Mysore. A few years ago it was the standard starting point for newly-arrived yoga students. As such, it was full of people who not only weren’t adapted to Indian germs’n’diseases, but who also had no immunity to each others’. The place is a veritable petri dish of all the world’s pathogens; I saw no reason to assume I would be any more resistant to American or Australian strains of the common cold than I would to Indian ones.

As it happened I got through my couple of weeks at the Lodge with no more than a slight cold. A month later, though, after I’d moved into my own apartment, I was heavily knocked down for a few days by a dose of fever and diarrhea. Clearly I would have preferred all along to believe this was cleansing induced by the incredible intensity and devotion of my yoga practice, rather than something mundane like not washing my hands thoroughly enough one day in a restaurant, but until now I couldn’t prove it. After that I was fine.

Scott Sonnon seems like an interesting character. An American who studied Russian martial arts in the Soviet Union, he’s worked on combining modern scientific knowledge of exercise physiology and psychology – including a lot of soviet stuff that still isn’t widely known in the west – with things taken from yoga and other traditional practices. Some apparently smart and knowledgeable guys seem to be very impressed by him. I have one of his books, which I've so far found interesting but not earth-shattering. Until recently most of his writings on the web seemed to be small articles apparently intended mainly as marketing teasers for his books, DVDs and expensive seminars – fair enough, the guy has a family to support like the rest of us – but now he’s started a much more substantial blog.

(*) This absolutely does not apply to my friend Dr. Ron Steiner of, whose hip anatomy workshop I am greatly looking forward to this weekend.

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