A question from a reader: “What sort of yoga should one practice for Graves disease? (a friend wants to know and I have zero idea).”
Graves is a disease of the immune system. The body begins to make an antibody to itself. The formed antibody circulates in blood and seeks out and finds the thyroid gland. There it activates the thyroid receptor causing stimulation. Stimulation of the thyroid gland causes symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, weight loss, muscle loss, and bone loss.
Many well-intentioned Yoga teachers recommend sarvasangasa (shoulder stand) for Graves. This asana is NOT a good idea! It increases blood flow to the thyroid gland, carrying increased amounts of the antibody towards its target and causing more stimulation of an already over-stimulated gland.
There’s an Indian medical study showing sarvangasa stimulates the thyroid gland, and the authors of a 1969 medical paper report they found an increased basal metabolic rate after patients performed sarvangasana or halasana.
The increased blood flow with its detrimental antibodies overly activates the thyroid gland. Don’t recommend inverted asanas for your friend.
The best news is that the immune system (the primary dysfunction with this disorder with thyroid dysfunction being secondary) is highly susceptible to mind-body therapies. It is one of the body systems most amendable to healing through Yoga as the mind-body connection with the immune system is very strong.
Decreasing stress through Yoga is of paramount importance. Anxiety is often a big component of Graves, and plenty of science shows that Yoga is very helpful for stress management.
Meditation, calming pranayamas like nadi shodhana, and Yoga nidra are excellent. Viparita karani and pavanamuktasana with both knees to the chest are great choices for postures.
I also recommend surya namaskar and standing asanas. Those with Graves disease often lose muscle tissue and bone density. Counteract this by actively engaging the muscles and encouraging weight bearing.