There is no doubt these are scary times we are living in. Almost overnight, many people have lost their livelihoods, their financial security, even their lives. These experiences are real, and they are hard. While we may have to accept living with uncertainty for the time being, there are things we can do right now to help us deal with the current situation we find ourselves in. One of those things is as accessible as our humble yoga practice. It is in times like this that I am incredibly grateful for everything I learned on my All Yoga training, and grateful, especially, for the gift that is yoga. If you had planned to do your Yoga Teacher Training in the next few months but are now unable, take this time to focus on your own practice and on the lessons yoga has to teach us. Here are 5 ways, in particular, in which yoga can help us deal with this pandemic.
1. Alleviating stress and anxiety
This is an extremely stressful time for the majority of us, having perhaps lost our main source of income, not knowing what the future holds or how long this will go on for. Whilst stress in itself is not necessarily a bad thing (it helps us run away from a lion when we need to!), chronic stress, or stress that comes from our thoughts (or things that can’t be solved through physical action), is incredibly damaging to our health. In fact, the more research that comes out on this topic, the more we are beginning to understand just how problematic chronic or elevated stress really is for our wellbeing.
The good news is that there are several ways in which you can start to reduce chronic stress in your life, and one of the easiest (and best, in my opinion!) is through yoga. By getting us to breathe deeply yoga helps us calm down, putting us in a relaxed state and out of the fight-or-flight response. Yoga teaches us that there is a two-way connection between the breath and the mind; when we are stressed (and need to run from a lion), the mind controls the breath, which tends to become very shallow. But if the reverse is also true then by purposefully deepening and slowing down the breath, we can trick the mind into thinking we are calm and stress-free! Through practices like yoga Nidra we also learn how to systemically relax the body and let go of tension, which then allows the body to focus on other important tasks such as digestion, healing, and immunity.
2. Tuning out the chaos of the world and going inside
By getting us to focus solely on our bodies – how we are feeling in each pose, the movement, or flow, of the body between poses – yoga is a practice of mindfulness that allows us to tune out the outside noise and go within, focussing on how we are feeling right now (both mentally and physically). Not only does this give us a few moments of peace and calm, where we can temporarily forget our problems, but it also helps us focus on what really matters (our health), and to appreciate what we do have (the ability to move, to breathe). Plus, it’s a win-win situation: the more we tune into our bodies, the more we notice subtle changes and are then better able to recognise when our bodies are going into ‘stress mode’ (elevated heart rate, shallower breathing, etc.) and to do something about it.
3. Keeping ourselves fit and healthy
With this current pandemic we are facing, one of the key things everyone is concerned about is how to keep healthy; to not only avoid getting the corona virus, but also to be as healthy as possible so that if you do get it, you have the best fighting chance of defeating it. We know that one of the most important things you can do for your health and wellbeing is taking daily exercise and movement. Even more so than other forms of exercise yoga is perfect for meeting our current needs, especially as it can be done at home, with very little equipment. It can be as intense as you wish (a more dynamic, powerful flow is also going to be great for dealing with anxiety), but it’s not only a great work-out; as previously mentioned, the inclusion of pranayama (breathing) and meditation, means that it covers so many bases in terms of boosting health and wellbeing. Besides overall health, there is growing research that yoga can specifically help with boosting immunity – not only for the reasons stated (that it helps us to relax, allowing our body to focus on other things like fighting off pathogens, etc.), but also because yoga helps us get rid of toxins (through twisting, forced breath, etc.), and may help reduce inflammation in the body [reference: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10865-018-9914-y].
4. Nothing is black and white
Yoga helps us change our perspective (sometimes literally, as in handstand!). While I would never downplay this current crisis – which has some serious implications for our financial security and health – there is good and bad to be found in every situation (as yin yoga teaches us through the idea of Yin and Yang). As much as we may not be ready, or willing, to admit it, there will be ways in which this crisis has positive implications. For example, it might give the planet a chance to heal, with fewer flights in the air and fewer cars on the road. It might also have positive implications down the line if it means countries put in place essential social security measures (like ensuring all citizens have a basic income), or, at least, by teaching us how to prepare for another pandemic like this in the future.
During such times, yoga also reminds us of the importance of non-attachment or agarigraha – one of the five Yamas (ethical and social recommendations for society as set out by Patanjali). While the example of financial security might seem a little extreme, at the end of the day it is just another reminder that nothing in life is permanent. The sooner we realise that, and the more we can separate our happiness from any kind of external stimulus (possessions, the job we do, etc.), the less suffering we will ultimately face. Instead, we have to cultivate contentment from within, and to be grateful for the simple things (like waking up in the morning, breathing, etc.).
5. Compassion is the key
Another of the Yamas – arguably one of the most important – is the concept of Ahimsa, or ‘compassion and non-violence to all living creatures’. We cannot control what will happen to us during this crisis, but we can control whether or not we face it with compassion. There are numerous ways we can do this; for example, by showing your loved ones how much you care about them (and trying not to get too riled up about petty things while you’re living in close confinement with them!). By reaching out to people who might need some support. By keeping yourself and others as healthy as possible to ease pressure on the healthcare system. We can already see some of the amazing examples of compassion currently taking place around the globe, with hashtags such as ‘caremongering’ and similar social media campaigns aimed at looking after the most vulnerable people in our communities. It is in times of crisis that we show our true colours, and if this crisis forces us to take some time to (re)connect with ourselves and our relationship with others, to realise what is most important and realign our lives accordingly, then we might just emerge from it stronger and more connected than before.
The practice of yoga continues to receive growing acclaim for its various health benefits, but during a pandemic such as this one yoga is especially needed. As well as being a fantastic way to move your body (and all the health benefits that go along with that), yoga has invaluable lessons to teach us, including the importance of mindfulness, perspective, and compassion. If you don’t already have an established home practice, there are now literally hundreds of online classes (some even free!) to choose from; if you normally go to a studio then check to see if they are now offering online classes, as you’ll be supporting a local business and helping them stay open in the meantime. If you’re interested in knowing more about things like the Yamas and Niyamas, this is also the perfect opportunity to dive deeper into the philosophy behind yoga; maybe pick up a book on Buddhism or mindfulness (or, if you’re feeling brave, jump straight into The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali!), or maybe even take a short course in Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science. However you choose to spend your time in quarantine, be kind and patient with yourself, and know that we are all in this together. So roll out your mat and breeeeathe.