Coronavirus and Yoga: How Practising Yoga Helps
In the West we are not used to this. There is a clear violation of our cherished liberties and freedoms. As a practitioner of yoga, what can we draw upon to help us deal with the Coronavirus?
It incorporates specific breathing exercises. It also includes practices that involve a withdrawal of the senses, as well as meditation, amongst others.
In some respects, it provides a complete blueprint for living. As the Yoga Sutras (1.2) by Patanjali say:
‘yogas citta vrtti nirodhah’,
Which translates to:
“Yoga is about reducing the fluctuations in the mind.”
If we observe our minds during this extraordinary time, we can observe patterns of fear, frustration and impatience, which is completely normal.
For some it is the loss of income, or even employment and livelihood.
These feelings are real and natural. Yet, for the practitioner of yoga, there are ways which can help us cope.
Here’s how I think embodying the practice of yoga can help during the Coronavirus crisis.
Yoga Values & Beliefs
At the heart of classical yoga are a number of values and beliefs. These sit at the top of the system and lay the ground work for the physical and mental practice.
Broadly divided into ‘yamas’ and ‘niyamas’, they set out a moral code of how you relate to yourself and the rest of society.
There are many such values (a subject matter in itself) and I do not wish to go into much detail about all of them, but there are a couple which I think are relevant.
The yama of ‘asteya’ (or non-stealing) is very visible today. When we steal, we take a little bit away from that person, and also from ourselves as human beings.
We deprive others, whether it be of their time or their physical possessions. With the coronavirus crisis, we see supermarkets emptied of basic essential items, which has caused an uproar, especially with respect to toilet paper.
On the one hand, such actions are entirely selfish and disgusting and have left me feeling in despair.
On the other hand, this is a real human phenomenon.
The brain is overtaken by fear and trauma and starts acting impulsively. The limbic system kicks in and the emotional brain takes over.
These actions are highly destructive for society in times of crisis. They deprive essential workers and the elderly of necessary items.
Only when we recognise such impulses and behaviours can we pause for a second before acting upon them. We have to learn to be more ‘mindful‘ during these times.
Quite frankly, whenever we take or purchase more than we need, we are stealing from others.
For those who didn’t see the footage of the NHS nurse who, after completing a 48 hour shift, arrives at her local supermarket to empty shelves, it’s a harrowing reminder of our actions and the effect upon others.
The short answer: be considerate, and we’ll get through this crisis, together.
The niyama of tapas is often associated with action, dedication, inner strength or determination, amongst others.
In a world of social distancing and self-isolation, the effect upon our mental health can be challenging.
Working from home may be the new normal for weeks or months to come, which is not our natural state of working, let along being.
We are social creatures at heart, and for this reason, isolation can be difficult to cope with.
Whilst the push towards flexible and remote working has some value in today’s digital world, are we not missing the physical office more than ever now?
Working together provides an opportunity to socialise, bond and share.
We know that loneliness can be detrimental to our health. To this extent, we need to draw upon our inner strength, be creative and stay connected.
Finding local community is important, through apps like ‘Next Door‘, and in the work place, making use of tools that allow us all to work together and see each other.
We need to find inner strength and resilience to maintain that connection.
For those who are self-employed or are suddenly without employment or income, it must be tough. This crisis was not foreseeable and moved so quickly.
What is needed right now is resilience and a belief that such shock is only temporary and whenever the crisis resolves itself, things will hopefully return to normal.
Finding solace in meditation (as discussed later), journalling and keeping up with an exercise routine can be helpful in maintaining some stability.
It also may mean adapting quickly to the new circumstances, moving to offer classes online and understanding how technologies (such as Zoom) work.
During a crisis, decisions that were once in the background are now in the forefront and have to be made quickly in order to keep things afloat. We need ‘tapas’ at this time.
For a complete overview of all the yogic values & beliefs, see here.
The practice of yogic breathing or ‘pranayama’ is an essential part of the yogic system.
Literally meaning ‘breath extension’, it is a practice that involves the conscious control of breathing through a variety of techniques which may have a relaxing effect upon the body.
One such practice is known as ‘3 part breathing‘. 3 part breathing is a way of breathing through the abdomen, diaphragm and upper chest.
When a full use of the lungs is made, there is a greater exchange of oxygen and CO2, especially in the deeper and back part of the lungs.
We know that this also activates the ‘rest and digest‘ part of the autonomic nervous system (known as the ‘parasympathetic‘ nervous system). In anxious times, finding refuge in the breath can be a way of finding solace and some calm.
Yogic breathing exercises also have practices which are meant to have some cleansing effect upon the body.
What we do know about the coronavirus is that it affects the respiratory system.
Practices therefore which have an expelling effect, which result in toxins and waste matter being eliminated from the body, may be useful.
One such practice is Kapalabhati, which involves short, sharp, directed exhalations through the pouch of the abdomen. Similarly, the practice of ‘bhastrika‘, involves a forceful inhalation and exhalation through the nose, using the diaphragmatic muscles to increase the amount of breath being drawn in and out of the body.
For a full overview of Kapalabhati, see this short video below. I should note that such practices are advanced techniques and this is for informational purposes only, they should only be practised with an experienced yoga practitioner.
There is some evidence to suggest that practising yoga may improve immunity, and I do know that our lymphatic system requires movement in order to move waste around (and out of) the body. Regular exercise in this regard will help.
Given that the practice of physical yoga involves movement in all directions and planes, it is the perfect practice to encourage the elimination of lymph from the body, especially in confinement.
Not least, whilst we are all confined indoors, it provides some welcome relief from our new routine, which may improve our overall wellbeing.
As a form of exercise, anything which lifts our spirits whilst being confined indoors is useful, if not vital.
It gives us a sense of steadiness and can act as our foundation.
As getting to class in studios is not possible these days, having the ability to practice online becomes the only option, unless you already know a routine well enough to do it by yourself.
Fortunately, there are a wealth of options online. The platform I recommend is Movement for Modern Life, which is the UK’s leading online yoga platform, with many different classes and styles for all types of yoga and levels.
Since most public spaces in the UK are now closed, many studios are now offering classes online, including the Life Centre in London, where I practice regularly.
Withdrawal of the Senses
Whilst remaining connected and finding out what is going on with respect to the virus, too much stimulation and exposure can have a negative effect upon the mind.
I know first hand how addictive watching CNN’s coverage is, but is this really helpful for my mental wellbeing?
The other night I stayed up and was glued to the TV as events rolled in from the US. I took all of this to bed.
Surprise surprise, I struggled to get out of bed the next day, and generally felt quite sluggish and depressed.
I learnt my lesson from that experience.
To this extent, we subconsciously absorb so much information that a constant deluge of shocking news and fear-mongering can only serve to feed our anxiety.
Yes, find out what’s going on, so you know what is happening with respect to government orders; yes, stay connected through social media with your friends, but try and limit this time.
It takes time and will-power, but some form of control is absolutely essential for your peace of mind in these challenging times. I for one am still working on it.
To this extent, the practice of pratyahara during these times does not involve a complete withdrawal in the literal sense. It means making space between interactions with media and other stimuli.
It means choosing how to respond to situations and limiting the effect of those stimuli upon our nervous system and ultimately our mind.
As a conscious practice, I believe the yogic practice of pratyahara is a powerful tool to help us navigate these times and reduce the variability of our moods and ultimately stress and anxiety.
In times of crisis, it is essential that we find this time, to focus on the breath or whatever is your preferred object of attention or contemplation, in order to develop a deeper state of consciousness.
By becoming familiar with the mind, we can observe and notice when it becomes agitated, fearful or frustrated and know that is what the mind does. but we are not our minds. Practising meditation is therefore essential during a crisis.
We can also practise loving kindness meditation, wishing upon ourselves, our families and even enemies that they be well, and stay well. It’s impossible to be angry and fearful if you are happy and grateful at the same time.
We also know that through meditation, there is a link to improving immunity. With our immune systems at the focus of attention right now, given the novel coronavirus, a healthy immune response is vital to ward off and/or fight the infection.
Coronavirus and Yoga: Summary
A yoga practice can serve as the bedrock for stability, clarity and inner strength. It does not provide a cure to coronavirus, but what yoga does is provide a system to help you deal with and move through the crisis.
Through values that are mindful of others whilst at the same time drawing upon our inner strength, breathing in a smart, conscious way, practising postures as part of our daily indoor routine, limiting our time online and the way we react to news and events, and finally finding solace or inner peace through meditation, we, too, can fight the coronavirus.
Anything that keeps us flowing (whilst moving towards stillness) is vital in times when there is a tendency to stagnate. That is what the power of yoga is all about.