How yoga helps you to stay sane during the pandemic
The high pressures of Western society are a great source of loads of emotional, mental, and physical stress. In particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are all experiencing now. People are suffering from anxiety and depression more than ever. People may have lost their jobs, live in uncertainty, relationships can be troubled, are more by themselves, have lost loved ones, are afraid of getting ill or being vaccinated, etc. What can enhance mental -and emotional disturbances. Stress can also impact your physical health besides the impact of the Coronavirus itself. During this stressful period, it is important to pay more attention to your physical and mental health. Yoga and meditation can be efficient tools that can support this process.
The benefits from yoga and meditation gain more and more attention in the scientific community. Multiple studies show that they have a positive impact on your stress levels and can reduce anxiety, anger, and depression. Yoga can also improve sleep, mood, body awareness, concentration, balance, flexibility, and strength. It decreases pain and inflammation and can improve heart health, respiration, and energy. Finally, it also has spiritual benefits that are important for your spiritual growth. What is it in yoga that causes this positive impact on your mind and body? And what is the best way to implement this in your lifestyle?
The Physiology of Yoga
How can yoga help you with your mental health? Many people who practice yoga feel good after a session. But why does it help with mental health issues and emotion regulation? Eastern philosophy believes yoga heals by releasing prana, the body’s vital energy. When prana is blocked, illness can result. Western science believes yoga heals by relaxing breathwork that allows the body’s healing abilities to take over. Yoga’s deep relaxation soothes the nervous system.
Multiple researchers describe the concrete physiological effects of yoga. One study shows yoga can increase heart rate variability or HRV. Increased HRV calms the autonomic nervous system, where the body stores trauma. Both yoga and meditation can help increase HRV, that is, the distance between one heartbeat to the next. It is important to have increased HRV because it has been shown to calm your autonomic nervous system and regulate your emotions.
Remember the times you felt stressed or anxious. Your breathing was shallow, and your heart may be beating fast. That means you had decreased HRV. When there is more space between each heartbeat your HRV is increased. And you will be feeling more relaxed and emotionally regulated. With slow and deep breathing, you can increase HRV. People who suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, or PTSD have poorly regulated autonomic nervous systems. And therefore have trouble regulating their emotions. By practicing activities that increase HRV, like yoga and meditation, you help retrain your heart physiology, which can lead to emotion regulation and a calmer state.
Yoga has also potential physical health benefits that western medical doctors have been researching for decades. Studies show that yoga reduces fatigue, reduces pain and inflammation, improves general health, and regulates cortisol. Thus, by practicing yoga you can regulate this stress hormone. Which impacts your mood and immune system. Many studies also have linked yoga with improved sleep, due to its meditative components.
The relaxation response
Many researchers attribute the physical and mental health improvements to the relaxation response that accompanies these mind and body practices. Deep, physiological states of rest produce immediate positive change in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion. A deep state of physiological relaxation takes place on a neurobiological level. For our body to relax on the nerve and cellular level, we need to alter body processes that shift us biochemically from a state of excitement and tension to a state of calm, and deep relaxation. Only deep breathing like yoga and meditation allows your body to do this.
How could the holding of posture, like a dolphin pose, neurobiologically relax you and strengthen the mind and body? Yoga can change the firing patterns of nerves and the chemical makeup of the body’s fluids that leads to a relaxation response. By concentrating on performing a specific body posture and alignment of a pose and then holding it as you breathe deeply, the body starts to shift from a state of biochemical arousal and tension to calm and relaxation. Relaxing deeply into a yoga pose through deep breathing lower’s the brain’s response to threat. The body starts to turn off arousing nerve chemicals, like adrenaline and stops dumping fatty acids and sugar into the bloodstream for the brain, muscle, and motor energy. Also, sodium leaves the inside of the body’s cells. This slows down the rate of nerve firing and further relaxes your brain, heart, and muscles. This state of biochemical relaxation oxygenates the blood, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity.
Besides the relaxation response, yoga also assists in strengthening and elongating muscles, tone up glands, internal organs, and spinal nerves. Furthermore, increased blood flow helps your intestines to better extract nutrients from the foods you consume and the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins from the body.
The Metaphysics of Yoga
In Sanskrit, yoga means ‘to join and unite’. With practice, you realize there is a relationship between your mind and body and discover perfect harmony. By breathing during the difficult postures, you remind yourself that all is well no matter the circumstances. You will achieve this inner peace inside yourself and develop higher awareness.
You become more aware of the dualities that exist in the world. There is a relationship between two ends of one phenomenon. You are body and mind. Also, you are ego and spirit, tension and relaxation, pain and ease, balance and unsteadiness, love and hate, and separated and united. You are never just one or the other. When you realize that opposites are only different expressions of the same phenomenon, your perception of them changes. At the simplest level, you understand the connection between your body and mind. At a deeper level, you start to live in an integrated way. Knowing that you are not just a social identity, you are also a relational, psychological, and spiritual self. You begin to make choices that nurture and support your whole being.
You take responsibility for the whole of yourself and stop looking outside for happiness. The ultimate goal of yoga is to break free from the illusions of ego and separation and to realize your ‘’true self’’. This experience of pure consciousness is our true nature. In this state of liberation, all mental turmoil falls away and awakens true knowledge within us. Our true state is that of eternal bliss.
The best way to do yoga is to practice daily. It is better to do 10 to 20 minutes of yoga every day than two times a week for more than an hour. In this way, you will learn to make a daily habit that’s easier to commit to and get the most health benefits. I recommend visiting a yoga school or following online classes to learn the basics. In time you can also practice by yourself without a teacher.
There are a lot of different forms you can practice. The most well-known in Western society is Hatha yoga. It combines three elements that include physical yoga poses called asanas, controlled breathing practiced in conjunction with the asanas, and a short period of deep relaxation.
You also have yin yoga, where you hold postures for an extended period. This way of yoga can help to release physical and mental blockages.
Not all yoga is relaxing and emphasizes nervous system activation. Hot yoga (Bikram Yoga) is one of these yoga forms. It consists of traditional Hatha Yoga poses in a room heated to 40 °C. Hot yoga and intense power yoga classes initially induce a stress response in you and are followed by a deeper state of relaxation.
Choose a yoga class that fits with your physical ability and mental health needs. There are classes for beginners to advanced, specifically designed for pregnant women, people experiencing pain from chronic physical or mental health illnesses, and the physically disabled or overweight.