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Column: Yoga & Meditation During Covid-19

[Opinion column written by Robin Holder]

The community is looking for ways to cope with the trauma and emotional turmoil of quarantine under the National State of Emergency in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While this event may seem out of our control, the ancient teachings of Yoga and meditation show we can be empowered to choose how we react to turmoil and find stability, balance and healing.

The practices of yoga illustrate we do not have to give into fear and uncertainty and that moments of suffering are an opportunity for self-reflection, inquiry, expansion, rebirth, renewal, a moment let go of attachment, reconnect with each other and our humanity and restore faith in the universe that good can come from misfortune.

Contemporary science says the universe was created by the Big Bang. Everything that is in the universe was created from the same source in the Big Bang, and we are made up of the same elements so we are an integral part of the universe. Within the governing pattern of the universe is an intelligence that keeps the universe evolving in harmony rather than devolving into chaos. It is this knowledge which may suggest there is a divine order to the universe and the chaos we are currently experiencing is not random – the Earth is healing its self through the COVID-19 virus.

The community response to living under house arrest reveals that some of us are resistant to make changes or make sacrifices as we so accustomed to following habitual routines of behaviour and lifestyle choices. Instead of accepting this situation [the new normal] as an opportunity for renewal, there are those grieving for normalcy, grieving for the metaphorical death of society.

Many are simply unwilling to let go of the past, use this time to find more about themselves and create a new reality. There is a feeling of being powerless and not being in control of life. Rather than look inward for self-validation and self-worth, we look to external sources for validation, respect and love.

Well before panic buying and hoarding at grocery stores we had already become mindless slaves to consumerism and materialism as the long lines early in the morning for Black Friday sales testify.

Are we mourning lossed gains made at the gym or do we really need gyms to validate our bodies, boost our self-esteem and self-worth?. Are we missing beauty salons because we can’t get that much needed hairstyle, manicure or pedicure treatment? or are salons the venue for cosmetic beauty and unrealistic standards of perfection?.

Do we have a God given right to alcohol, the one legal drug we must have to survive quarantine intact? Are we really suffering under a tyrannical police state? Are we debasing ourselves as small mined whiners?, or could there be a real sense of unease toward the use of unlimited powers sanctioned by a national state of emergency. Perhaps these questions are worth bearing in mind as the pandemic reflects the current state of mind of our community and the extent we are willing to give up our cherished freedoms at the demands of state sanctioned power on the pretext of containing a national health threat.

The psychological impact of the National State of Emergency is causing some people to experience feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, sadness and loneliness. Local media has reported on an increase in anxiety and depression, fears about the availability of medical care and finances and concerns how families or couples will get along and the lockdown’s effects on mental health and relationships. There also reports of a rise of domestic assaults as victims shelter with their abusers and women needing more assistance from the Women’s Resource Centre.

Yoga has no magic pill to make residents feel good about being under quarantine at home but the practices of yoga and meditation offer a set of tools to find healing, equanimity, health and wellbeing and self care practices.

While public yoga classes have been suspended for the foreseeable future, I believe the yoga profession has a responsibility, perhaps more so than ever, to rise to this occasion and continue the practices of yoga to provide healing to those in need and help keep our communities connected to each other, maintaining their practices of yoga and meditation.

Fortunately this process has already started. Not long after the restrictions to contain the pandemic were introduced locally in early March, Yoga and Pilates studios such as Lucky Elephant Wellness and Shamana Circle quickly stepped up to provide online live stream classes, recorded content and meditation and upgraded their online platforms to enable their members to continue to have a venue to continue their practice. Globally yoga studios have moved to digital platforms with full relish using popular hosts such as Zoom for online streaming of live classes and online workshops, meditation and teacher training.

If you are in the healing arts, Reiki, meditation and yoga, this is the moment to step into your powers and offer the tools of healing to address this unprecedented suffering, this unique moment in history is an opportunity for personal development, expansion, raising the frequency of our vibration and move towards the light and away from darkness and despair.

The disciplines of yoga have been preparing its practitioners for this moment, to step into the ring of fire where discomfort sits, to be present and ensure we do our best to reach out to the community so we may all benefit from the wisdom of its teachings.

I believe the purpose of a yoga teacher is to hold space for inquiry and self discovery without judgment and facilitate awareness of the union of body, mind and spirit, to dissolve barriers to connection and hold space for those experiencing trauma or are looking for peace of mind, equanimity and a state of calm amidst stormy waters.

Now is the time to bring greater awareness to the non-physical realm of yoga, the spiritual and philosophical realm overshadowed by the physical practice of yoga. There is a universe beyond asana [poses and shapes] and offer a set of self-care and healing practices and a framework to respond to trauma, uncertainty, fear and emotional disturbances.

Yoga is a process of inquiry, awareness, self-exploration and discovery. The tool box of practices offered by the time honoured traditions of yoga are applicable to our present circumstances. Its practices can address the fear, discomfort, stress, anxiety and unease some people may be experiencing as yoga is an adaptive intelligence presenting a pathway to empowerment, agency and the ability to navigate the challenges and perils we often face in life.

Instead of being reactive and giving way to fear and anxiety you can shift your attention to more uplifting thoughts to improve your state of mind. The practices of yoga illustrate that fear is the lowest vibration [energy level] frequency and fear weakens the immune system and you can keep your vibrational frequency high by being guided by love not fear. We practice yoga so we can be adaptable and flexible in the face of uncertainty and the unknown.

The lockdown is a perfect time to look at mindfulness practices and examine why being in a state of stillness may be a difficult challenge for many and for others may feel like walking into a minefield of conflicting emotions. We are all faced with the novel challenge of finding space for ourselves living in close quarters under quarantine for many hours of the day.

Husbands and wives or significant others, families and children have to navigate their time in the home as they shelter in place. This has placed a high demand for forbearance and self-sacrifice as the community complies with the curfew restrictions. A feeling of social isolation may increase a sense of loneliness for single parents and those living on their own.

Prevented from visiting friends, relatives, seniors living in rest homes, going to beaches, parks and nature trails and not being able to attend birthday parties, sleepovers, graduation ceremonies, sporting and cultural events and socialize at restaurants, bars and clubs is an unprecedented lifestyle adjustment for many residents and may trigger anxiety, stress and create mood disorders as the toll of the lockdown weighs on the community.

Pulled from our daily routines, only permitted one hour of exercise per day, we are also confronted with the conception of time, some may ask how much time can you spend on screens, exercise, cooking, shopping, cleaning, home repairs, gardening, eating and drinking. For the first time residents may be asking themselves – how should I spend my time today?.

To enter the realm of stillness is to realize there is no escape from reality – in a culture filled with over stimulation and meaningless distractions and pursuits, this may be highly disturbing.

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss may your whole life, which is never not now,” Eckhart Tolle. The practice of yoga and meditation encourages awareness of being present, not in the past or the future. So many of the blessings of life may be missed out by projecting on to the future what we think will bring us happiness, without enjoying the things we have before us now.

How we relate to now creates our future, if we are going to move from fear to hope, we have to set this intention in the present moment. We create the reality of our future by where we put our energy now and where we put our intentions, we can stay miserable or we can choose to stay positive. Right now we are creating our state of mind for tomorrow, the next day, next week, next year and the rest of your life.

An effective way to find space for yourself and be in a state of stillness is provided through the practice of meditation. Being able to detach from habitual thought patterns, especially negative ones, is very powerful. The mind has a habit to jump from one thought to another – the monkey mind.

Living under house arrest may make some feel exposed to their own thoughts and reality for the first time as they have been removed from all external distractions and habitual routines. “Yoga is a way to move into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are,” says Erich Schiffmann. Without the filter of external distractions, the mind has an opportunity to pause and reflect on what perhaps is really important and cast aside the superficial and the mundane.

Meditation is a great way to sit in stillness with your thoughts and emotions and provide a state of calm and peace. By starting a meditation practice and bringing awareness to your breadth and body when you first wake up, you become more aware of your thoughts. Through a regular practice you can gain control of your thoughts and move into a proactive state of being than a reactive one.

There is a conception in society held by some that if you are sitting still you are doing nothing and meditation is a waste of time, failing to recognize there is in a state of dynamic stillness there is a lot going in your internal world that has relevance to your daily life. “Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is unconflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced whenever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in – when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing,” Schiffmann states.

Meditation can reduce stress as it a unique opportunity to create time for yourself, apart from appointments, work deadlines, school project and other obligations. Researchers think meditation may stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate and breathing rate and improving blood flow. These physiological effects that take place during meditation may be part of the reason why meditation can calm the nervous system and make you feel relaxed.

Meditation can give respite from the fluctuations of the mind – the monkey mind and provides an opportunity to detach from the chaos of our lives and seek shelter in silence and stillness. Being still creates a venue to establish a broader perspective, to be less reactive. There is a wealth of clarity and wisdom when we can pause, take a step back and see things more clearly. A balanced perspective is a great tool to make better decisions and living a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

One of the goals of yoga and meditation are to observe and manage the mind, to facilitate mindfulness and awareness. The aim is to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment and perhaps gain a healthy sense of perspective. There is no perfect meditation, sometimes your thoughts will wander and stray, often you may dwell on to-do lists, and you may feel different every time but recognize you are on a journey and the destination is not important.

Part 2 [How The Teachings Of Yoga and Meditation Can Respond to Covid-19] will examine more closely the causes of suffering and the psychological aspects of trauma and how yoga can provide a set of self care practices to address trauma, anxiety and emotional turmoil.