We're living in a scary, unprecedented time. Due to the rapid spread of coronavirus, millions of people are self-quarantining across the globe. During these stressful times, we're prone to hold more tension in our body, have difficulty sleeping, and snap at our partners or kids.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with emotions,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and physical therapist. “We learn to read and write, but we’re not really taught how to deal with emotions.” By acknowledging the stress as normal, we can begin to cultivate self-compassion — as well as compassion and patience for others if we find ourselves on the receiving end.
One outlet people are turning towards to help them do just this? Yoga. (Google Trends shows searches for “at home yoga” have skyrocketed in just the last few weeks.) As both of a form of self-care and a solid method for staying in shape, it’s no surprise that people are turning to the practice in their own spaces while self-quarantining — for both their body and their mind.
Here, experts explain how yoga can be used to work through trauma and boost both your mental and physical health during this stress-inducing time.
Yoga Can Be Used to Cope with Traumatic Experiences
There’s growing evidence that the physical practice of yoga can affect our emotions in unexpected ways. I’d heard from a few instructors that certain yoga poses can cause emotions to bubble to the surface, but I witnessed it first-hand recently in a class when, during a hip-opening exercise, the student next to me burst into tears. So, what is it about this particular mode of movement that’s different from a cycling, Pilates, or barre class, for example?
“There is a saying in Ayurveda — the ancient Indian medical system and sister science to yoga — the issues are in your tissues,” says Ann Swanson, a Denver-based certified yoga therapist and author of Science of Yoga. “These tissues include your muscles, fascia, and blood.” When we feel fear, for example, Swanson says it’s like an alarm bell ringing our amygdala, the part of the brain that houses fear and other emotions. “Yoga has been shown to lessen electrical activity in the amygdala and increase activity in the prefrontal cortex,” she adds, which is responsible for careful planning, conscious thinking, and emotional regulation. (In clinical research, yoga and meditation have been shown to lessen anxiety and depression symptoms, relieve pain, and improve emotional regulation to boot.)
“Even when we’re not under existential threat, this happens,” Atlanta-based yoga teacher and healer Elizabeth Rowan says of the tears that can come while doing yoga. “Different emotions are believed to be housed in different parts of the body.”
She says chest opening or back-bending yoga positions are considered “heart-opening,” which can make us feel vulnerable, and hips are said to hold trauma, meaning longer hip-opening shapes can bring those feelings forward. “The difference between yoga and any other activity or workout is that yoga is designed, when sequenced properly, to create conditions for profound self-awareness to arise,” she adds.
Abby Vernon, an instructor for YogaSix in San Diego and an expert in trauma-informed yoga, has seen time and again the ways that yoga can help process traumatic experiences. “Trauma tends to keep people trapped in their survival responses of fight, flight or freeze,” she says.
Because yoga calls us to focus on the present and our own bodies, it encourages students to tune into their moment-by-moment experiences instead of ruminating on the past. “Rather than working from the top-down, meaning starting with the neocortex area of the brain first,” Vernon adds, “yoga works from the bottom up, starting with the brainstem and limbic system where the survival responses live, to encourage a sense of integration and agency in one’s own body and resolution of traumatic experiences.”
The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Practicing Yoga Right Now
But don’t let the possibility of unexpected emotions keep you from getting on the mat. Not only can moving our bodies help lessen our stress and temporarily get us out of our heads (or just off our phones), it also keeps our immune systems stronger.
In fact, there’s a clear link between moderate exercise and better metabolic health. “Especially when people have so much anxiety about their health or when our minds and bodies are exposed to prolonged stress, our immune system actually [gets weaker],” says Lombardo. “That’s why addressing your emotional and physical wellbeing will help protect you.”
If we do find emotions, whether old or new, rising to the surface during your at-home yoga practice, Rowan encourages us not to resist or attempt to shut these feelings down. “When you're emotional, turn toward yoga, and when in yoga, turn toward the emotions,” she advises. “Allow both to do their profound healing work at this time.” The point, she continues, is not necessarily to feel good, but to connect with ourselves — “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
For most of us, day-to-day reality looks quite different right now than it did weeks ago. But while we may not be able to control our current circumstances (outside of helping our communities by donating what we can and doing our part to keep the virus from spreading), focusing on our mental health may be one of the most beneficial actions we can take.
“We are being inundated right now with massive amounts of unsettling information: illness, lost hours of work, disparities in access to care, juggling childcare and working from home, lack of resources, and so much more,” says Valerie Knopik, Ph.D., a professor at Purdue University’s College of Health & Human Sciences and a Yoga Medicine instructor who has studied how yoga and meditation can be an asset for mental health. She says distress — what we tend to label as “stress” — occurs when we feel like we don’t have the necessary resources to meet our demands. This can mean a lack of emotional resources, but also physical resources too, like when you can no longer find cleaning supplies or toilet paper on the shelves at your grocery store.
Knopik says yoga can be a great tool for shifting your mental focus from what you can’t control to what you can — and with at-home practice, there’s not even the temptation to measure your skill level against your peers. “Instead of thinking about what you look like in each shape,” she explains, “focus on your breath. Focused breath work can tap into our parasympathetic nervous system” — which helps conserve our energy by slowing our heart rate and relaxing our muscles — “to bring us back into balance.”
While it’s certainly not possible for everyone to drop what they’re doing — whether it’s work, childcare, checking in with friends and family, or all of the above and then some — taking even a few minutes to stretch your muscles and practice deep breathing is bound to put you in a better headspace. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced yogi, hundreds of apps and studios are offering free streaming classes right now — like Peleton (free for your first 90 days), CorePower Yoga (free for your first week), and Tonal (free on YouTube) to help you get started.
And even if you need tissues after the last “namaste,” at least you’re listening to what your body needs — a practice that’s worthy of its own gratitude.
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