Anxious about the spread of the coronavirus and your own immunity? Claustrophobic on being bound in your home largely? Sinking into depression at not being able to meet people you love and pursuing other activities like gym-exercising that keep you upbeat otherwise?
The two-word sure-shot solution to your problems is Yoga. As a recent research from the University of South Australia (that examined 19 studies across 6 countries) and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed – movement-based yoga can significantly improve mental health during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Indeed, the original and deeper intent of Yoga has always been to enable its practitioners enjoy sound mental health, in all circumstances – despite popular associations of Yoga with physical health alone. The Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as ‘samatvam yogah uchchayate’ – a state of the highest mental equilibrium, a calm mind that is not swayed by the dualities of existence.
Of course, such a state is not easy to attain or retain, given the nature of the human mind, which is habitually as restless as a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion, in the lexicon of ancient rishis. The mind is a maze of disordered feelings, ideas, and its various modifications (vrittis) like knowledge (right or wrong), imaginations, vague thoughts floating in sleep, and memories can create hellish sufferings, triggering stress. Under stress, the body releases more of stress hormones like adrenaline, resulting in tighter muscles, increased blood pressure, lowered immunity, and shallow breathing which lowers oxygen supply to the body; also food assimilation is affected. Continued stress generates more toxins than the body can throw out. Eventually, these mental disturbances (Adhi) culminate in physical ailments (Vyadhi).
Since Yoga recognises that the body is easier to control than the mind, and the mind and body are intimately connected, it aims to gain control of the mind by working on the body. Different Yoga asanas, pranayams, and kriyas (cleansing actions), while entailing bodily movements, profoundly impact the mind, strengthening positivity. A fact, which is endorsed by many celebrity yoga practitioners like Shilpa Shetty, Malaika Arora, Aishwaryaa Dhanush, Shikhar Dhawan, Vikram Sathaye, and Ankur Tewari. Says actor Yami Gautam, known for her fitness regime, “Yoga is a lifestyle... It helps me stay positive and keeps my skin glowing.”
Unlike other physical practices, which do not require full mind engagement – in a gym, one can keep walking on treadmill, while talking on phone or listening to music – while doing asanas (postures), the mind has to be continuously involved. Almost all body movements in yoga are synced with breathing patterns; like in hastapadasana, you inhale deeply while stretching your arms upward and then exhaling, lower the arms to grasp your ankles.
Thus, the yoga asanas, when practiced correctly, firm up the mind as much as the body. Observes yoga teacher Shailaja Menon in her book Yoga Shakti, “Every time…we direct the mind to stay on the body in asana practice or to shift the focus to the breath and count… breaths, the underlying thrust is to strengthen our capacity to direct our minds and shift our attention to stay where WE choose. That capacity is the KEY to release from suffering, and it is the path to freedom.” Regular practice of asanas for even 20 minutes every day contributes to keep both mind and body stable and flexible.
Even more mind-beneficial than asanas is the practice of pranayama (breath regulation). Our rishis made the vital discovery that breath corresponds to thought. Our minds are generally unsteady since our breath is irregular and shallow. While we cannot check the incessant flow of our thoughts, we can regulate our breath. Through regular practice of different pranayams (breathing exercises) such as anulom vilom, which involve deep, conscious breathing, our breathing slowly becomes steady, and so do our minds. Also, pranayams aid better oxygenation of the lungs and thus all cells of the body – result, all organs function optimally. Regular practice of pranayams for even ten to fifteen minutes every day keeps the mind-body machine robust, boosting immunity.
However, to realise the full benefit of Yoga – the ability to remain focussed on one’s highest goal at all times – one needs to also imbibe certain mental attitudes. Rishis evolved different conceptual techniques to control the mind like Pratipakshabhavana. It means to consciously cultivate opposite positive thoughts whenever a destructive or negative thought occurs in our minds, regarding ourselves or others. When we do so, we feel instant calm and relief. This method reminds us that other options exist, and our negative thought is based on our past hurts. It allows us to begin changing damaging thought patterns.
Another important attitude that yoga advocates and which is pertinent today to fight COVID-19 is the niyama of Ishwarpranidhaana – surrender to a higher reality. Ishwar signifies the universe. Yoga urges us to believe that this universe is both benevolent and meaningful. It also reminds us that our egos, intelligence, knowledge, etc. are limited. So it makes sense to place our faith in a higher reality. Such faith induces a strong, positive and affirming state of mind.Lockdown is ideal time for both the uninitiated and those familiar with Yoga, to delve deeper into its riches.
Here’s the list of some basic asanas and pranyams which you should try:
Asanas: Tadasana, Konasana, Vajrasana, Parvatasana and Shavasana
Pranayams: Anuloma viloma, Ujjayi, Brahmari, Sheetali and Sitkari
(Munmun Ghosh is a certified yoga instructor and a yoga practitioner for past 25 years. She can be reached on email@example.com)