How Yoga Can Support us Through the Coronavirus

As Europe becomes the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic and the USA declares a national emergency, here in Hong Kong, we have been living with COVID-19 for more than six weeks. Schools are closed, as are all public leisure facilities. Many people are still working from home, coping not only with managing their own workload but also with supervising their kids’ online learning. Establishing a work-life balance is challenging. We are all acquiring new technology skills and the learning curve is steep. I have been delivering yoga teacher training via Zoom as well as trying to run a primary school of over 1000 students via the internet. We are fatigued and feel isolated and many of my colleagues and friends are close to burnout or in danger falling into depression. Since late January we have been on a roller coaster of emotions, including shock, frustration, anxiety and fear. Stress is on a scale previously unknown to most of us and we have to dig deep, drawing on our resilience and sharing our coping strategies. At a time when we need human contact the most, we are advised to minimise it through social distancing.

I am grateful for the fact that this period of isolation has coincided with a time when I am delivering yoga teacher training. It has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on and apply the teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra to help make sense of the emotions I have been experiencing. I have developed a deeper understanding of how the five Kleshas of ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and fear of death, drive our suffering during this crisis. I have also found time to reflect on how we might use the Brahmavihara of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity to help us to move away from self-centredness and focus on the experience of others who may need our support.

For those who are not attracted to yoga philosophy the practices of asana, pranayama and meditation represent a powerful set of tools to enable us to overcome negative emotions and move from a place of fear and anxiety to a one of inner peace. Long days spent at home provide a perfect opportunity for us to begin a new practice or explore and deepen an existing one.

From a physical perspective, with many gyms, leisure centres and yoga studios closing around the world, asana practice can be done anywhere, with minimal equipment. In fact even those without a mat can engage in a few seated postures to find relief from the hours spent working hunched over computers. Youtube and platforms like Glo make instruction accessible to all.

Those of us with an established yoga practice understand how life is better when we are practising regularly. We sleep better, we eat less junk, we have more energy, we think more clearly, we worry less, we feel more well-disposed towards others and we cope more successfully with anything that life throws at us,

Over the coming days and weeks I will explore further how yoga, in its many forms, can support us through this time of uncertainty to help us to create positive experiences from what may be for some one of the most challenging times of their lives.

How Can Yoga Free Us from Suffering?

Buddha declared, birth is suffering, death is suffering and our very existence is suffering. Since Buddha’s time the world has become a safer place, with less war and conflict, more material wealth, better health and more social freedom. Yet despite this we seem eternally dissatisfied and stressed.

Evolutionary science helps us to understand why, in the modern world, humans are hardwired to be anxious and fearful, are biased to negativity and subject to cravings. -see my post Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition. Everyday life is full of difficulty, loss, and heartbreak, over which we often have no control. Our innate negative bias leads us to dwell on these problems, no matter how small, creating a spiral of negative thinking, which can consume us. The average human has 12,000-60,000 thoughts each day; up to 98% of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday and as many of 80% of them are negative thoughts. Our naturally anxious mind can spin impending disaster, shame, guilt, fear and regret from the most innocuous of happenings, creating negative scenarios that we play like mini-movies in our minds, over and over again. These responses only serve to increase and compound our suffering further.

Without the support of modern psychology or evolutionary science, our ancient Indian ancestors, already had a good understanding of the mental patterns the all humans experience. They sought to explore and put names to these concepts. Yoga developed as a set of tools to help overcome these mental patterns and ultimately put an end to human suffering. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers us a blueprint to break free from human despair.

According to Patanjali, the five Kleshas are the causes of human suffering. The first Klesha Avidya is the source of all suffering, the parent from which other Kleshas are born. Avidya is sometimes defined as ignorance and refers to an incorrect understanding of the nature of things brought about by our warped perceptions. Life is an accumulation of things, thoughts and experiences that we identify with along our journey. Once we have identified with these things, thoughts and experiences, we can no longer perceive life the way it truly is. Our perception becomes fogged and we are unable to see things clearly; we instead perceive life the way it is necessary to do so (or we perceive it is necessary to do so) for our survival. Unless we can create a space between our own perceptions and the real world, we will never see things as they truly are.

Through the eight limbs of classical yoga, Patanjali sets out tools to enable us to create this space, in the form of physical and mental practices, which will rid us of despair. Yoga can ultimately provide the mental clarity we need to help us to separate out our perceptions of the world from the way they really are. Yoga enables us to see suffering for what it really is, beyond our control and compounded by our negative bias and warped perceptions. Yoga practice creates in us an awareness in each moment, a stillness and an understanding that the lens through which we look at the world is just that, a lens and not reality. Through cultivating this awareness, we create the distance and clarity we need to end our personal suffering.