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 Yoga Helped Me Rethink My Life After Burnout

In 2018 I began experiencing chest pain.   At first, it occurred only during meetings in my boss’s office. I put it down to anxiety and ignored it. In May 2019 though, it suddenly got worse. I was approaching my 55thbirthday, the same age my father was when he died of a heart attack. I decided to see a cardiologist and within a week I found myself in the cath lab being informed that, not only was I suffering from stress-related arterial spasms, causing the chest pain, but also despite my exemplarily healthy lifestyle, I had moderate to severe heart disease. I had held it together that week but when the cardiologist advised me too completely re-evaluate my life, I sobbed as I realised I had likely brought some of this on myself. The clogged arteries I knew were hereditary but the stress was entirely self-inflicted. The heart doc referred me to a GP who specialises in treating stressed-out executives and she diagnosed an occupational burnout, signed me off work, prescribed anti-depressants (which I did not take) and referred me to a clinical psychologist. For a few weeks that summer, the world tilted on its axis. I had never been ill before or spent a night in hospital. I was the strong and capable one who looked after everyone else. My husband was stunned, as were my colleagues and the house filled up with flowers and gifts as a constant stream of deliveries arrived. At first, I felt like a fraud, ridden with guilt at leaving my team to manage during such a busy time of the year but gradually I came to realise that I really wasn’t fit for work.

9 weeks of rest and reflection, with the support of a professional counsellor, helped me to see that the work life I had created for myself was no longer sustainable. I was to some extent broken and could not go back to the life I had been leading, with 11-hour work days and weekends spent presenting at conferences, writing articles and studying for a second Masters. Reluctantly, I decided to take early retirement in June 2020 but I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what that would mean financially and about letting go of everything that I had built professionally. 

Returning to work was hard, I tired easily and the slightest stress brought on chest pain. Despite this, it was hard to give up the extra-curricular work, withdraw from conferences and turn down exciting new consultancy offers that I had worked hard for. At the office, my team were incredibly supportive but my role carries huge responsibility, which brings significant stress on almost a daily basis.  Four weeks following my return, I suffered a panic attack at work. I thought I was having a heart attack, which was very scary for both myself and my colleagues.  It was at this point that I realised I had no choice but to walk away from it all the following summer.  My real concern was how to get through the year without reaching another crisis. At this point I was offered the wonderful opportunity to work from home two days per week. This was a game-changer, a life-saver-maybe literally- which I grabbed with both hands. Finally, I had the chance to restore my balance by removing myself from the crazy, demanding environment that I work in for two days each week and instead spend time in my pyjamas, working undisturbed, avoiding the long commute and letting someone else take the strain. 

So how does yoga come into all of this? Well maybe not how you would think. Yes of course my asana practice supported me, as it has done during all of the bad times over the last 12 years, including the death of my mother in 2010. But it is instead yoga philosophy that is helping me to begin a process of healing and re-evaluating my life. Through the teachings of Patanjali, I have been able to reflect on how and why things went wrong and consider, with optimism, how I might shape the new life that lies ahead of me. 

Through counselling and self-reflection over the last 6 months, I can see how my entire adult life has been influenced by what Patanjali calls the kleshas, the roots of all human suffering, discussed in How Yoga Can Free us from Suffering. The Yoga Sutra sets out how we have a distorted view of reality (avdiyha), where we are not able to see the world for what it really is. We over-identify with the ego (asmita) and  invest heavily in an identify that we create for ourselves, but this is a false-self rather than the true essence of who we really are. The false-self is driven by desire for and attachment to the things that make us feel good (raga) and aversion towards the things that make us feel bad (dvesa). The pursuit of the things we desire and avoidance of the things we dislike becomes the focus for our lives but also the cause of our suffering. 

Patanjali’s view of the human condition is supported by evolutionary psychology, as discussed in Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition.  As a survival mechanism, humans are hardwired to compete with but also to seek the acceptance of others. We, therefore, relentlessly pursue things that will make us feel powerful and admired, rather than small and alone and this leads to a preoccupation with the desire for status and material possessions. The acquisition of status and possessions also activates the brain’s reward system and the release of dopamine, which brings us pleasure. This pleasure is, however, biologically short-lived, leaving us to strive to experience the pleasure feeling over and over again by constantly pursuing the things that make us feel good. 

When I was seventeen and on the threshold of adulthood, I was highly skeptical that a life focused upon the pursuit of a better job to fund the purchase of a better house and a better car, would bring me happiness. Was I naïve or wise beyond my years? As with most adults, over the decades that followed, I became drawn into the trap set for me by my own biology and society’s expectations, pursuing a career and financial success as the main goal in life. Through reflection over recent months, I have come to acknowledge that, the more success I have experienced the more I have pursued. Reaching the top of my profession, has not rendered me satisfied but has caused me to reach further and work harder. The success I experienced in the last four years, in particular, had sent me into overdrive in pursuit of more admiration and status.  This brought me to a point, in the summer of 2019, where I was pushing myself beyond what I could handle, causing everything to come crashing down. 

Rather than lamenting what I have lost, I now see a new opportunity to live a life that is no longer driven by the kleshas. Instead of focusing upon feeding the ego and being driven by desires and aversions, through the pursuit of status and possessions or other short-term pleasures, I have a chance to achieve real peace of mind. According to Patanjali (sutra 1:33), this is gained through the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain. For me, the Yoga Sutra now provides a road map to a simpler life, a life where, while there will be less money and less applause, there will be more time; time for reflection and time for others. Through this simple-life approach, I can focus upon supporting the wellbeing of those around me and in turn experience equanimity and a new level of personal happiness. 

Why We Should Not Feel Intimidated By Yoga Philosophy

As yogins, it is common to begin our yoga journey on the mat, with asana practice, but many of us reach a point where we want to know more about the meaning and purpose of yoga. For some, but not all, this will come as we approach our first yoga teacher training. While we are eager to further our journey, delving into yoga philosophy can sometimes leave us feeling confused and intimidated. The language may seem inaccessible and the concepts extremely complex. Rather than opening us up to a whole new world, yoga philosophy can leave many of us feeling shut out or just plain stupid.

The truth is that yogins have struggled to unpick and unpack the meaning of the sacred, ancient yoga texts for centuries. We should not, therefore, feel embarrassed or deterred if we, as modern-day yogins struggle to understand the teachings of yoga philosophy. The principles that underpin yoga were, after all, developed more than 5,000 years ago, with the ancient texts that record these ideas dating as far back as 1700 BCE. That’s about 3,000 years before Shakespeare and we all remember how hard that was to understand when we studied it at school. To make things more challenging, these texts were written in Sanskrit, a language that has been effectively dead since the turn of the first millennia CE and is used today only in religious rituals, in literature and by scholars. Furthermore, Sanskrit is an enormously complex language, with a vast vocabulary, that may express a single meaning or object in hundreds of different ways. This renders ancient Hindu and yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutra, open to wide interpretation and the subject of much disagreement and controversy.

To make things even more complex for the 21st Century yogin, the single most important yoga text, the Yoga Sutra, written by sage Patanjali, most likely around 350 CE, is written in something called aphorisms. Aphorisms are brief statements, intended to express wisdom in as few words as possible, so they are easy to remember. The Yoga Sutra contains 196 short aphorisms- sets of phrases which leave out unnecessary words, similar to how a telegram would have been written. It should come as no surprise that leaving out key words and phrases, while allowing the sutras to be easily remembered, also makes them hard to understand. Historically, it was, therefore, common for sutras of this kind to be accompanied or followed by a more detailed commentary, probably written by another author, which contained an explanation of the meaning of the text. This commentary is called a Bhashya. The Bhashya not only explained the sutras, but also discussed issues arising from them, so that a short sutra could generate several pages of Bhashya. The Bhashya itself was, unfortunately, also often complex and hard to understand and, in due course, more authors came forward to write commentaries on the Bhashyas, sometimes over a period of hundreds of years, leaving us with commentaries upon commentaries to navigate in order to establish the meaning of an original sutra. This process leaves the meaning of the original words contained within the sutras open to wide, and often controversial, interpretation.

So the key principles of yoga philosophy are written in a language that very few people understand and are also recorded using a style of writing that renders them easy to misinterpret. After thousands of years of discussion and debate, even the most committed yoga scholars should accept that the meaning and purpose of yoga may be open to individual interpretation.

We must also take into account that yoga was developed as an approach to life and set of practices to be followed by Brahmins, an elite cast of male priests, who often lived an ascetic and renounced lifestyle outside of society. Yoga was not, therefore, originally intended to be practised by the average person, living in the material world. It was only around 500CE, with the development of Tantra, that yoga reached the householder and began to become more mainstream. Is it hardly surprising, therefore, that ancient yoga philosophy can seem inaccessible and intimidating to the modern-day yogin?

Another layer of confusion comes with the many branches and schools of yoga. It is commonly accepted that there are 6 branches or paths of yoga -Raja or Classical Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Must we treat these paths as mutually exclusive or can we practice more than one branch simultaneously? Within the Hatha Yoga tradition there is also a multitude of modern-day schools of yoga, mainly focused upon asana practice, including Viniyoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Yin, Bikram, Forrest, Jivamukti, Power and Anusara Yoga. Most of these schools have been created and passed down through a guru tradition, based on patriarchal lineage, which can often be dogmatic and, to some extent, divisive. Are we as practitioners and teachers obliged to throw our hats in with one of these traditions? If we wish to mix and match are we failing to respect the purity of the practice as it was conceived? Does this mean we are not real yogins and does it make our practice less valid than that of others?

It is important to remember that each of the traditional yoga paths and modern-day yoga schools first began and grew from differing interpretations of yoga, its purpose and practice. I would argue that there are many ways to be a yogin and to state that there is one right way is at best grossly misleading and at worse may be harmful. Recent scandals engulfing a number of modern schools of yoga are testament to this. The concept of patriarchal lineage, the passing down of “the right way” to practice has led to well-documented abuse. This abuse has, however, opened up a new conversation about how we practice, which has begun to shed doubt on the idea of yoga as a dogma and brought into the spotlight the importance of more flexible approaches to practice that suit the individual practitioner.

So how do we proceed as well-intentioned yogins seeking to understand more about the meaning and purpose of yoga? My advice is to begin a journey of inquiry, seeking to find interpretations of yoga that resonate with us and our own life experiences. Whilst we must remain humble in our inquiry, we should not feel intimidated by the complexities of yoga philosophy nor alienated by the rigidity and seemingly unattainable goals of dogmatic approaches, which are now being openly questioned. We should see yoga as a set of tools for self-improvement available to us all. As practitioners and teachers, the yoga tradition remains powerful only in as far as we can make it relevant to modern-day life and to an individual student’s life experience.  We must respect and seek to understand the philosophical underpinnings of this ancient practice but not be afraid to make it our own.