Why is coronavirus like yoga?
- Because it’s disrupting the patterns of our everyday lives.
- It’s changing our habitual behaviour.
- It’s making us question how we live.
That’s what yoga does.
If you think of yoga as a panacea for the stress in your life, the idea of yoga as a disruptive force might seem far fetched. But if you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you know it can be profoundly unsettling. It stops us in our tracks, strips away our usual habits and makes us experience ourselves in new ways. But let's back up a bit and examine what yoga is actually for.
The great sage Patanjali tells us that the purpose of yoga is to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’. Why? Because it’s the stuff rolling around in our minds - conscious and subconscious - that causes suffering. No thoughts = no suffering.
Your mind is jam-packed with ideas and beliefs that are so deeply internalised, you don’t even recognise them. Patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that you have no conscious awareness of. That’s why we keep going around in circles, struggling to get what we want in life. Our behaviour (and results) is being dictated by thoughts and beliefs we’re not even aware of.
What can you do about it? How can you change those patterns and start getting what you actually want from your life? By disrupting your habitual patterns. And yoga is the ultimate disruptive technology.
Disrupting your patterns
As a yoga therapist, an important part of my work is identifying patterns in the way my students move, speak, think, behave, breathe and relate to others and the environment. I listen to their stories. I watch their bodies as they practice asana. I observe the way they breathe. I see how they conduct their relationships.
One of the big differences between a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist is the way that we approach these patterns. A yoga teacher may notice a student has a sway-back in Warrior 1 and seek to correct it with a verbal or hands-on adjustment.
A yoga therapist works with the student to explore ways to disrupt the patterns underlying the postural habit. That process begins by asking the student to become aware of how they feel. Notice the sensations in the body or the rhythm of the breath. Become aware of the thoughts or emotions that arise when they move or breathe in a particular way. From these observations, the yoga therapist is guided by the student to explore practices that gently repattern ingrained habits.
Disrupting these patterns in the body or the breath can be uncomfortable work. It’s not easy to let go of the way we’ve always done things. When it comes to disrupting psychological or emotional patterns, it can be a bumpy ride - the brain wants to hold on to what it knows and feels safe with, even if it’s not serving you any more.
Coronavirus is the great disruptors
Coronavirus has been a very efficient disruptor of patterns. We’ve had no choice. Everything has changed very suddenly. This gives us an extraordinary opportunity to do some deep inner work. You can skate along the surface of your yoga practice indefinitely. But coronavirus isn’t waiting until you’re ready to do the work. It’s forcing us all to do the real reckoning right now.
When something truly disruptive happens, your brain becomes hyper alert. It’s looking around with heightened awareness, trying to navigate you safely through uncertain times. Many of us are projecting that heightened awareness outwards. We’re looking to make sense of our confusion by searching out narratives to explain our inner turmoil. From conspiracy theories to mistrust of the media, we arelooking for external reasons for our internal discomfort.
Yoga teaches us to turn that heightened awareness inwards. The current massive disruption to our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving gives us an unparalleled opportunity to observe the mind’s responses. Life during COVID-19 is like one, huge yoga class. We are constantly being challenged to feel and notice how we respond to the challenges facing us.
Managing your mind through meditation
Yoga is all about mind management. In our yoga therapy and meditation certification programs, we teach students to step back and notice their thoughts. We remind them that the goal of yoga and meditation is not to make the mind go blank. Neither are we trying to suppress negative thoughts. We’re simply allowing whatever is in the mind to arise and then letting it go. When we become the neutral observer of our own minds, we take the ‘sting’ out of our thoughts and can move from agitation to neutral.
If it’s too overwhelming to sit with the torrent of thoughts unleashed by current circumstances, try a thought download. Once a day, write down all the thoughts that come into your head. Then observe those thoughts on paper (it can be a lot easier than observing them in your head!) Notice the patterns. Sit with the feelings engendered by those thought patterns. Don’t think the thoughts associated with them. Just feel the feelings. Then move back into your day.
Like yoga, coronavirus disrupts our habits. It offers a valuable opportunity to learn about our ingrained mental and emotional patterns. But only if we shift our focus inwards. We can’t control everything that is going on out in the world. But, thanks to yoga and meditation, we can learn to control our responses to it.
Looking for help to manage your mind?
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.