When the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, Silvia Diaz-Roa started a 10-minute daily yoga routine to get a break from the demands of graduate school and running a startup.
“I am at my desk in this chair for at least 12 hours a day,” the New Haven resident says. “Having this thing I know I have every day puts me in a better place mentally and physically. It puts me in a place where I’m not working with my head. I’m working with my body.” Diaz-Roa and her mother, who lives in Colombia, follow a YouTube yoga instructor through FaceTimevideo calls. They chat briefly before and after the yoga practice. “The biggest benefit is having the social connection with my mom,” she says. “It helps me stay connected to my family, since they’re so far away.”
Living through the pandemic — and the loss, upheaval and stress it brings — contributes to increased rates of anxiety, depression or both, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yoga lowers stress, anxiety, depression and blood pressure and is good for the heart, according to multiple scientific studies. But if you think yoga is just for fit, young, beautiful people, think again.
“Doing some yoga is really perfect for where we are right now because you don’t have to go somewhere and you don’t need special equipment,” says Robin Kirsche, 65, a certified yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist who has been teaching yoga for nearly 35 years. “When I first started doing yoga in 1981, my first class was in an old farmhouse on a carpeted floor. There was no such thing as a yoga mat. I wore my sweatpants and a T-shirt.”
For several years, based on training she received from Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote the book on reversing heart disease, Kirsche ran the yoga component of a former heart disease reversal program at Griffin Hospital in Derby. Ornish’s research found a link between hostility and anger and heart disease, so Kirsche taught people yoga and mindfulness to lower their stress levels. Practicing yoga helps the body self-regulate, which triggers the body’s immune and nervous systems to help it relax and cope with stress, anxiety and pain, the Farmington resident says. “These practices were not being done to make people more fit. They were being done for the reason yoga has always been done — to center the mind, calm the emotions and to free oneself from negative emotions.”
We all know the pandemic is a chronic, uncontrollable source of stress. Byproducts of the pandemic — anxiety, bereavement, sleep deprivation, financial strain, illness, overwork and relationship discord — can have a biological impact on the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress, says Sarah Lowe, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “When it’s constantly activated, it has negative effects on our immune system and physical health, in addition to impacting our mental health. Yoga and meditation can help calm down our physiological symptoms in a way that’s mental health promoting,” she says.
Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates muscles to become less tense and lowers the heart rate and blood pressure.
To those already stretched to the breaking point who feel they can’t add one more thing, Lowe says, “I totally get it. I feel that way too. I’m working, taking care of a kid, trying to cook dinner. You can start small; it could be five minutes a couple of times a week. You don’t have to take a 50-minute yoga class.”
While practicing yoga poses provides several physical benefits, the stress reduction comes from centering in the moment, breathing fully and opening the mind and heart, Kirsche says. “Yoga shouldn’t be painful, [but] it can be challenging. … ‘I’m really working hard to be in this pose and there’s a part of me that just wants to quit. I can do this, and I can do it safely.’ That’s a good place to be.”
Diaz-Roa is finishing dual master’s degrees in business administration and public health from Yale University while running her startup company. “I’ve had many more stressors the last few months compared to the months before that,” she says. “Now, with work, school and winter, I think the benefit of doing this yoga routine when the semester started is that I was able to maintain a healthy mental state that otherwise would have declined. Having that stability has really helped.
“Any time I’m feeling like things are overwhelming, I remember, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get it done today; there’s always tomorrow.”
Yoga, which means “to unite,” is a spiritual discipline focused on bringing harmony between the mind and body. Yoga incorporates deep breathing and a meditative state, says Robin Kirsche, a 30-plus-year yoga instructor, which matter more than perfecting a pose. Here are a couple of basic pointers.
Start small: It’s better to do yoga 10 minutes a day than one hour weekly, says Kassandra Reinhardt, an Ottawa-based yoga instructor with 1.27 million subscribers to her “Yoga with Kassandra” YouTube channel.
Be comfortable: Flexibility doesn’t matter. When breathing in through the nose, do so slowly and deeply for about four seconds. Focusing on breathing encourages a meditative state, triggering the relaxation response.
Yoga’s many benefits
Research shows that yoga holds promise in helping people with the several mental and physical health challenges and risks, including anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer (treatment-related distress), osteoporosis, scoliosis, stroke, psoriasis, chronic pain and weight loss.