Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential. In these strange times, in which even some of our most balanced and collected acquaintances are feeling a little on edge, taking some “me” time is fundamental to staying well and, frankly, sane. Addressing our needs to maintain mental and physical wellbeing is not just crucial for ourselves but for those we love as well. After all, while we have unlimited love for our kids, partners, friends, and family, we can’t give everything we’ve got when running on empty. Fortunately, even if our usual morale-boosters like coffee with friends or a weekend getaway are presently out of reach, there are plenty of things we can do from the safety of home to nurture ourselves, including routine yoga practice. Carving out a bit of alone time is challenging for most people right now, but few struggle more than mums. If you have limited time (and space and energy) to allocate to yourself right now, best to make it count. And, according to research, yoga may be just the ticket.
Yoga isn’t just a flexibility-enhancing excuse to buy cute leggings (though these are also perks). It’s a legitimately useful way to boost mental and physical wellness, with benefits including immune system enhancement and stress reduction. Studies show yoga and meditation can improve conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to back pain and insomnia. An article published in July 2020 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a collaboration between Deepak Chopra and researchers at MIT, Harvard, UC San Diego, even explains yoga’s potential to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing severe effects.
Yoga & Mental Health
Few people haven’t felt the psychological effects of COVID-19 by this point. More than a year in, it feels like we’re living in an altered state akin to a never-ending hangover. Everyone has different struggles, but the collective trauma of a global pandemic, hundreds of thousands dead or permanently affected, isolation, loneliness, financial and interpersonal strains, and more, is palpable everywhere from Aldi to school drop-off lines.
COVID-19’s physical effects dominate most headlines, and rightfully so. But the psychological impact may be just as severe. Evidence suggests many survivors suffer short and long-term effects, including brain fog, depression, anxiety, and memory loss. And even those who’ve been fortunate enough not to be infected can experience similar struggles for various reasons, including those mentioned above.
The good news is, whatever you’re struggling with, yoga’s ability to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and foster mind-body synchronicity can help us maintain physical and emotional balance. Specifically, regular yoga practice can do so by reducing the production of cortisol. This stress hormone may cause or exacerbate certain ailments, including depression, anxiety, and inflammation. Over time, it may even lead to reduced cognition and memory.
Research shows people with major depressive disorders also tend to have lower levels of GABA neurotransmitters. Yoga may increase thalamic GABA levels and subsequently reduce depression symptoms.
Yoga & Inflammation
Inflammation is our immune system’s defence mechanism. It’s used to shield vulnerable areas, like a sprained ankle or fractured bone, for instance, to promote healing. However, our immune systems can, and often do, get their signals crossed. A typical example is allergies. Our body perceives pollen, for instance, as a threat, eliciting an inflammatory response that does no real good other than making us miserable for a few weeks. Worse, though, is when our immune systems attack themselves (autoimmune disorders) or go so far into overdrive as to cause severe mental or physical harm. This type of inflammation can result in or exacerbate conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and anxiety. In COVID-19, an out-of-control inflammatory reaction can cause cytokine storms, contributing to the virus’s deadly respiratory symptoms.
According to research, yoga, along with meditation and certain breathing exercises, can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokine activity. Yoga can also activate the vagal nerve complex. The vagal nerve is responsible for our “fight or flight” response to psychosocial stress and can promote relaxation, contributing to a more measured inflammatory response.
Yoga & the Innate Immune System
Yoga doesn’t only boost our health by reducing stress and inflammation. It also supports optimal immune system function by influencing the lymph complex and thymus gland, among other systems. This promotes circulation and stimulating white blood cell and antimicrobial peptide expression.
Research shows yoga can promote regular sleep cycles too, in part by increasing melatonin production. While sleeplessness is par for the course for many mums and anyone who lives with depression or anxiety, it’s not something we can afford to accept. Sleep is crucial for a healthy immune system and mental wellbeing. Without it, not only might we look and feel like zombies, but we may also be more vulnerable to illness, including COVID.
We don’t know what the future has in store for our families or communities. And it’s unclear what the world will look like once we finally settle into the “new normal” post-COVID. Realistically, it’s not even clear when we can start referring to a period as “post-COVID.” But we do know more than ever about the common enemy we’re facing and how to combat it. Likewise, the past year has taught us many valuable lessons, not the least of which is the importance of focusing on important things, including health and family. Yoga offers a way to invest in both, helping us be a better, stronger, and healthier version of ourselves so we can be our best for those we love as well. Visit the Yogaward International online yoga community and try some classes, absolutely free, to start reaping the benefits of this ancient healing practice.