International Yoga Day is celebrated on June 21 every year. But this year, things are a little different as the world struggles to deal with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The good thing, though: Yoga can be done from home.
In his message on the sixth International Day of Yoga, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said due to the coronavirus pandemic, the world is feeling the need for Yoga more than ever. “If our immunity is strong, it is of great help in defeating this disease. For boosting immunity, there are several techniques in Yoga, various ‘asanas’ are there,” he said.
For most of us, the last few months have been stressful and hard. But for some, yoga and workouts at home have been a saviour. Studies have shown that yoga, in particular, can work wonders when it comes to soothing the body and calming the mind.
Vikram Kolmannskoga, meditator, psychotherapist and Professor of Gestalt Therapy and his partner Daniel Gjerde, a yoga teacher, told us the what role the pandemic can play on our mental health and how yoga can be an important tool in these uncertain times. Vikram and Daniel live in Oslo.
How did your journey as a yogi start? How has your life changed since you started?
Daniel: My journey started in 2005 in London, when I took my first yoga class. I felt so large and open. In 2011, I took my first yoga teacher training. Meditation has really been my core practice using different tools I have learned over the years. Meditation helped me explore my mind. My inner world is a very different environment these days than 10 years ago. This I believe is the same for everybody, as everything changes, but I do recognize that I have chosen and are constantly trying to choose the direction of my mind, with the tools that I have learned.
How has yoga helped you during the pandemic? Would you recommend that others give it a try too?
Daniel: Yoga and meditation have helped me during the lockdown and the pandemic. When we suddenly are in the midst of a situation like this, then there are many things we can do which are helpful. I took online training with my teacher. I practised almost daily– breathing and different meditations. I practised physically challenging yoga and even yoga Nidra for sleep, which is a kind of guided meditation.
I would definitely recommend others to practice. It helps us get a clearer idea as to what is more important in a given situation and wisdom kicks in. To sit with ourselves in our mind, especially during this pandemic, when we are more physically alone, is very difficult. But can we find some kind of joy in what is challenging? This is something yoga can teach us through physical yoga practice, asana. Can we be in an asana or pose that is challenging, observing the movements in the mind without reacting? Yes, this feeling of being challenged can be translated into joy!
The lockdown has been an immensely stressful period for most. Mental health is a serious issue across the world. How have you coped with it?
Vikram: It is easy to live in a trance or illusion. The reality is all of us will die; death is one of the existential truths. I think the pandemic was a real reminder for many of these truths. This can be very frightening and difficult to accept. But this can be a moment of awakening: How do I really want to live my life here and now, knowing that my life will end? What is the most important thing to me, knowing that we will all at some point fall ill and die? I chose to further cultivate wisdom and compassion. I am grateful that I had had years of meditation practice.
During lockdown and the pandemic, I think it is easy to over-consume news about the pandemic and feed fearful and stressful thoughts. Daniel and I are generally very conscious of what and how much we ‘eat’ in this broad sense.
Daniel: Yes, I believe it has, or actually I know it has. Being aware of what you take in through your senses, that is yoga. This can be helpful when the mind wants to hold on to negativity, it works as a tool. By meditating, you might find the mind getting calmer.
Can exercise and yoga really help mental health?
Vikram: Gestalt therapy – the form of therapy I practise, teach and research – has some intersections with yoga, and the founders practised yoga and zen. Awareness is both a method and a goal of gestalt therapy. While certain therapeutic forms are primarily concerned with thoughts and talking, gestalt therapy is a holistic approach to the person and personal experience. One can be aware through and of bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts and sense impressions.
Can yoga be a substitute for other forms of workout, especially gym workouts? We’re in the middle of a pandemic when most gyms are shut. Can yoga thus be a more accessible form of working out especially now?
Daniel: I would not say it is a substitute. It is different. A lot of the physical yoga we experience today is taken from gymnastics. Yoga is very strengthening and we get more flexible and more open. This happens physically and energetically and mentally at the same time. If you want to build muscle, it is not a substitute, if you want to lose weight it is not a substitute. We can get stronger and we can lose weight, but that is not the main focus in yoga. What we do get which you might not get in other forms of workouts, is the effect it has on the mind.
For most, it is going to be tough to reach a yoga trainer now, amid a pandemic. What tips do you have, in that case?
Daniel: I would, of course, suggest, to find a teacher you connect with, but these days, you can find a lot of stuff online. I suggest to just start somewhere, not worrying about if it is “the best”, just start doing it. Everything works out. As time goes you might find other teachers and practices that are more useful for where you are in your practice at that particular time. In fact, I will be teaching a live meditation class for thirty minutes each week from August. You can get the details here.
Vikram, what do you suggest people should do to deal with the panic and uncertainty that the pandemic causes?
Vikram: First of all, I really believe in the importance of normalisation. Much suffering is due to the fact that one thinks one is alone or going crazy. Anxiety can be a very normal reaction to an abnormal situation such as the pandemic, so there is no need to stigmatise yourself or others. And some anxiety, existential anxiety, is something that gestalt therapists believe is natural since life always entails uncertainty.
Hundreds of studies within the field of mindfulness – which includes yoga practices – indicate that mindfulness is effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. It can be helpful to stop engaging in worrisome and catastrophe thinking and focus ones attention on what one can see, hear, smell, taste, and sense here and now – whether one is doing asanas or not. Very simple breathing may be calming, such as extending and focusing on the exhale. A kind touch, such as placing your own hand on your belly or chin, may also help. Many may find it helpful to visualise a loving and safe person or place.
This interview is part of our series #YogaTalks where yoga enthusiasts who have built a community, share with us their experiences with yoga during the pandemic.