Long Covid from a Yoga Philosophy perspective
“The purpose of achieving equanimity through yoga is to diminish suffering” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Aphorism 2, Chapter 2
Yoga as a mind-body practice is defined as samatvam, balance at both mind and body levels, thought to be achieved through the mastery of the mind, chittavrittinirodhah. In Yoga, illness and disease may be defined as an imbalance. Cikitsa means to recover balance and balance is viewed as key for optimum health. Yoga views true health as a reflection of all aspects of the person; mind, body and soul.
In Yoga the universal source of energy is known as prana. The concept of prana as a vitalising life-force is traceable back to the Vedas (c. 1200-1000BCE). Yoga has been working with the energy systems for thousands of years to create balance and wellness in the body. Energy drives every process of our body at a cellular level. From a yogic perspective all the symptoms of Long Covid can be viewed as depleted energy or an imbalance of prana; mental and physical.
In the PanchaKosha, the Kosha model is considered a holistic lens through which to view the person as a whole, encompassing five-fold aspects of our existence as five layers or sheaths, from the physical body, annamaya kosha, to the soul/spiritual body, or anandamaya kosha. Working with the Koshas allows us to work on a subtle level, accessing different points of entry most appropriate to the individual.
It may be challenging for a person experiencing acute anxiety to begin exploring the mind, manomaya kosha, however, if we explore annamaya kosha, the body, using movement to lift mood, and breath to soothe the nervous system, alongside sleep and diet, this can positively impact the underlying anxiety.
This system is especially beneficial to individuals suffering with a variety of symptoms. ‘The more symptoms being displayed, the gentler the holistic intervention needs to be’ (Chaitow, Bradley and Gilbert, 2014).
Restoring balance to the systems of the body can be achieved via pranayama, or breathing practices. A key benefit to working with the breath is the effect both physiologically on all the body systems, and psychologically, as the breath has the potential to lead to steadiness of the mind chittavrittinirodhah. Prana is a system of five vayus governing physiology, energy and the capacity to emanate energy. Prana, located at the heart centre, Hridaya, the centre of all the nadis or energy channels of the body. It is the most significant of these vayus governing all areas of the chest including the respiratory mechanisms and blood circulation.
Yoga philosophy informs that blockages granthis or knots, within the nadis may form due to ill-health in the physical body.
The chakra system in Yoga teaches us that without a stable foundation at the root chakra, muladhara, we may resist change and feel disconnected from the physical body. Balancing of the root chakra to create grounding, stability and a healthy relationship to fear is essential preparation for working with Long Covid populations.
Associated with the element, air, working with the heart centre, will be beneficial to Long Covid populations as the heart chakra is linked to the thymus gland, which generated lymphocytes that assist optimal immune function. The chakra system in Yoga teaches us that without a stable foundation at the root chakra, muladhara, we may resist change and feel disconnected from the physical body. Balancing of the root chakra to create grounding, stability and a healthy relationship to fear is essential preparation for working with Long Covid populations.
The Bhaghvad Gita teaches that suffering arises when we do not understand, accept or take responsibility for action in alignment with our dharma, or purpose. This philosophy of engagement with life calls for us to be fully present to experience as a means of alleviating suffering. Through a process of svadhyaya, self-inquiry, Yoga invites exploration of suffering, or dukkha, via greater awareness of Self or atman, via our vasanas (tendencies) and samskaras (habitual patterns).
When working with Long Covid populations we will encounter people who are suffering, and whose lives have been altered. In acknowledging the transformative nature of pain and illness, yoga can help facilitate a process whereby the very relationship to life changes to lessen the experience of suffering and heighten well-being (Sullivan and Hyland Robertson, 2020). Despite the clear benefits of diagnostic label in accessing rehabilitation services, this may also serve as a cue that creates an illness identity for the sufferer. The yogic philosophical perspective of illness can allow a shift in identity assisting individuals to reconnect with who they are outside of their illness experience.
The third core concept of the Gita is the path of meditation and self-reflection. This is of particular relevance for Long Covid populations due to the stress reducing and resilience building benefits of regular meditation practices (Habersaat et al. 2020). Meditation and mindfulness practices can be a great starting point in re-framing what arises in the mind, body, mind and in our relationship to external experience.
The global pandemic reminded us as a society that we are unable to control everything in life and for many this has exacerbated fear and feelings of vulnerability. Fear and anxiety keep us in the ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ state. We create samskaras around certain identities we attach to ourselves, for instance as a ‘helper’, or carer, or perhaps by attempting to control what is ultimately out of our control. This can manifest in exhaustive patterns of behaviours or unhealthy coping mechanisms used to avoid the underlying emotion.
Addressing this process involves awareness and acceptance of the physical and mental experience of symptoms, and the meeting of these states with self-compassion or ahimsa. The individual can then begin to explore with curiosity, ways of operating that may help or potentially hinder the healing process. Yoga philosophy teaches us to become comfortable with change and impermanence, parinama, and through exploration of letting go and release, the underlying knots can dissipate helping energy flow more effectively. In moving towards dukkha (suffering) and pain we can open our hearts more fully to all our feelings.