Handling stress has never seemed more paramount. The past year was a real test of our autonomic nervous system. Stressors seem to come at us from all directions. There is stress from work, finances, politics, racial injustice, concerns over climate change, aging family members, illness, and so much more. Then add a pandemic to the mix, and it is stress overload. On top of that, the information about all these stressors is coming at us 24/7 through our digital devices, and we simply can’t get away. Even worse? One of our greatest coping mechanisms – connecting with others and socializing, has been all but nonexistent over the past year.
And what is the result of all of this?
Fatigue, for starters. We’re tired. But we’re also sick, at great numbers, with chronic illnesses from autoimmune disease and diabetes to cancer and heart disease. We weigh more than we did before the pandemic, and obesity continues to be on the rise. Mental health illnesses like anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, and many people feel hopeless or lost.
Honestly, I experienced the same thing myself. We had just moved across the country, and I’d taken a job in a local clinic. Then came coronavirus, and my clinic no longer needed me, and I wound up spending all day in a new home, by myself, within a new neighborhood. I also no longer had the income or the sense of purpose I cherished.
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I watched the news, felt the stress, and wondered what was happening in the world.
I struggled to focus and get any projects done. My joints ached, and I felt tired.
I tried desperately to free myself of it.
I went for long walks, got out in nature, tried to meditate, wrote in my journal, and watched comedy to find laughs.
But I still felt the stress. Daily.
Luckily, I remembered something that always makes me feel better. Something that gets me to breathe deeply, focus my mind, find inner strength, and appreciate the moment.
Online Yoga: Virtual Activities during the Pandemic
I had dropped my regular yoga practice when I moved and hadn’t yet picked it back up. When I opened an email from my old favorite studio, the sensations of peace and stillness came flooding back to me.
THIS is what I need!!!
The one great thing that did come out of all of this pandemic is we have been able to stream and download so much more than ever before. And so, I found some online yoga classes that looked good and began doing them a few days a week.
In the mornings, I did yoga, and I felt peace and calm throughout the day. The sense of nervousness died away. I was able to focus and even finished the projects I had started several months ago. My energy improved. I began to feel like myself again.
And so I increased my yoga to almost daily and woke up every morning to some form – sometimes it was strong and flow-y, a good Vinyasa class (my favorite!), other days it was therapeutic, and I breathed my way through a peaceful morning. Some days we danced and shook our booties, and I discovered that taking myself out of my comfort zone brought joy, laughter, and adventure back into my life.
And even better? My joint pains melted away! I began to feel more energized and stronger. Yoga was my anti-inflammatory medicine, and it was working!
The Anti-Inflammatory Benefits of Yoga
My findings are not atypical for a regular yoga practice. Yoga has been shown to break the cycle of stress and lower cortisol levels. In as little as ten days after a regular yoga practice, participants saw a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol levels. Even better, the feel-good endorphins also increased in this same period, leaving people feeling happier and less stressed.
Yoga Reduces Inflammation and Lessens the Risks of Chronic Conditions
Importantly, yoga has not only been shown to reduce inflammation, but it also decreases inflammatory transcription factors such as (nuclear factor) NF-KB, which can then down-regulate entire inflammatory cascades in the body.2 Whole inflammatory pathways with far-reaching effects in the body are turned off as a result! In fact, in one study, after eight weeks of yogic meditation practice, it was found that 68 genes were expressed differently, which affected pro-inflammatory cytokines. This was found in highly stressed people and helped decrease their circulating inflammatory markers and reduced their sense of stress. As inflammatory pathways contribute to most chronic conditions, yoga is an important tool that can be used to reduce this inflammation.
Yoga Contributes to Cardiovascular Health
Interestingly, yoga can even affect the cardiovascular system and inflammatory markers. In just three months time after doing yoga 6 days a week for 1 hour, participants saw improvement in lipid panels – elevations of beneficial HDL and decreases in the dangerous LDL cholesterol, along with decrease in inflammatory markers hs-CRP and TNF-Alpha.
Yoga Helps Alleviate Rheumatoid Arthritis
And what were the results in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers after just eight weeks of a regular yoga practice? They were found to have significantly lower inflammatory markers such as TNF-alpha, IL-6, and CRP. Importantly, they reported a marked decrease in pain and joint stiffness and also noted fewer depressive symptoms.
This seems to be exactly what I experienced!
My lesson here is that yoga is a beneficial tool for lowering inflammation and helping support us in times of high stress and uncertainty. It was just the tool I needed to get me back on track during the pandemic, and I am happy to say I continue to practice it regularly.
Yoga comes in many different styles, levels of difficulty, and experiences. Through focusing on the pranayama (breath), poses (asanas), using meditation, and forcing us to be mindful at the moment, can help down-regulate our hyperactive autonomic nervous systems and re-focus us at the moment, leading to many long-term health benefits.
Yoga is a powerful tool with many proven benefits, and it’s here anytime we need it.