Jamie took a noisy breath through her sequined mask. As we finished our pranayama, Yoga breathing practices, the elastic slipped off her ear. She deftly adjusted her mask, giggled, and settled back into her deep breathing practice. The late morning spring sun warmed the room as curtains billowed in the currents from the open window. My teen Yoga students have faced the pandemic with resiliency and accommodation.
As the girls meditated one of them sighed softly; I opened my eyes to check. Jamie’s face seemed to glow; whether it was her sequined mask or joy at taking simple breaths I wasn’t sure; however, I did know that the power of our breathing practices could not be underestimated. But there was someone missing in class that day; the invisible presence of those who are effected from post-COVID syndrome, also called COVID long haulers; people whose lives have yet to return to wholeness.
It is time for Yoga teachers and Yoga therapists to position themselves as essential workers to restore the well-being to those effected by post-COVID syndrome. Our unique skill set and personal practice in breath work is an effective and safe complement to western medicine.
An estimated 10-35 percent of people infected with COVID-19 suffer from a cluster of symptoms grouped under emerging monikers such as post-COVID syndrome or the shadow pandemic. People with this syndrome differ from individuals who suffer COVID-19 related complications like heart issues, blood clots, lung scarring, and other identifiable damage for which western medicine can treat readily. Rather, individuals—early research indicates they are often healthy, young, who had mild cases of acute COVID-19—suffer from a debilitating cluster of symptoms. Imagine walking to your car but finding your heart racing so quickly that you have to sit down right in your driveway. Or finding it exhausting to take a shower. Or going to work and feeling so in a fog that you cannot accomplish a task you usually complete easily. This has been the experience of many people, so many that researchers and doctors at Mount Sinai Health System have begun a Center for Post-COVID Care that brings together teams of specialists to help restore well-being. There is much research still needed, however we do have emerging evidence that point to breathing practices as a vital tool.
The Atlantic recently reported that one observation by the team at Mount Sinai is that the body’s infection response results in dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. In addition, they noted evidence that respiration—even in mild cases—had been altered due to infection with COVID 19. As any Yoga teacher is aware, efficient breathing occurs when we breathe through the nose with a deep engagement of the diaphragm. This stimulates the vagus nerve which in turn regulates our heart rate and sympathetic nervous system. However, the researchers observed that those with post-COVID syndrome breathe through the mouth and shallowly into the upper chest. They began coordinating with Stasis, a company designed to provide “the science of stress, breathwork, and human performance.” After a breath work pilot program that focused on coaching breathing to normal functioning patients reported “improvement in symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue…the patient’s responses were ‘gamechanging’” according to the recent article cited above in The Atlantic, quoting David Putrino, Director of Rehabilitation Innovation for the Mt. Sinai Health System. Restoring breathing functioning is a crucial first step in restoring health and preparing people to increase activity safely during rehabilitation.
But many individuals with post-COVID syndrome are falling through the cracks as western doctors continue to deal with patients with acute COVID-19. This vital link of disrupted breathing—and the opportunity to train it back into functioning— is not yet common knowledge within the scope of western medicine practice. Our western medical establishment is not adequately prepared to provide services to this ongoing shadow pandemic. Currently many hospitals have established post-COVID-19 clinics; but there are many states and cities with no post-COVID 19 clinics. To be sure, websites like STASIS offer convenient online coaching in breath work and is a good resource. However, the addition of yoga teachers and yoga therapists positioning themselves as essential workers is vital. This is our field of expertise; restoring breathing patterns to enhance physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
First, Yoga teachers and therapists need to share information about post COVID-19 syndrome; particularly the emerging research related to dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and how restoring natural breathing patterns can assist healing. This sharing can occur in whatever way we already connect to our students and clients: newsletters, social media, while simply chatting before Yoga classes. Secondly, we need to offer private or small group classes in simple and guided pranayama. To make these classes accessible we can keep them to thirty minutes and offer sliding scale rates. Third, we need to acknowledge and recognize our own limitations. If we are new teachers and have little experience with private teaching, accessible Yoga techniques, language and cultivation of inclusion, and experience with working with individuals with different needs then we need to get more training or connect with networks so that we can refer our students to teachers or therapists who have the proper skill set. Not every Yoga teacher is prepared to personally teach someone who is actively experience an ongoing health crisis; personal reflection and accountability whether to teach or refer students elsewhere is crucial and ethical practice.
Third, we can utilize technology and offer workshops where we can hold online space for COVID-19 long haulers to gather, learn, and train together towards wellbeing. And most importantly, we need to consistently engage and train in our own pranayama practice. If we do not engage with managing our own breath then we have no place in teaching these practices.
The influence of western medicine and the pandemic has been life saving. From treatment, research, vaccines, and ongoing care it has been vital. In order to treat the whole individual, Yoga offers a lovely complement. True healing is obtained when all aspects of our humanity are engaged; body, mind, and spirit. There is an intangible yet fundamental bridge between our body and spirit; our breath. By teaching breathing practices Yoga teachers not only guide towards restoration of physical functioning but towards full well-being.
As The Yoga Sutras credited to the sage Patanjali, state: tat ksiyate prakasavaranam…as its result (of pranayama), the veil over the inner Light is destroyed (2.52) This inner light may be called spirit by some or simply a deep sense of one’s own self. Whatever religion, belief system, or personal practices a COVID-19 long hauler identifies with, a skilled Yoga teacher or therapist knows how to guide breathing practices to help their student or client become more deeply connected to themselves. The “veils that cover this inner light” is a poetic way of saying that our best selves often get lost due to fear patterns brought on by illness, frustration over a disrupted life, or a dysregulated nervous system that makes daily living frustrating and lonely.
It is our duty to not only help move to restore breathing patterns but to serve our communities by helping individuals restore their connection between body and spirit. In this way, perhaps the experience of COVID-19 long haulers can move beyond suffering and into a phase of personal growth and increased resilience. The experience of managing our breath and feeling the sense of calm regulation as the sympathetic nervous system takes over is liberating for many students. Like putting the brakes on a speeding car, our breath helps us put the brakes on our runaway stress response. We have the power to influence our mind through regulating the breath.
Restoration of personal agency is crucial to serve individuals with post COVID-19 syndrome. It’s time for Yoga teachers and therapists to step into their work as essential workers and offer service to guide restoration of body, mind, and breath. Our collective healing awaits. Soon, all students like Jamie—with her sequined mask and delightful giggle—will have new partners on the mat. It’s time to restore well-being, one breath at a time.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com