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Andy Willner explains how to quiet your mind’s fears by employing the breathing techniques used in yoga, which help to balance the nervous system and can help us overcome our anxieties. Photo: courtesy of Andy Willner

Yoga practices to ease coronavirus fears: breathing and meditation techniques that calm your emotional state

  • Beyond flexibility, balance and strength, yoga can help quieten mental chatter and deepen spiritual awareness
  • A yoga expert explains techniques in breath manipulation and balancing of the nervous system that help to quell fears and anxieties

It can be difficult to not feel anxiety and sometimes panic over the coronavirus outbreak, with the onslaught of updates on news and social media. But if we pause for a just a moment, we can discover ways to quieten the din and live at peace. Yoga offers another path, a fresh perspective with which to deal with events that are beyond our control.

I took my first yoga class more than 20 years ago on holiday in Hawaii when I worked in the finance industry. My business partner’s wife was going to the class and suggested we join. I thought it would be boring but, though I considered myself pretty fit, I found the asanas, or postures, rather challenging. My interest was piqued.

Like many people, I came to yoga focused on the physical benefits I could expect: greater flexibility, balance and strength. Through practice over time, the much broader benefits became clear. I experienced healthier emotional states and even deeper spiritual awareness.

I discovered many aspects of yoga beyond the poses that enhance my quality of life, and share two of them here.

Through yoga nidra you can experience healthier emotional states and even deeper spiritual awareness. Photo: Shutterstock

One of India’s most celebrated texts, the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”), is the story of a discussion between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna.

While the scene in the story is an actual battlefield, the importance of the story is how it can be interpreted to mean the battlefield within each of us – the constant battle between our fears and desires. This text covers several different, but overlapping, types of yoga, but I want to put the spotlight on “karma yoga”, the yoga of action.

Wall art of Arjuna as a warrior and Krishna as a charioteer. Photo: Shutterstock

The Gita calls us to act without focusing on the fruits of our actions, merely to act without selfishness and with detachment from the results.

The medical personnel on the front line of the coronavirus battle, who put aside their own fears for their personal safety to help others, exemplify karma yoga. Like theirs, our actions should come from a place of centredness where we use our intelligence and discernment to find the best course of action – without being distracted by fears and anxieties.

One of the most popularly quoted verses in the Gita is “yoga is skill in action”, but some may wonder how to achieve this calm, selfless state of being in which our emotion of fear does not overwhelm our thinking.

One of the most simple breathing techniques is deep conscious diaphragmatic breathing. Photo: Shutterstock

Modern-day science helps us to understand the workings of some yoga techniques that have stood the test of time. The key to finding peace and tranquillity can be found within our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which acts largely unconsciously and regulates our respiratory system, among other things. Two key branches of this system are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – responsible for the fight or flight reflex, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – responsible for the rest and digest reflex.

To stimulate the PNS to reduce anxiety and relax, we can use yoga techniques that act on the vagus nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen. Research has shown that different forms of “pranayama”, or breathwork, lead to greater vagal tone, to balance the ANS.

As you breathe in, your heart rate generally speeds up, and slows when you exhale. The greater the difference between the inhalation and exhalation heart rates, the higher the vagal tone and the more readily your body can relax.

Andy Willner took his first yoga class more than 20 years ago. Photo: courtesy of Andy Willner
One of the most simple breathing techniques is deep conscious diaphragmatic breathing – or belly breathing – while slightly constricting the opening of the throat.

While inhaling, the breath first fills the lower belly, rises to the lower rib cage, and moves into the upper chest and throat. Called “ujjayi”, or victorious breathing, it is typically performed with an inhale-exhale ratio of 1:2.

The inhale is through both nostrils with the exhale through the left nostril only, by closing the right nostril with the thumb. Begin by inhaling for four seconds and then exhaling for eight seconds, ensuring that the breathing is smooth and even. You may want to practise for five minutes to start, and build up gradually. Done correctly, this technique can both energise and relax the body, as you begin to meditate.

In recent years there has been significant progress made in understanding the benefits of meditation, especially the forms that focus on loving kindness and compassion.

In the book Altered Traits, psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Richard Davidson offers a compelling overview of meditation’s benefits – including greater control over our emotions, developing goodwill and understanding, boosting our immune system and our physical and mental health.

Even novice meditators can experience significant benefits, though it requires an enormous commitment over many years to develop long-term sustained changes to brain activity.

The people teaching special needs yoga and making it accessible to all

A form of meditation that is particularly helpful for calming the nervous system is “yoga nidra” (yogic sleep), a mindfulness practice performed lying down, in which the body is completely relaxed.

Studies have shown its benefits in US army veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in health care workers suffering from physical and mental exhaustion, in stressed-out college students, and in seniors with depression, among others. There are many online resources to guide those who want to practise this at home.

Techniques that encourage breath manipulation and help to balance the nervous system can help us overcome fears and anxieties, whether they relate to the current coronavirus outbreak or indeed any challenging situation. Keep calm and breathe on.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How to breathe easy in the most challenging times