The New Normal || Healing breath: yoga and meditation in our era of anxiety

The New Normal is a four-part series that explores some of the ways our lives have changed as a consequence of Covid-19. As we edge towards a return to our familiar patterns of life, we are beginning to understand that our lives have changed forever, but not necessarily for the worse. Part 3 of the New Normal calls on us to take a deep breath and immerse ourselves in the mental and physical benefits of the ancient practices of yoga and meditation.

Across our nation and our planet, in incalculable numbers, people of all ages, genders, racial and religious origins are undertaking ancient rituals to momentarily liberate themselves from the demands of their work, their family and the anxieties of our current dilemma.

Depending on their means and culture, they may be adjusting their laptops, tapping an app on their phones or just dialling in a deeper consciousness.

Sitting cross-legged or lying on the floor, their hands may be open, palms up, finger and thumb touching, their lips slightly apart and the lids of their eyes gently resting.

They are practising meditation and yoga, just as people have been doing for the past 5000 years.

The voice they can hear asks them to breathe mindfully.

Inhalation and exhalation. These are the two fundamental steps for finding balance in the midst of chaos.

Each breath is a silent affirmation, held for a moment before the long slow letting go, the release, the surrender, the tender expulsion of unwanted and unnecessary thought, a subtle freeing of the mind.

Breathing is life. When a child is born, all you want to know is that it is breathing.

The first cry of that child is the first expression of the ecstasy of life.

When someone you love stops breathing, the grief that may last a day or a lifetime begins.

When people are experiencing anxiety attacks, suffering injury or trauma, going through childbirth, preparing for some urgent endeavour, our constant advice is to control your breathing, "take a deep breath", calm down, breathe in, breathe out.

Breathing is life.

In the era of Covid-19 we are beset by strange many-headed paradoxes.

To save our communities we had to disconnect and be 'alone together'. For most of us, our homes became a congestion of children and partners, working and learning environments, centres of care and provision.

And yet the longer we locked down to protect ourselves and our families, the more we threatened our futures, our jobs, our economic security, our sense of well-being.

We are being ushered back to work and some semblance of a normal life, not with gusto, but with extreme caution and trepidation.

We believed we were strong, but we find we are always fragile.

Breathing is strong, but Covid-19 hits hardest at our lungs and respiratory system.

It makes the breathing of the infected weak, and for more than a quarter of a million people across the globe it has stopped their breathing altogether.

We are living in an age of extreme anxiety, and this brings with it risks to our health.

We are led to believe that the pandemic originated in China, and while there is suspicion and a laying of blame in that direction, it is just another paradox that so many of us are looking towards that part of the world for a way of dealing with this threat to our well-being.

Through the practice of meditation and yoga, we seek to find a better connection with our body in our everyday moments and create a stronger awareness for how our emotions influence our behavior.

Yoga actually means union of breath and movement.

We breathe in, hold, and breathe out.

Your breath is your home, your sanctuary.

Bio-scientist Dr Gal Winter Ziv.

Bio-scientist Dr Gal Winter Ziv.

University of New England bio-scientist Gal Winter Ziv says that while there is a certain stigma of mysticism attached to yoga and meditation, the fact is that these practices make perfect sense at a scientific level.

"Yoga and meditation are ancient practices, but science is only now beginning to understand the wisdom of it," Dr Winter Ziv said.

"Science is now in a position where we can use procedures like brain scanning and imaging to detect the areas of the brain that yoga and meditation actually affect."

"We now know that particular areas of the brain deal with stress phenomena and other areas are associated with cognitive behaviour such as decision making, learning and memory.

"Brain imaging is indicating those who practise meditation and yoga have increased activity in those areas.

"Conversely, the scanning of those areas of the brain associated with survival and emotional responses, like anger, fear, sadness and aggression reveal a lower level of activity, and consequently help us to be calmer and more relaxed about change.

"In times of stress we tend to fall back on reflex responses, but yoga and meditation can disconnect us from those patterns and allow for a re-framing of the brain."

Mandy Lord is a yoga and meditation instructor at her Tamworth studio Grounded. A long-distance runner, triathlete and personal trainer for three decades, she said she initially did not did appreciate the holistic benefits of yoga and meditation.

"I resisted for a time. I felt I was too busy and too involved in my own exercise and training.

"However, I realised that I was already using a type of mantra, a repetitive phrase, to help me through the difficult parts of an event, to help take my mind off a hill climb or the tough part of a half marathon, and a friend encouraged me to look more closely at yoga and meditation."

Grounded: Yoga and meditation instructor Mandy Lord.

Grounded: Yoga and meditation instructor Mandy Lord.

Now, a meditation and yoga instructor, Ms Lord is guiding her pupils to channel their awareness into themselves rather than focusing on the external life.

"I do a body scan, guiding those in the class to specifically focus on certain parts of their body," she said.

"The idea is to get people's attention on their bodies and so get them into the present and away from outside thoughts, to have a break from engaging with their external lives, to not be too busy in the head.

"In reality, all we can be sure of is the minute we are in. Every single second of the future is hypothetical.

"We have no control over it, and if we surrender to that idea, we will be calmer, and being calmer is good for our health.

"The more we practise doing this, the more we begin to learn to let go of the need to control, let go of our ego, let go of that 'it's all about me kind of thing'.

"We can learn to come back to ourselves and be really present when the world gets too hard and we get distressed.

Ms Lord says the idea of yoga and meditation is to get all the benefits of calmness.

"We know that stress has a detrimental affect on our health and what we are trying to do through meditation and yoga is combat all of that to reduce our stress hormones.

"You sleep better, you relax more easily and you will just be happier more generally.

"Science can now measure those benefits. What all those monks, and gurus and Buddhists have been saying for years is true.

"Your breath is your home, your sanctuary."

Read Parts 1 and 2 of The New Normal

This story Healing breath: yoga and meditation in our era of anxiety first appeared on The Canberra Times.