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If there is one lesson that the pandemic has taught us as humankind, it is the need to go back to our roots, to go back to nature—within and without—for holistic healing and not mere treatment of symptoms.
If you are someone who has already been infected with COVID-19, a real possibility with nearly 50 million cases in the US since its onset, then you would probably know that the fatigue you experience post-Covid can painfully linger. While the medical community is trying to understand the different ways the virus impacts the human body in the long and short terms, many people are taking recourse to alternative and complementary practices for strength building, boosting immunity, and better mental health, particularly in the post-Covid stages.
While the pandemic continues to take a toll on the healthcare systems, economy, and most grievously our mental health, we are also witnessing growing resilience and fortitude among people to deal with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has thrown our way. With modern healthcare still finding its way around the treatment for Covid-19 infections, many people choose to complement their physical and mental healing with yoga, breathwork, and meditation. A Harvard study also went on to postulate that stress-relief practices such as these could work as adjunctive measures to help reduce inflammation and support immunity during these times.
Stress and Immunity
The varied pace of recovery in the post-covid period—or worrying about one’s health after being infected—can cause tremendous stress in individuals. Studies show that higher levels of stress can reduce our body’s ability to fight off foreign pathogens, making us more susceptible to recurring infections.
Specifically, stress has been linked to the strengthening or weakening of the immune cells. Studies found that in individuals who are stressed, there is limited lymphocyte (a type of pathogen-fighting white blood cells) proliferation and natural killer cell activity. There is also a relation between the duration of stress and the amount of reduction. In other words, the longer one bears the stress, the greater is the reduction in the proliferation of lymphocytes.
Stress can also push people into employing unhealthy coping strategies like drinking or smoking that can further diminish one’s immune defense. Gentle mind-body practices like yoga and meditation can help manage the stress emanating from uncertainties about one’s health, social, or financial situation.
Rooted in the knowledge from ancient texts, yoga is the union of body and mind. It brings harmony between various levels of one’s existence, much beyond just some physical benefits. The deeper essence of yoga includes a healthy lifestyle, watching the words one speaks, hygiene at a physical and mental level, staying away from negativity, nurturing values like caring, sharing, and fostering peace, and aligning oneself to nature.
Given that the Covid-19 virus affects our physical, respiratory, and mental health, yoga—and particularly breathwork—can play an important role in post-covid rehabilitation. Techniques like pranayamas and certain asanas can infuse the body with more oxygen, strengthen the lung capacity, and immediately calm the mind; all of which can support immunity by reducing the stressors in the general population. Post-yoga relaxation is very important in healing the body and mind as well as balancing one’s emotions.
Meta-Analysis Shows Pranayamas Strengthen Lung Rehabilitation
Late last year, researchers at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California did a meta-analysis of effective pulmonary rehabilitation treatments and determined that breathing exercises that strengthen the diaphragm (three-stage breathing or Ujjayi Pranayama) and stretching (asana or gentle movement coordinated with the breath) are important for recovery.
Yoga Helps Reduce Inflammations
COVID can trigger inflammation, setting off an immune-system response that kills off healthy cells. The inflammation is made worse by stress. Many of the symptoms of COVID are in fact the result of out-of-control inflammation, particularly in the lungs, brain, and blood vessels called a cytokine storm. Yoga can help reduce inflammation in general, reduce stress, relax their minds and help people breathe easier.
Yoga Helps Reduce Cortisol Levels
COVID-19 patients with extremely high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood are more likely to deteriorate quickly and die, according to a study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.
The study provides the first data to show that cortisol levels are a marker of the severity of the illness. In healthy individuals, cortisol is at 100-200 nm/L. In the study of 535 patients, it was found that cortisol levels were high in those who were COVID+. Extremely high or low cortisol levels illness can be dangerous, leading to increased risk of infection and poor outcomes.
Amongst the COVID-19 patients, those with a baseline cortisol level of 744 or less survived on average for 36 days. Patients with levels over 744 had an average survival of just 15 days. Importantly, on the solution side, research shows that cortisol levels can be reduced with regular practice of deep breathing, yoga, and Sudarshan Kriya (a soothing rhythmic breathing technique). Sudarshan Kriya practice reduces serum cortisol levels by close to 57%.
Yoga Stimulates the Vagus Nerve
Also called the wellness nerve, vagus nerve stimulation is part of mainstream treatments in healing patients with severe depression. Any practice that aids the stimulation of the vagus nerve improves the body-mind connection. In this, simple techniques like deeper diaphragmatic breathing or Sudarshan Kriya yoga have been found to activate the vagus nerve, triggering overall happiness and well-being.
Meditation Supports Melatonin Release
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm, that is your sleep-wake cycle, and has been linked with a 30% reduced chance of testing positive with the virus, according to a Cleveland Clinic study.
“Analysis of patient data from Cleveland Clinic’s COVID-19 registry revealed that melatonin usage was associated with a nearly 30% reduced likelihood of testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 after adjusting for age, race, smoking history, and various disease comorbidities,” the study mentions.
“It is very important to note these findings do not suggest people should start to take melatonin without consulting their physician,” Feixiong Cheng, Ph.D., assistant staff in Cleveland Clinic’s Genomic Medicine Institute and lead author on the study points out.
But here is why the idea is interesting. Melatonin is produced by tryptophan in the pineal gland or master gland to maintain our internal body clock. The production goes up when the sunlight is lower, to induce sleep and goes down when there is sunlight, to help you wake up. Studies have shown that meditation increases the natural melatonin in your body. A daily meditation practice for a few minutes every day can naturally support the production of melatonin for a better circadian rhythm.
A research team at the University of Massachusetts discovered people who meditated frequently had higher melatonin levels than those who didn’t. Studies also found people who meditated regularly had better REM sleep and spent more time in deep wave sleep, with stronger theta, alpha, and delta waves.
Hatha yoga, one of the branches of yoga, that many attribute their post-covid-19 healing to, has the following key components:
Poses. Asanas are a series of movements and still-body postures designed to increase strength and flexibility. They prepare your body to channel the prana or life force upwards and bring relaxation and energy. Poses range from simple to difficult.
Breathing/Pranayama. Controlling your breathing is an important part of yoga. This is one of the most powerful ways to bring the mind to a calming state of awareness. Whenever one struggles to manage one’s emotions, something that many people after covid-19 tend to deal with, pranayama or breathwork can help transform your emotional state to a more positive and hopeful one.
Meditation or relaxation. Yoga is not complete without sufficient relaxation between and after the poses. When you sit for a short meditation post yogasanas, you will find your experience of stillness is deeper and easier to get to. In fact, physical exercises and postures are a preparation for the mind and body to become one and that IS yoga.
While recovering from COVID-19, one thing that most people tend to experience, sometimes even after recovery, is physical weakness. It is recommended that individuals wait for a few days, even weeks before starting with yoga, based on what your healthcare provider recommends.
Regular practice of yoga and meditation has proven helpful in improving sleep, as we discussed earlier. Mind-body practices support melatonin release by improving the functioning of the pineal gland and the endocrine system as a whole, which helps you sleep better and deeper.
Specific Asanas for Good Sleep
In order to get back to earlier levels of physical activity, you will need to take care of both your physical and mental health. Here are a few asanas that you can practice to loosen the stiff muscles and gradually increase mobility, ensuring a steady recovery.
Fish Pose. This asana allows for deep breathing as it opens up the chest, also strengthening the spine in the process. It helps increase lung capacity, encourages deeper breathing, and helps in asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems.
Cobra Pose. This asana provides a great stretch to the neck and back muscles. It helps open up the chest to allow deeper breathing.
The Rock. This practice gives a gentle massage to the back and spine. It is necessary to bring some activity to your spine, especially if you had been bedridden for a long time. It increases circulation and relaxes the whole body. It can be performed either on a mat or on the bed.
Flapping Fish Pose. This asana relaxes nerves in the leg, thereby relieving sciatic pain caused due to limited motion. It relieves tension in the pelvis and improves digestion while giving relief from stress and tension. This asana also helps achieve the benefits of proning, which has proved to support ventilation, keep alveolar units open and assist in easy breathing.
Yogic breath. Yogic breathing is one technique that we recommend where we inhale oxygen slowly and exhale the carbon dioxide even more slowly. This will help in easing discomfort in breathing.
Skull shining or breath of fire. This practice improves your digestion and reduces gastric issues, heartburn, and constipation, helps you sleep better, and supports the production of endorphins in the system that helps improve your mood.
Humming bee breath. The humming bee breath is an excellent way to relax the eyes, soothe the mind and strengthen the lungs. It also helps alleviate symptoms of migraines and improves concentration and memory.
Alternate-nostril breathing. This is a wonderful pranayama that cleans and clears the nasal passages and increases oxygenation. It helps restore the balance of the prana (or chi) in the body and significantly improves focus and concentration. The pranayama calms the mind and alleviates insomnia while regulating sleep-wake cycles. People suffering from respiratory ailments must practice this regularly.
This is a powerful yogic nap, a 20-minute relaxation capsule where you take mindful attention throughout the different body parts, relaxing them as you go along. It is a systematic practice of moving awareness from our external world to the internal world.
After this, beginners can practice guided meditation or can learn the Sahaj Samadhi meditation for closing the loop on this 30–40 minute yoga sequence.
NOTE All asana and breathing techniques should be practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor, with the recommendation of your healthcare provider.