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Iyengar News Practice Science Yoga Studies

March 4, 2020

Yoga at the time of coronavirus

Chiara M. Travisi

Just ten days ago we certainly would not have expected to be in video classes because of a health emergency that, although on the horizon, we perceived as distant and not concrete. Far from wanting to enter into the merits of the situation in general, as a practitioner and scholar of Yoga I think that this experience can be an opportunity to reason about the usefulness of this discipline.  At the time of the coronavirus, what should we use Yoga for?


These days all of us, more or less, have found ourselves thinking about the epidemic in a psychological condition of concern, anxiety or even fear and panic. From the point of view of Yoga we should ask ourselves: where does a just and responsible concern (that makes us assume dutiful and responsible behavior to protect ourselves and others) and where does an excessive proliferation of negative thoughts about the coronavirus begin?  Are we lucid or are we victims of cognitive bias that make us, for example, feel sick already?


In his very brilliant and very modern description of vrtti (the fluctuations of the mind) Patanjali (YS I.5-I.11) describes the functioning of cognition (city) dividing it into five key moments: the process of acquiring information from the outside world through the sense organs (pramana); their interpretation (viparyaya); their categorization (vikalpa); their storage in the plexus of cognition or mind (citta). Pramana is the acquisition of information through the sense organs (direct or indirect). Viparyaya is the moment in which city interprets the information that comes from the organs of perception. Vikalpa is the conceptualization, that is the categorization of information from the external world that, according to Patanjiali, are divided from city to unpleasant (dvesa) or pleasant (raga) and, consequently, put in oblivion (nidra) or memory (smrti). The moment we again encounter situations/experiences already categorized as dvesa (unpleasant) or raga (pleasant), we would feel feelings of repulsion and attraction, respectively.


Let’s try to imagine how vrtti work in the current situation.  The information "from the world" about the conoravirus comes pounding in the form of images (people with masks, field hospitals, closed schools) and speeches (interviews with virologists, infectionists, politicians, as well as speeches from bars and hearsay). Our city (cognition/mind) elaborates them and categorizes them without delay as dvesa (unpleasant) and interprets them as experiences to be forgotten and avoided by any means (nidra). The more we receive coronavirus-related stimuli (classified as dvesa), the stronger the sense of repulsion and concern. So far, nothing negative, since we need this mechanism (and it has served us evolutionarily) to avoid dangers and potentially harmful situations. The problem is that this same mechanism, if oversized, can also lead to cognitive bias and illusions. In other words, we may inadvertently enter into an oversized state of alert, such as to activate excessive and unjustified states of anxiety, until we believe we are sick and even perceive the symptoms of the disease (such as respiratory difficulty). Viveka, our discriminatory capacity, fails because of an over-production of anxiety-related thoughts related to negative experience that we connect to the virus (albeit still hypothetical). In the same way, we could look with suspicion people of Chinese nationality (or coming from Northern Italy) because we have associated the virus to their geographical origin. Of course, this would also mean a total lack of discriminatory capacity.


Now, even if these emotional states are generated by illusions (or fears for hypothetical events not yet happened), the bodily states they generate are absolutely concrete: pulse acceleration, increased cortisol, difficulty breathing, confusion, etc. In a word, hypochondria. And it is here that the Yoga bodily practices can immediately come to the rescue. In fact, before being able to "objectify" the mind seeing its functioning (and the succession of the 5 vrtti) - which requires constant training in this interesting Patanjialian perspective - but we can mitigate the state of anxiety and mental confusion with the body exercises typical of yoga techniques (yoga-asana and pranayama) working on the "symptom" rather than the trigger cause, which will be addressed more gradually.  So, all the practices of yog-asana and pranayama are welcome, whether they are more passive or more active. The more passive practices - for example, pranayama practices focused on exhalation, forward positions with support for the forehead or supine positions of anterior chest opening - inducing a slowing of the respiratory rhythm, contribute to mitigate physiological symptoms due to emotional stress conditions. Similarly, more active practices - for example, performing asanas as performed in Iyengar yoga (ie with a constant engagement of attention and concentration) - train discriminatory ability (viveka) that can act without the background noise of subjective thoughts. In fact, they distract the mind from the anxiety-inducing thoughts of the contingent situation, on which we have only a small margin of control.


In this regard, it is also worth rethinking the concept of parinama. In a nutshell, in the vision of the Yoga Sutras (and the contemporary ascetic and philosophical traditions with which the text dialogues) everything is becoming (parinama), interdependent (samskara) and out of our control, arduous (tapas).  Reality and most phenomena - from the smallest and insignificant to the most complex - are not in fact under our complete control, even though we mistakenly believe that they are and we act as if they are, with the consequent psychological frustrations (dukkha).

Similar principle is found in other polysemic philosophical traditions, from Buddhist yogachara to Roman stoics, although with different shades. For example, the Buddhist pratitya-samutpada (origin-dependent), emphasizes the Buddhist notion that human cognition tends to an incorrect view of reality (it does not see the infinite and uncontrollable interdependencies or permanence) and analyzes the rise of dukkha (suffering) as a psychological process.

The Greek and Roman Stoics (Epittetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, etc.), on the other hand, make this idea even clearer. The life experience is in fact bipartite in things and phenomena that depend on us and things that we cannot control. We only control our individual behavior (for example, the health precautions we are taking at the moment) but the results of these are beyond our expectations. We know where we throw the arrow but not where it will land, to quote a famous metaphor that we find in the Diatribe of Epittetus.


So, what to do?

We practice Yoga at the time of coronavirus not only in the belief that its bodily practices can help strengthen our immune system and support our physical and mental health in general.  We practice Yoga at the time of the coronavirus, also and especially out of the mat (which for many these days remains rolled) beginning to do a work of observation on our cognition (city). We begin to look at our mental processes (and emotional states) as spectators, objectifying them. The exercise will certainly be interesting and we could, in addition to reducing anxiety states, also get genuinely passionate about the method proposal of our Patanjiali.

To conclude, let us also remember that the ultimate goal of Patanjialian Yoga is the breaking of the process of personification that makes us say "I am" and that separates us from others.  Samadhi and Kaivalya mean exactly that. Reflecting on this in these moments can only be a strong invitation to solidarity and to take responsible and dignified behaviour against panic.






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