The Unwanted Stress Experiment
We all agree: It’s been a crazy year and a quarter. Ever since the World Health Organization declared Covid to be a global health emergency in March 2020 and communities around the world went on lockdown, we’ve been living in “a fascinating laboratory,” says Rudy.
Here’s what this experiment looks like: “Upset everybody. Add isolation, grief, anxiety about getting the virus, recovering from the virus, losing a loved one to the virus. Also, add in anxiety about employment and finances and take away people’s routines.
“Then see how they do.
“Even if you’re among the more fortunate,” Rudy continues, “and you still have work, food, safety and security, if you’re staying at home and you’re masking up when you go out,” pandemic living is still “upsetting, unbalancing, and disturbing.”
According to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of American adults who have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder has quadrupled during the pandemic, in comparison to those who reported the same symptoms in the first half of 2019.
Mental Health Benefits of Gentle Yoga
Yet, through it all, the Gentle Yogis community has been meeting online for a daily “Gentle Breath Practice/Chair Yoga” class—and together, they have been discussing the mental health benefits they’ve been reaping from the practice in detail.
Every morning at 8 a.m. Eastern Time, Rudy leads an average of 70 students through a half-hour sequence: six movements of the spine and five pranayama, (breathing practices). After the class, there’s optional community time where people can share and ask questions.
“Sometimes the conversation is about the practice, sometimes it’s about yogic technique,” he says. “Other times, it’s about the challenges of life, or loss, or what we’ve learned along the way.”
Rudy says that students who attend often say things like, “I still get affected by things, but I’ve got more emotional resilience. I’m able to come back to center. During my day, when something that used to really upset me happens, I’m able to bring myself back to center by bringing my attention to the breath.’”
This makes sense. Because on a scientific level, yoga and pranayama help us activate the parasympathetic (a.k.a. “rest and digest”) branch of the nervous system, so that we can let go of stress and relax. Once we know how to flip the nervous system switch, we can consciously activate the “rest and digest” response, even during stressful times. And over time, less stress leads to better mental health.
What Gentle Yogis Students Say
As Gentle Yogis student Lynn Morrissey observes, “In this sangha, people from far-flung places breathe together with joy. Our troubles, anxieties, fears, and tedious tasks don’t vanish, but we start the day with a new outlook—‘full of possibilities,’ as Rudy says.”
Another student, Susie Brubaker, says, “The pranayama practice with Rudy has a twofold effect in helping me navigate life’s ups and downs. When expectations run high and my stomach is in a knot of self-doubt, the breathwork releases my diaphragm [breathing muscle] and the physical tension of expectation dissolves.
“On an emotional level, this results in radical self-acceptance. It is a truly new experience. Learning self-love through pranayama helps me navigate those rocky waves.
“Also, the purity of practicing the asanas [postures] with the breathing exercises is so beautiful. Nothing else brings me home to a deep place of peace. I can use these practices as my compass whenever I need to come back to my center.”
And, as Gentle Yogis participant Linda Henderson observes: “Over the past year, I’ve dealt with a physical injury, mental stress, and ongoing emotional strain from the pandemic—from getting my children home safe from other countries during the first wave to feeling the need to keep everyone safe all the time. While my work doubled, my family’s work subsided or ceased, causing financial and emotional stress for us all.
“The daily classes with Rudy and Joyce have provided a sanctuary for me to calm my mind, ease my breathing, recover gently from the injury, and to be part of a caring community—a space where everyone can open their hearts.
“This has been a tremendous help in my overall mental health. I hope the class will continue to evolve, because we will continue to need Rudy and Joyce and what they have created for a long time to come.”