The COVID Shift – Part 1: Disruption, Trauma, and Yoga
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | April 16, 2021
(Part 1 of a 3-Part Series)
I taught my last in-person yoga class before the shutdown on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. It was my regular weekly gig which I’d been teaching in the same venue for nearly 20 years. As we all hugged and said our goodbyes, we reassured each other that it was temporary and we’d be back together in a few weeks or, at worst, months.
Later that week. I taught my last in-person workshop. It was about using yoga to address anxiety, depression, and trauma. We had a really sweet group at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). While things were certainly heating up, little did we know how important understanding yoga for trauma recovery was going to be – we were standing on the precipice of a massive, worldwide, protracted traumatic experience.
I remember feeling sort of serene. Okay, there’s this storm coming, but we can handle it, we got this. No big whoop.
I was in denial – which is a typical, initial response to trauma – a very human behavior in the face of overwhelming situations and emotions (not just a big river in Egypt).
So, what is trauma exactly and why does COVID fit in this category?
My favorite definition is from Judith Herman’s classic book, Trauma and Recovery:
“Psychological trauma is an affiliation of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.” (Herman, 1997)
COVID fits. Particularly in terms of losing control and connection.
Now we seem to be tentatively bootstrapping ourselves up and out of this mess – and there’s an accompanying increasing sense of agency. But as we emerge and start to survey the damage, we are beginning to witness the effect on health.
Studies have shown a decline in physical activity during COVID. Which makes sense – trauma prioritizes survival. The focus shifts away from contemplative, executive function (thinking, planning, future visioning) towards survival thinking and behavior.
Watching the news and eating become urgent. Exercising or doing yoga, not so much. Why bother? We’re gonna die.
One of the most insidious health aftershocks of the pandemic is the protracted lack of physical activity. This behavior, en masse, has increased the burden of chronic disease – which was already an increasingly urgent problem before the pandemic began.
“Addressing COVID-19 means addressing hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, and cancer. The aggregation of these diseases on a background of social and economic disparity exacerbates the adverse effects of each separate disease. COVID-19 is not a pandemic. It is a syndemic.”
Mental health has also been a victim here and it’s important to note that depression actually belongs to the chronic disease category.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled depression a leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.
Over the past year there’s been an unprecedented uptick in mental health issues, as well as substance abuse, and suicide.
While we’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, things like doing yoga may not be on the radar of those folks who are in survival mode. If you are a teacher and you’ve seen a decrease in attendance to your online or in-person classes – you’re not alone.
The reason is trauma.
But as nervous systems begin to settle – there will be an increasing demand for yoga – it will be understood (consciously or unconsciously) as an important component of the trauma integration process. In the coming months and years, more and more people are going to be drawn to yoga to help them integrate their trauma and develop greater resilience to cope with future challenges.
Even though folks know they need more activity, getting barked at in the gym may feel too overwhelming for many at the moment. Yoga can offer folks the opportunity to start to become active again – in a non-overwhelming, trauma informed way. But yoga offers a lot more than activity and we can use it and teach it explicitly as an important tool for trauma integration.
Yoga can help people:
- Make space and time to contemplate and unravel the trauma survival wiring that was laid down during the past year.
- Make space and time to rethink their lives, their values, and what’s important to them.
- Rethink their relationships – to time, to money, to each other, to animals, to the earth, to their higher power.
- Think about the future differently – not just as an extrapolation of the past but as something potentially very different – more sustainable, more humane, more inclusive, more compassionate, and kinder.
COVID has been an unprecedented disruption and an unprecedented trauma – and that means it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 next week!
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