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Despite isolation, yoga keeps people in community

The sky was pitch black, but Hannah Slocum was on the move. Rolling out her purple yoga mat and cueing a new playlist, she turned on her Zoom camera and led a yoga class to the rising sun. 

Slocum’s 6:30 a.m. virtual class via Yoga off East drew six online participants. Even her mother tuned in from Massachusetts. It felt like much of the world was still asleep as the sky turned from pink to blue. But Slocum, bright and attentive, slowly guided her students through each movement. Her instructions: “do whatever feels good in your body this morning.” 

With over 36 million people practicing yoga regularly in the United States, the mental health benefits of yoga are proven. According to Yoga Alliance, 86% of people in the U.S. who practice yoga said it reduced their stress; 67% says it makes them feel better emotionally.  

The global pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, by June 2020, 40% of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse.

Yoga Off East instructor Cat Rudolph breathes through an outdoor yoga session last Friday at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“The world expects us to function as is, and just keep going as is,” said Stephany Mejia, a Triangle-based therapist and registered yoga instructor. “But the reality is that our functioning has been limited—[especially] living through a pandemic.”

Through her practice as a therapist and social worker, Mejia encourages her clients to practice yoga to help them live in a moment outside of their heads, adding that “yoga isn’t about debating the thoughts. It’s about being with the body.” 

Durham’s yoga community has adapted with socially distanced alternatives to meet people where they are—at home. Most studios hold weekly sessions online.

“Yoga is an invitation to set aside judgment and inner criticism,” said Kathryn Smith, owner of Yoga off East. “It’s an invitation to meet yourself where you are without trying to fix anything.”

Aside from Slocum’s online class, Yoga Off East also holds outdoor, socially distanced classes at Oval Park.

“The whole point of a studio is to meet people where they are,” Smith said. “If people aren’t ready to practice [in-person] in the studio, we’ll meet you at home.”

Yoga Off East offers small, socially distanced yoga classes on tennis courts at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

With the pandemic’s restrictions, some independent yoga instructors created entirely new virtual studios. Shakira Bethea, an independent yoga teacher and massage therapist in Durham, began an online studio focused on community building and healing. 

Partnering with Sahaja Space, a yoga studio in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, Bethea begins each morning at 7:30 a.m. by either teaching or joining in Collective Care, a daily yoga class she began to combat stress and “bring people to their center” during the 2020 presidential election. It continued blossoming long afterward into a community of up to 15 individuals. They begin each day with active yoga poses and meditation exercises.

Bethea explained that creating a “small, virtual space” offers a collective way to alleviate extra anxieties brought on by the pandemic and current affairs. It’s a space where, Bethea said, someone can help people “take on all the fear and worry” they harbor internally and “share it so you don’t have to walk with it by yourself.”

Bethea also offers a sliding scale payment system, with monthly prices as low as five dollars.

“Once we can take care of ourselves, we can have more care and more love for the people around us,” Bethea said. 

According to Harvard Medical School, stressful situations trigger the “fight or flight response,” leaving people stuck in a trauma-based response system. 

“If we don’t regulate our nervous system, some of the consequences are chronic health conditions,” said Mejia, the therapist. 

This can include persistent anxiety and other related symptoms that have increased for many people in 2020. Mejia explained that when we are anxious, depressed, or worried, our bodies respond by increasing production of cortisol, the stress hormone. “[That] can result in a constant state of ‘I can’t calm down,’” she said.

Rudolph’s students cool down at the end of their yoga session. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, yoga reduces cortisol levels, which can decrease stress and bring relief in depression.

But achieving those benefits requires patience, a challenge Smith at Yoga Off East quickly realized the first time she practiced yoga 21 years ago. 

“I didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I remember constantly looking at my watch. I was used to having a pretty full schedule and to step outside of that and be quiet and still—I found [that] extremely difficult.”

But after a few months, Smith began to experience yoga’s positive mental health impacts. She encourages newcomers to give it a try and to let go of perfectionism, explaining that yoga includes different positions for all bodies that can shift from practice to practice.

For example, one can choose to relax and refocus in a recovery position like downward dog, and later activate the muscles in a more active revolved chair pose. Smith said that with any position or yoga session, “you can add, subtract, make it yours.” 

As the sun rose through Slocum’s yoga session last week, she asked the class: “how can you, yourself, best show up to meet these times, to meet these circumstances?” 

For local yogis, the practice is as much about self-care as it is about collective support and healing. Bethea recalled how her yoga community supported her when she couldn’t make it to class during her parents’ bout with COVID-19. They sent her homemade food and care packages and lit candles during a guided meditation while her family healed.

“There’s so much isolation right now,” Bethea said. “[Yoga helps you] remember you’re a human here having this experience.” 

For Smith, that’s the beauty of any collective yoga practice—online or offline. 

“Two people can show up at a class having different needs and walk back into the world together,” she said. 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

At top: Yoga students strike the same poses outdoors that they would make in a studio during an outdoor class. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama