COVID-19: Yoga Practice Offers Stress Relief Despite Pandemic

Kristina Murray, 32, poses in a crescent lunge with eagle arms after teaching a Sunday morning yoga class.

On a bright Sunday morning in September, in a shady spot down the hill behind Lemon Hill Mansion, Kristina Murray bowed her head to the students in her outdoor yoga class.

“Take a moment to notice how your body feels after our hourlong practice,” Murray said. 

Her students then started to stand up, stretch, and roll up their mats from the grass.

Murray, 32, teaches a yoga course on Sunday mornings in Fairmount Park. In 2019, she received her certification to teach yoga and had been teaching classes part-time at the now-closed Yoga Movement Sanctuary on Girard Avenue. When COVID-19 hit earlier this year and state officials ordered gyms and yoga studios closed, Murray could no longer teach in-person. 

She had been looking forward to a career as a yoga instructor, but with most of her classes canceled, she found herself stuck. 

“I was subbing at the Yoga Movement Sanctuary for about three months before COVID happened, and the studio immediately stopped working,” Murray said. “They didn’t really transition things online.” 

Still, she was determined to keep working, and looked for ways to continue her practice online as well as outside. 

Led by Murray, a group of students practices yoga behind Lemon Hill Mansion on Sunday, Sept. 13.

She tried to offer classes wherever she could. She began by teaching two classes on her own, one on Zoom and one outside, asking participants to donate whatever they could for each class. When Yoga Movement Studio eventually went online as Your Movement Sanctuary, she took on two classes, teaching them over Zoom. She now rounds out her schedule by teaching gentle yoga for seniors over Zoom for the Cheltenham Adult School

“I was so new at teaching,” Murray said. “I knew that I wanted to, just like, kick in my entrepreneurial spirit. I didn’t want to lose the momentum that I’d gained.” 

Yoga is well known for relieving anxiety and stress, but it also can assist individuals suffering from depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and PTSD, according to reports from Mental Health America

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to move through the United States in March, millions of people found themselves isolated, working from home, and managing heavy levels of stress. A report from the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics found that a third of Americans show signs of depression and anxiety and that those conditions have been amplified since the pandemic. 

“You can learn enough to begin to calm your mind and body down and it can really let go of all the anxiety that’s building up,” Larry Mangel, a yoga instructor who co-founded Shanti Yoga and Ayurveda, said.

Yoga has been a staple of Murray’s life for several years now. She began using it as a form of therapy after an automobile accident. 

“I had a therapist that I was working with who actually taught me to breathe,” Murray said. 

Murray had a traumatic brain injury, and the therapist taught her how to use her breathing to calm down whenever she began to feel overwhelmed. 

“He was like, ‘Just take five minutes to breathe,’” she said. 

After using yoga as part of her therapy, Murray discovered her love for the practice and the benefits it offered for those struggling with anxiety. 

“I have anxiety and I used to be medicated with several medications,” Murray said. “When I hit about 30, I was just like I don’t want to do these anymore. Between yoga, meditation, and breathing and then changing my diet, I’ve been off of any sort of medication for quite a long time now.”

Mangel believes in the connection yoga practice offers specific techniques for relieving anxiety. 

Murray poses in a graceful handstand after her morning class. 

“Something as simple as just breathing through your nose and breathing deeper into your belly,” Mangel said. “It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which totally begins to take away all the cortisol and all the adrenaline based in our reactions.”

Colleen Kropp works as a yoga instructor for Philly Power Yoga, a studio that immediately went online when the virus arrived and still remains virtual. 

Kropp has encouraged friends and family to take up yoga during the pandemic because it helps alleviate feelings of discomfort and anxiety. 

“I’ve always found it problematic, especially now, when you attend the class and the instructor says, ‘Leave your baggage at the door,’” Kropp said. “I don’t think that that is helpful. I don’t think it’s productive.” 

Yoga can give people the tools to face troubling circumstances head-on, she said.

“I think it should be a means of letting you work either alongside these really complex thoughts, feelings, experiences,” Kropp said. “Just, like, working through it and alongside it, rather than, like, banishing it to the corner.”

Yoga cannot only calm the mind, but it can also work as a physical aid during a pandemic, according to a 2020 report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. All yoga practices use deep relaxation, releasing tensions and stressors, making the immune system stronger against bacteria and viruses, reported the NCBI.

If an individual is experiencing anxiety magnified by the pandemic, Kropp recommends therapy. However, therapy is not always the most affordable option, she said.

“People are realizing that they need to do more for their mental health and wellness,” Kropp said. “And I guess to put it plainly, therapy’s really expensive. So yoga can at least be an entry point to kind of work through some stuff until you can afford a therapist.” 

Given the benefits of yoga, Murray has found it important to try and keep bringing her practice students, despite the barriers of online instruction and social distancing.

“I have had to completely change my teaching style,” she said. 

Students follow Murray and practice their Downward-facing Dog Pose.

Kropp explained that the lessons taught in yoga can go beyond the mat, and can help with potentially uncomfortable situations that arise in daily life. 

“Sometimes being able to take a single deep breath can give you that moment of pause to then respond in a way that’s a little bit more productive or healthy for you and the people that you’re interacting with,” Kropp said. 

Murray acknowledges that starting yoga can be intimidating for new students, especially given the way yoga practitioners are presented across social media as already healthy and thin, seemingly perfect. 

“You don’t have to be super flexible to do yoga,” she said. “Anybody can do yoga, you just have to find a good teacher who can show you how to make the pose work for your body.”

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