What I learned isn’t just about yoga — it’s about overcoming hardship.
Two years ago, I embarked on a journey to become a yoga teacher. I needed a break from the monotony of life and saw Yoga Teacher Training as an opportunity to invest in myself. I was getting ready to move across the country for graduate school at the time, and I wanted to develop a new wellness routine and mindset before going through such a huge geographic transition.
During training, I learned the fundamentals of yoga, as well as the connection between my body, mind, and soul. I also learned how to take care of myself holistically and picked up tools to help me maintain a life of wellness. Needless to say, the 200 hours I spent training over that one month was a transformative experience. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I felt calmer and more grounded, as if I’d been handed countless strategies to use should life ever feel like it was too much.
Fast forward two years later and life does feel like it’s too much right now. The panic and anxiety brought on by the pandemic and the need to socially distance feels crippling as an HSP. I’ve found myself leaning heavily on some of these principles more than ever to stay grounded and sane.
Whether you regularly practice yoga or you haven’t tried it yet, here are five lessons I learned from Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) that help supplement my time on and off the mat. I hope in this time of crisis, they help you find moments of tranquility.
Five Yoga Techniques to Help HSPs Handle the Pandemic
1. Check in with yourself — often
During training, our instructor would leave five minutes for freestyle yoga at the end of every session. The extra time gave us permission to “Take what you need” by stepping out of the guided practice to really check in and ask, “What do I need right now — in this moment?”
During this time of uncertainty, I am finding it helpful to check in with myself and let go of any preconceived notions about normalcy because, quite frankly, nothing is normal right now. As an HSP, some hours I need quiet so I read a book, while other moments I need an extended break from the overstimulation of my phone, and sometimes I crave something social — yes, really — so I call a friend.
I am giving myself permission to create a new normal, one that is guided by moment-to-moment check-ins free from judgment. I listen to what I need because those needs change as rapidly as the situation outside my door. I try to remind myself that this too will pass, but for now it is okay to go with the flow and trust the process as long as I really listen to myself.
2. Put kind, nourishing things in your body
The menu for our entire month at Yoga Teacher Training included homecooked, plant-based meals prepared by students who worked in pairs. This unique component of the experience taught me how to be mindful of what I put inside my body. It helped me realize that highly sensitive people are especially sensitive to the food we eat — and it affects how we feel. At YTT, we ate plant-based meals to fuel us through the day, and even though I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, I noticed that I felt lighter and more energized.
I have carried this mindfulness into social isolation, and found that I feel better when I regularly incorporate fruits and vegetables into my diet. I am seeing this as an opportunity to experiment with cooking new veggies, trying new fruit, and eating at home more, especially now that many restaurants are closed. Furthermore, the emphasis during YTT was not on a particular diet, but on the idea of eating foods that help us feel optimal, both physically and mentally. Focusing on putting kind, nourishing things in my body also means I can acknowledge and accept when I just need a cookie — or three.
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3. Create moments of authentic connection
The month-long yoga teacher training was with women I did not know. But as we practiced yoga together, took turns cooking our family-style meals, sat side-by-side in solitude, and challenged each other to grow and learn better lifestyle habits, that changed. By the time training was over, we had evolved into a close-knit community.
While the reality of social distancing means we cannot gather with those we love, the unique ways we were able to form community during YTT remind me that I can be creative with communicating, even if it’s virtual. I can share a new recipe and cook with a friend through FaceTime; I can set up an hour to connect with a few other artists via Zoom and create in silence together; or I can create prompts and start a writing challenge with friends via email.
As an HSP and introvert, I am used to being indoors and value alone time. But social distancing is alone time on a whole new level. Connection keeps us grounded to our community. And I see it as an opportunity to share my superpower with others when they might have difficulty to their new reality.
4. Just breathe
One of the key principles of yoga is simply to breathe. As someone who experiences unwelcomed bouts of anxiety, I know this is easier said than done. Great yoga teachers constantly remind their students to return to their breath, as it is the foundation of the body- mind-soul connection that yoga aims to tap into.
Two breathing techniques I use to help calm my mind and body are called ujjayi and alternate nostril breathing. Ujjayi is a yogic deep breathing technique that “warms” the breath and calms your entire body. Alternate nostril breathing has a similar grounding effect and, according to Healthline, may help improve lung function and respiratory endurance. These techniques are easy to do — you can learn more about them here and here.
On days when I am feeling particularly anxious, I practice yin yoga, a slow paced style of yoga where poses are held for a longer periods of time. The slower pace helps me focus on filling my lungs and returning to a deep, natural flow of breath. There are plenty of yin yoga classes online (this video would be a good starting place), so if you’re feeling particularly anxious, consider trying one and making it an integral part of your weekly practice.
All of these methods can help everyone, but I think the effect is especially potent for highly sensitive people. HSPs tend to be affected by even the subtlest tension in the body — which means an equally subtle practice, like breathing, can make a big difference.
5. Get grateful
The biggest lesson I am practicing now from YTT is gratitude. I have created a simple isolation gratitude challenge where I write one thing that I am surprisingly grateful for each night. I focus on something surprising because it challenges me to step out of my comfort zone of standard gratitude. It helps me pay attention throughout the day to small moments of joy and notice things I may have overlooked.
Four days ago, it was a letter I received from a friend in the mail. Yesterday, it was a long lost shirt I found while decluttering. When anxiety creeps in, I acknowledge its presence and slowly shift my focus to what I am grateful for. As HSPs, our emotions are more vivid, so we likely feel this moment in big ways. Shifting that anxious energy, when it pops up, from worry to appreciation can help.
Like everyone else, uncertainty is my new reality. I do not know how much longer we will be isolated from our normal lives, when things will go back to normal, or if they ever will. However, as long as I am healthy, I can practice these lessons from YTT.
You can, too. It’s possible to shift your perspective and view this forced stillness and pause in the world as a gift. Perhaps it’s even an opportunity to repurpose, recalibrate, and move closer to yourself through the mindful, calming techniques of yoga.