Thursday, March 19, 2020

COVID-19, Yoga, and Community Care: Summary of Discussion with Jivana Heyman and Amber Karnes

by Patrice Priya Wagner

A few days ago, I joined a group of yoga teachers and students to hear Jivana Heyman, Accessible Yoga's Executive Director, and Amber Karnes, Founder of Body Positive Yoga, speak on yoga in these challenging COVID-19 times. Like many other events these days, this event took place online (on Facebook) to reduce any possible spread of COVID-19 to audience members.

I was aware that many more people were listening than I'd witnessed for similar Facebook Live events, and with less than 24 hours advance notice. The feeling of wanting answers and reassurance about weathering this storm was almost palpable, albeit digitally. What follows is a summary of most of what Jivana and Amber shared with the Accessible Yoga Community Facebook group, and you'll find more in-depth coverage of the topics on our blog in the coming days. You can also hear the talk from start to finish here.

After a centering meditation, Jivana began the conversation by pointing out how appropriate yoga practice is during these challenging times. He reminded us that community is the essence of what we're doing; when we teach yoga class, we're building community and connecting outside of our individual self. But, he shared, he feels tension right now. "How can we do that when we're being told to isolate? It's hard to feel connected in this time. It speaks to something that is at the root of yoga, which is that we're all intimately connected yet we're all separate. I think about that dichotomy, or paradox, that yoga is an inner spiritual practice, but somehow we need the community to do that. There's this tension between the individual and the communal, and it is really interesting to consider."

So we can consider that right now: how we can be together even if we may be alone, physically. We can be together in that. Jivana went on to say, "If we're all at home isolating, it's kind of nice knowing that other people are doing it, too. It doesn't feel as lonely to me when I know everyone is in that same place now."

Another thing that comes to mind, Jivana added, is that yoga speaks to the fact that illness, disability, and death are part of life and factor into what we are teaching, especially when we teach Accessible Yoga. We discuss approaching illness, disability, and death in a more conscious way.

Anyone on a spiritual path needs to consider their mortality and their relationship with death and fear of death. It's a key feature in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the fifth klesha, which is fear of death (abhinivesha). It's a basic fear in humans, Jivana continued, and normal to feel that fear, and it's recognized in the yoga teachings for what it is. The Bhagavad Gita says that even a little bit of the practice of yoga can remove fear.

Another way to remove fear is to build faith, not faith in something outside of ourselves but in our true selves, the sense that there's always something inside and that part is always okay. The more we connect to that place, the more can deal with fear in our lives.

According to Jivana, the human experience includes illness, disability, and difference, and maybe the world is learning a little about that right now. He also acknowledged the work that the disability community has done, in particular to wake us up to the concept that illness, disability, and death are part of our normal life.

Amber Karnes then shared that even though some of us might be scared right now, we're all in the same boat and together in this. She talked about the importance of thinking about people who are most vulnerable, and said that she cancelled her classes and trainings to be mindful of them. While this pandemic is impacting yoga businesses, it's important to do what we can, individually, to help the community.

Amber spoke about the issue of healthism at this time. There is a personal responsibility that we need to take to keep ourselves healthy. But she continued, "It's important to remember that health is not a barometer of worthiness. It's because we have inherent value as humans. In yoga we talk about that inner connectedness, consciousness that we all share, atman—that is why we deserve respect and care. Health is not guaranteed to us even if we're doing all the right things."

How can we be of service as yoga teachers? Amber said we have tools and resources to share that much of the world does not have, such as the tool of teaching people how to down-regulate their nervous systems. In addition, we have the gift of how to use the breath to self-soothe, which is really important at a time when we have a 24/7 news feed of tragic information. While it's important to stay informed, give yourself breaks, remember your own practice, and engage in self-care.

Amber offered some practical tips in practicing self-care for people whose daily activities have been put on hold and have time on their hands. These include hydrating, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from news stream and social media, getting fresh air, taking walks, doing your practice. Make a list of all the resources available to you in case you get anxious and need reminding that you have your breath, movement (even if that's just your eyeballs), a voice to sing, a community to connect with, and more.

A crowd-sourcing document called COVID-19 Resources for Yoga Teachers is being developed to share resources within this community. Anyone may suggest a resource they know of, and editors can add that information to the document as it evolves.

If you're thinking of taking your classes online, Amber will be offering a separate webinar in the future about practical tools to do that. She suggests starting by informing yourself about tools like Zoom, Google, and FaceTime, and says, "It may be messy and difficult at first but start using these tools now." She recommends connecting with people and testing it out with them, especially folks who are isolated right now.

Jivana concluded by reminding us it's important to release the anxiety and stress that builds up these days. He admitted to dancing around the house when he needs to! Amber agreed, and stated she feels the world has shifted on its axis and the way we live our lives may be very different for a while. As humans we need to find balance in our lives, so if you need to watch some funny cat videos on YouTube, do it!

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.   

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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