Growing Through Covid-19: How Yoga Can Help us Respond Now


Looking ahead, what might individual and collective healing look like on the other side of the pandemic?

How can the teachings of yoga help us make sense of the way COVID-19 has turned our reality on its head?

How can we apply our practices of contemplation and reflective self-inquiry to gain clarity and insight into our collective and individual challenges? 

How can we use our yogic perspective to create strategies for healing, growth, and renewal?

Back in March 2020, I hosted a series of panel discussions with leaders and teachers from different yoga communities. We spoke about the wisdom and practices that were supporting us as we foster resilience and hope amid the uncertainty facing us, both individually and collectively, in the face of the global pandemic.

One of our speakers was Dr. Loretta Pyles, author of Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Changemakers, a professor of social welfare at SUNY at Albany, and an experienced trauma-informed yoga teacher.

Dr. Loretta Pyles

A survivor of Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Pyles has been involved with community-based research on disaster recovery for 15 years. She has infused this social justice-oriented work with her Buddhist and yogic sensibilities, focusing on bringing mindfulness and compassion to bear on the process of recovering and healing from the trauma of collective disasters and other ongoing assaults on communities, including poverty, violence, and racism. 

At this time of momentous and global and social change, I wanted to dive more deeply into the intersection between yogic thought and Western frameworks for collective healing. I wondered how we, as yogis, could bring the tools of our reflective and contemplative practices into the process these models provide.

Barrie Risman: What are some of the ways we can apply our understanding in yoga toward making sense of all we’re seeing and experiencing in the larger culture, and in our own lives right now?

Loretta Pyles: I think there are important resonances with yoga practice in the sense that part of our work is just to observe and notice.

One of the things I’m observing is that contradictions abound right now. For instance, we see examples of really strong leadership in various levels of institutions and governments, but we also see examples of really poor leadership. We see solidarity with people who are marginalized, and we also see disaster capitalism playing out as elites take advantage of the situation. We see extreme stress and suffering on the one hand, but also incredible opportunities for regeneration. There’s loss and grief and yet there’s incredible gratitude to be had. There’s isolation and then there is an awareness of just how interconnected we all are. Of course, these contradictions are always present, but disasters have a way of sharpening our lenses.

As yogis we understand contradictions, or perhaps we might call them paradoxes. For example, we know that in an asana, there are places where there’s strength and stability and where there’s weakness and fluctuation. We know the importance of both effort and ease. Just being able to notice and observe these paradoxes is a powerful place to work from.

Perhaps part of our work now is to observe and notice, therein preparing for future skillful action.

Most of us are uncomfortable with not doing. It’s profoundly unnerving to be confused, ambivalent, unsure, as so much is unknown. For me, my spiritual work is to lean into some of that discomfort a bit, which is what we do as yogis too—we have the capacity for that.

The deeper we’re able to understand what’s happening to ourselves and our society, the more effective our interventions and actions are going to be at the end of the day.

BR: What are the lessons and understandings from history that might support us in considering our own resilience and healing?

LP: I think it’s helpful to look at the things that our ancestors survived—plagues, floods, drought, famine. My husband’s grandfather died in the 1918 flu epidemic and that’s part of the family history. We know that people survived and people died, and there’s an ancestral trauma and an ancestral resilience there. Our ancestors have survived a lot.

It’s also important to look at how people who have experienced historical trauma such as genocide, imperialism, and slavery are impacted in this moment. Marginalized people are not only experiencing disproportionate impacts and outcomes of COVID-19, but they can be especially triggered by isolation, targeting, and willful inaction that we are seeing, especially in the U.S.

To be honest, I’m not sure yogic wisdom and action can help us with everything that is transpiring here. Sure, compassion and empathy are important, but it does require structural thinking, so this is a great time to educate ourselves in areas where we might need to learn more.

What we know about how people have survived other collective disasters is that people survive through collective solutions and collective healing. The most effective healing is always embodied. After the Holocaust, for example, there were group rituals of mourning, archiving people’s stories, and journeys of bearing witness. After Hurricane Katrina, art, music, and community festivals became really important. There are incredible creative possibilities in terms of our collective healing, and I think the yoga community can put their skills to use and play important roles.

BR: The framework of “deep adaptation” has been so useful in guiding my own inquiry around shifting the individual and collective challenges we’re facing into opportunities for growth. Could you explain what “deep adaptation” is and how we might apply it to our lives?

LP: Deep adaptation is a concept developed by a British scientist named Jem Bendell as a way to think about adapting to the climate crisis. It is a set of inquiries for living and action in a time that activists have referred to as a Great Turning. I think deep adaptation can be helpful in the coronavirus context. There are four dimensions of deep adaptation; each of them are ongoing inquiries we’re invited into. They’re relevant at both the individual and collective levels:

1. Resilience asks us to think about what we really want to keep. What is it about our lives right now that we want to keep and maintain and continue to nurture? For example, one answer to this inquiry might be technology. In this moment, many of us are aware just how amazing it is and what it can do for us.

2. Relinquishment refers to what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Yoga teaches us about relinquishment in terms of letting go and renunciation. We have the yamas and niyamas that support us on that path. For example, I’m buying less, driving less, and it feels kind of amazing. Life is better. What other things as a society do we need to let go of? Certainly some parts of the economy that are extractivist and hurtful to people and the environment.

3. Restoration invites us to rediscover the attitudes and approaches to life that we want to bring back. So that might be something ancestral, or some particular belief system about maybe intergenerational thinking, thinking about the past and the future, or it might be different ways of doing things, in terms of the way our ancestors grew food and kept a garden and were able to sustain themselves. Modern yoga is a pathway that invites us to look to ancient wisdom and apply it to our lives now.

4. Reconciliation is the need to make amends and peace not only with parts of ourselves (regrets, resentments, fears, etc.) but with groups of people that have been hurt by structural violence. In my view, this would require the creation of spaces that acknowledge harm and identify both divergent and shared needs and values. It means grappling with issues of gender, race/ethnicity, class, etc. There is some important work happening in the yoga community through groups such as the Yoga Service Council, and we have an opportunity to go deeper into that in this moment.


Perhaps, like many of us, you’ve already been reflecting on some of these questions. Considering your life over the past few months, has it become clear to you what feels most valuable and therefore important to maintain? Are there things, including ideas and perceptions, you know it’s time to let go of? Are there shifts or changes you know you want to make in your life going forward in order to live in greater alignment with your values? 

Like yoga itself, perhaps these ideas can help us respond, individually and collectively, to the changes we’re living through with greater awareness and intentionality. They can serve as an ongoing framework to guide our own inquiry and allow us to create a present and a future that continues to reflect our values and actualizes our vision for humanity and the planet.

About the Teacher

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Barrie Risman
Barrie Risman is the best-selling author of Evolving Your Yoga: Ten Principles for Enlightened Practice.... Read more