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Could yoga aid recovery from long Covid?

We probably all know, or know of, someone who has experienced symptoms of long Covid.

Since the early days of Covid-19, a certain percentage of people who've contracted it have reported long-lasting effects. Complete exhaustion, for example, and the inability to carry out everyday tasks, along with heart palpitations, shortness of breath and problems with memory and concentration, to name some of the more common symptoms.

I was interested to hear recently that yoga might have an important role to play in recovery from long Covid. According to Dr Ingrid Yang, hospital doctor and yoga therapist, yoga might be "uniquely suited to help with recovery from COVID-19".

Even Prince Charles has advised people with long Covid symptoms to try yoga.

I wanted to find out more so I spent some time reading articles, watching lectures and trying to find out what research has been done so far and why exactly yoga practices might be able to help with the condition.

In this blog, I'll share some of the potential benefits of yoga for people with long Covid.

But first, a little more background on the condition.

What is long Covid?

  • Guidance for UK health workers identifies long Covid as symptoms continuing for more than 12 weeks after an infection

  • Findings vary but according to a study published in the British Medical Journal around one third of people with Covid experience long-term symptoms

  • Surveys have identified as many as 200 different symptoms associated with long Covid though certain symptoms, such as extreme fatigue, are more common

  • It's still unclear exactly what causes long Covid. One theory proposes that fragments of the virus persist in the body even after it's no longer infected; another suggests it's an over-reaction of the immune system which causes the body to attack it's own cells.

How might yoga help

So, here are five potential ways in which yoga may be able to support recovery from long Covid and details of some supporting research.

1. Healthy breathing

Covid-19 is a respiratory virus and shallow and restricted breathing often persists in people with long Covid.

The focus of yoga on breathing (pranayama) can help to recondition the

lungs and expand the breath. This in turn is likely to have a knock-on effect on energy levels as well as the person's ability to rest and relax through deeper breathing.

At Mount Sinai hospital in New York, it was observed that long-COVID patients were

breathing shallowly through their mouths and into their upper chests. According to an article in The Atlantic, doctors at the hospital introduced a breath work program (using techniques similar to those we use in yoga) and within one week all patients reported an improvement in symptoms.

In addition, a review of post-acute COVID treatments, published in the journal BMJ last summer, recommends 'breath control' techniques to help patients work through coughing and breathlessness.

2. Decreasing inflammation

We know that one of the effects of Covid-19 is inflammation in the body and it seems that inflammation could persist in long Covid patients. Greg Szeto, an immunologist at the Allen Institute of Immunology in Seattle, and his team recently profiled five patients with long Covid and found 'hyper inflammation that persisted for months', according to an article in The Scientist.

There are many studies that show yoga helps to decrease inflammation. Yoga may also be helpful as a preventative measure for long Covid for this reason because people who are in less inflamed states when they contract Covid have a lower risk of becoming seriously unwell.

3. Gentle movement

Often people with long Covid symptoms feel too tired to do vigorous forms of exercise.

A gentle yoga practice offers a way to recondition and stretch the body, without having to work too hard. A friend who experienced post-Covid lethargy recently told me she was unable to run for some time but was glad she was able to practice yoga.

Yoga poses can also aid respiratory function for people who's breathing is compromised. As Dr Ingrid Yang notes, prone poses such as Locust can be especially helpful.

"Lying prone helps to recruit collapsed or poorly utilized alveoli that may not otherwise facilitate adequate oxygen exchange due to poor positioning and gravity", she says. This is especially true for those who've been bedridden in hospital with Covid.

4. Managing anxiety

Of the stories I've heard from people with long Covid one thing that strikes me is the anxiety they share about when/whether they will feel normal again.

Here yoga has a role to play with managing anxiety and coping with uncertainty. At times when we feel overwhelmed, yoga helps us to turn down the volume on fearful thoughts and find a space where we feel safe and at ease.

Many yoga practices tap into the body's parasympathetic nervous system (or rest and digest mode) so we can access a physical state of relaxation. The more we do it, the more natural it becomes for us to enter this state.

Yoga also allows us to be with ourselves just as we are, to accept rather than resist our present reality. It helps us to treat ourselves with less judgement and greater compassion. This can make all the difference when we are going through a difficult time.

5. Deep relaxation

This last point is not specific to people with symptoms of long Covid but rather applies to anyone who is experiencing long-term illness or fatigue.

When we're feeling unwell, one of the hardest things can be our inability to do anything to help ourselves because we're feeling too tired. Sometimes not even gentle movement feels possible. But the beauty of yoga is that it doesn't have to involve movement.

Yoga Nidra (guided deep relaxation) can be a powerful tool in healing from any illness because it doesn't require us to do anything, simply to get into a comfortable position, listen to the instructions and drift into a deep state of relaxation.

In this state of deep relaxation, we access our natural capacity for healing. Even if we don't understand on a mental level quite where that healing is needed, we can allow the intelligence of the body to do the work for us.

The ability to practice Yoga Nidra and other forms of meditation is a way we can support our healing when not much else feels possible.

To conclude...

So while research on long Covid is in its early stages, yoga could support recovery in a variety of different ways - some which are specific to this condition and some of which apply more generally to times when we are unwell.

Of course yoga practice is not a substitute for medical care so it's always best to get symptoms checked out before you try yoga.

I haven't experienced long Covid myself but I know that at times in my life when I've felt exhausted, anxious and depleted of resources, practices such as gentle movement, mindful breathing and Yoga Nidra have made all the difference to me.

But the best way is always to try it for yourself and see if it makes a difference.

Anna x

In my classes we move in a gentle and mindful way and I always include a Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) practice. If you (or anyone you know) would like to give one a go, you can find out more on the bookings page.

I found the ideas of Dr Ingrid Yang, hospital doctor and yoga therapist, very helpful when writing this blog. Here is her article on Yoga Therapy and Covid 19

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