Here’s an interesting question: how much of the benefit of yoga on our mental health and our immunity is due to the formation of social connections and community?
If you are wondering why I ask this, then let me explain. As you have probably gathered from my blog posts, I’ve gone back to my immunology routes and have been reading about the latest research on psychoneuroimmunology, or the connection between our immune system, our brain and our mental health. One of the papers that I came across was focused on the behavioural side of psychoneuroimmunology – how does our behaviour influence our psychology and, as a consequence, our immune system?
Social disconnect can compromise the immune system
There is research showing that people who feel isolated, lonely or generally disconnected from others show comparatively higher levels of inflammation (this is measured by comparing their levels of inflammatory molecules like CRP with individuals who are not isolated or lonely).*
What this means is that their immune system is slightly off-kilter:
- they may, for instance, develop symptoms of depression because of their low-level inflammation (yes, this is a thing and has really blown my mind!)
- or may end up developing more severe illness when infected because of their overly active immune system
Yoga creates community and connection
Those of us who practice regularly will recognise the connections that you form in a class, whether that’s through people you smile at and say hello to because you see them every week (and laugh at the fact that they always pick the same spot!), to friendships that have formed and travelled outside of the class setting (from workshops, retreats and yoga teacher trainings). One of the most wonderful moments coming back to teaching in person was seeing my students chat and joke around after class.
But we also experience connection and sharing of energy by practicing together, in the same room, moving and breathing together. As woo woo as this sounds (believe me, I hate myself for saying it), I know this to be true.
So, could the benefit of yoga on the immune system be social?
This is only a hypothesis of course (I would need to dig around a bit more to find out if anyone has researched this at all), but it stands to reason that at least part of the effects of yoga (and frankly any group practice) on the immune balance may come from replacing isolation and disconnection with connection and community. By keeping us connected, yoga may help to alleviate some of the stress that comes from isolation and therefore maintain our immune system in a state of stability (known as homeostasis).
What does this mean for COVID-19?
We live in a strange time, with many people experiencing loneliness and isolation because, well, they are lonely and isolated, especially if they live alone or are more used to spending time with people. Did this impact their immune system and even put them at higher risk of severe disease upon infection? Did practicing online help to maintain that sense of connection and community and potentially provide balancing benefits? How does it differ to practicing in a class setting?
More questions than answers I’m afraid! But would love to hear your thoughts on this. How have you found practicing online and has it help to maintain your connection to your yoga (or other) community?
* Caveat: the immunology community doesn’t seem fully convinced – here’s an older and accessible article that includes both the description of the existing evidence and the criticism of what is lacking. I struggled with this too, as the article I was reading talked about increased levels of inflammation but now how that happens and what the consequences are.