Mind/Body Connection Is Important During Pandemic

Certain activities can help people feel more in control

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Physical activities that offer a mind/body connection such as martial arts, Pilates and yoga are nothing new. However, in recent months, more people have become interested in these activities. Physician Kerry Graff, board-certified in family and lifestyle medicine at RRH Family and Lifestyle Medicine in Canandaigua, has practiced yoga for many years.

She said that activities with a strong mind and body connection “reduce stress and offer physical activity. It is stress relief that helps people feel more in control.”

“In history, threats were more immediate and you had an adrenaline rush. But you can’t fight COVID by running away or fighting. Our normal body defenses won’t work,” she said. “When you’re physically active, you burn through stress hormones.”

While pedaling on a stationary bike may fulfill the physical aspect of exercise, it lacks a mental aspect that relates to the activity. That’s where an activity like yoga, Pilates and martial arts bring in the mental aspect as participants focus on their breath, body placement and movement.

“It’s super helpful to stay centered and calm in the middle of utter chaos,” Graff said. “On days it doesn’t happen, I’m not as resilient. I get more irritable. It really helps to do yoga. I started doing it faithfully at the beginning of the pandemic and it has been a lifesaver.”

Gary Evarts, seventh-degree blackbelt, is the owner and master instructor at Kuk Sool Won of Williamson. He said that the Korean martial art that he teaches “puts us in a state of total awareness. From our head to our feet, we’re totally aware of how we stand, move and breathe. The calmness of when we’re learning forms is like a meditation in movement.”

Instead of ruminating over anxious thoughts, students step outside their stress while they remain focused on what their bodies are doing. The classes also promote body strength, endurance, flexibility, agility and balance, as well as self defense skills. Despite the pandemic, Evarts has gained a few students.

Nicole Crump, licensed clinical social worker with Modern Therapy Services in Rochester, said that the pandemic has given people a break from busyness to become more introspective about what they want and need in their lives.

“Yoga and meditation allow people to go within to connect to their inner thoughts, physical pains, mental blocks, and traumas so they can learn effectively what will help them heal,” Crump said. “But to heal, we need to feel our emotional pain and scars. Learn the true impact it has had on our life paths. The social isolation people are going through is felt the same way physical pain is experienced. No longer can we turn a blind eye to feeling unsatisfied lives, careers, relationships because we are in it daily.”

She said that activities like running may help work out “toxic energy” but activities such as yoga can be used as tools to help in healing emotionally.

Exercise also releases serotonin and other endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that lift mood.

The reason that mind and body activity is so helpful is that it keeps participants in the current moment, combined with working out stress hormones. Laura Jowly, interim director of behavioral health for the Rochester Regional Health’s Eastern Region in Clifton Springs and Newark, said that the effect is similar to that of mindfulness.

“It is about paying attention in the moment,” she said. “Yoga, Pilates, and some imagery all can really help bring someone into focusing on the moment. The more we talk about mindfulness and paying attention to in the moment, the more senses you bring into it, the more effective it is.”

While stressed and anxious, the body begins to breathe irregularly. Exercise regulates breathing and in activities that focus on breath, the effect is even better. At Evarts’ martial arts school, for example, students breathe in through their noses and out through their mouths. They also perform specific poses during breathing exercises.

“If you’re just mindlessly on the elliptical, there isn’t as much focus on connecting the breath with the movement and understanding your body,” Jowly said.

Of course, any form of exercise is good for the body. However, activities that include a built-in stress management component provide additional benefit.

“It doesn’t have to be an hour-long workout,” Jowly said. “Stretching or just taking time to focus on breathing can help. Even taking five minutes to breathe and stretch to form that mind-body connection can help.”