The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to slow down, consume less, and reevaluate their lives. Could turning to meditation and ancient bodywork traditions benefit the environment?
If, this time last year, the world had been told it would spend much of the coming months in lockdown, few might have believed it. But that reality came, bringing with it a crashing end to the busy flow of life that sees billions rushing from one appointment to the next without much time to think.
Left to their own devices at home, people have had to find new ways to spend their days, and in many cases, deal with anxiety and the sudden quiet.
While some have taken to endurance sports in tiny spaces, been drawn to walk in nature or just breathe in the fresh air of outdoors, others have turned to practices like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and shiatsu to calm their minds and decrease stress levels.
Seasoned practitioners believe these ancient traditions and techniques offer an opportunity to better deal with crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and environmental issues.
"These practices help to bring us into the present moment and help to connect us to the reality of the situation," said Jenny White, a British shiatsu practitioner who has been meditating for over two decades.
While White acknowledges that doesn't mean living in a constant state of bliss and harmony, she says it allows people to recognize why they might be feeling scared, overwhelmed, stressed or lonely. It can also, she says, prevent them from running away from those emotions and seeking distraction in alcohol, Netflix, food or spending sprees.
Practices like meditation are not just about being in a constant state of bliss but can help people process difficult emotions
In short, White explains, traditions such as yoga and meditation help create an awareness of what is happening in our world and allow us to tackle difficult situations and our reactions to them.
"Our body response to big crisis situations, like climate change, and now the pandemic, is often to freeze, be numb and to run away," she said.
"The more we can connect with our body responses, the more we can tune into our own personal and collective responsibility to a crisis, whether it's the pandemic or climate change, without going into that trauma response."
The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are two of the biggest issues facing humanity at this point in history. Whether it's the global quest for a COVID-19 vaccine or the world pulling together to slash greenhouse gas emissions, solutions to both require an effort from the international community.
This is where the ancient Indian concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam comes in. Rooted in yoga, it means the world is one family and should act as such. Not least in times of crisis.
"Yogis believe that all life is connected, that we are all one and should live in harmony with each other," said Alexander Bütow, who runs a yoga and meditation studio in Berlin.
"The problem is that many humans take themselves out of that and create divisions, groups, and start disconnecting — from themselves, from others, from the world around them. Once we stop this disconnect, we can overcome crises together."
He, like others who practice regularly, sees meditation and yoga as a means to slowing down, emptying our minds and calming our thoughts. And that, so the thinking goes, facilitates the connection not only to ourselves, but to the world around us.
"Every human being is intrinsically connected to every other human being and also to nature, animals, plants, everything on this planet. But you are often not aware of it because you are too busy with too many things. When that stops for a moment, when you calm down, you realize these connections," said A.G. Ramakrishnan, a professor for electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, who also researches in the fields of meditation and breathing exercises.
"The concept of yoga, for instance, is holistic. It teaches you that we can't live without others, we cannot live without animals, we cannot live without nature." Ramakrishnan continued.
Yet that, says Bütow, is not in keeping with the way many of us live.
"It has become a bad habit these days that we take ourselves out of nature. We are part of nature way more than we pretend to be. Nature is where we came from. But we have totally detached ourselves from that."
Yoga teaches that humans are fundamentally part of nature, reliant on the abundance of plants and animals they share the planet with
He says breathing exercises can help us reconnect, because through our breath we are in constant contact with the outside world.
"We just have to remember this connection, which will help us to see ourselves as part of nature."
For many, the pandemic has brought our mortality into sharp relief, serving as a reminder that there are no guarantees.
In restricting what we can do, where we can go and how we can keep ourselves occupied, it has also made our worlds smaller, forced us not only to adopt a less hectic pace, but in many cases to take a genuine pause. And that, says Jenny White, can reap rewards.
"Once you give yourself that time to pause and breathe, you will become kinder and softer and more understanding when it comes to your own shortcomings and difficulties. And this will make you more compassionate and understanding when it comes to other people and their needs, and ultimately also our planet's needs."