“Yoga, or doing nothing: how I’m choosing to cope with lockdown”

Laila Rumbold-Kazzuz, MA English Literature student at the University of Sussex, tells us how yoga has helped her through lockdown. Laila also works in the University Library, has a blog and runs Brighton’s popular pop-up cinema - White Wall Cinema.

Cherry blossom coming into bloom, snapped by Laila on one of her lockdown walks around Brighton.

In the summer lockdown last year, like many people I became incredibly active and outdoorsy, necessitated by the shock of being forced to stay inside for months. The sunshine was wonderful that summer and a welcome reprieve from what was already a difficult few initial months of the pandemic.

I had bought a bicycle second hand a couple of years before, and it had sat in the back of my flat, becoming rusty and remaining unused that whole time. It’s not that I didn’t want to ride it, I was just nervous, having not cycled since I was a child. The summer of 2020 was the perfect excuse to give it a go. With such amazing weather and a serious need for some endorphins, I arranged to have my bike serviced and that whole summer I cycled every single day. I even cycled to and from the gym when it was open, where I would lift weights - something that had become an essential routine in my life over the last couple years.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that cycling changed my life, helping me cope with the difficulties that came along with the pandemic, including the loss of my job and the subsequent struggle to keep mentally and physically well.

Laila cycling on the seafront during the first lockdown in summer 2020.

Cut to March 2021 and a lot of us are feeling at the end of our tether. Though we’re closer than ever to the end of this whole thing, we’ve also been coping with it for an incredibly long stretch of time. Cycling through the summer months, with little to no wind and incredible blue skies, especially along Brighton seafront, is something I now vow I will never take for granted and cannot wait to do again. But winter months in lockdown are a different kettle of fish to long, sultry summer days, and sometimes things don’t go to plan!

For some people, myself included, exercise really seems to be the ticket for cultivating good mental health. I am someone who has a lot of energy that needs using up with running, cycling and weightlifting. When I haven’t engaged in vigorous exercise in some form, it shows in my attitude and I become really irritable. I just have to have a physical outlet to help me stay calm through the day.

I will admit, like many people over the most recent lockdown my fitness habits fell to the wayside. A combination of cold weather, a new job with longer hours, and studying for a Master’s degree made exercise hard to stick with. When your life goes from doing nothing for almost a year, to doing everything all at once, it can be hard to remember how to slow down and make time for something like exercise. I think that sometimes, because exercise is very much something we do for the benefit of ourselves, it can feel almost self-indulgent to insist on stopping everything and attending to ourselves in such an acute way. This, however, is something I was forced to do when after many months left out in the cold, my poor old bike became incredibly rusty and the derailleur gave up, leaving me with the dreaded sagging chain *scream!*. It was this, combined with the treadmill I am lucky enough to have in my flat deciding to call it quits in the same week, that prompted me to think of exercise in a different way.

A few days of utter despair ensued. This may sound dramatic but I really did find it that hard to stay calm during lockdown without my favourite forms of exercise. I forced myself to go for long walks around the Brighton race course, but most days were too cold and windy to be enjoyable, and I felt that compulsion to get my heart rate up again. It was on one of these reluctant walks though, that I remembered my best friend Ellie had mentioned that she and her partner loved doing yoga at home, using YouTube videos. So while walking along and feeling glum, I decided to give it a go that evening. I had recently tried a couple weeks of outdoor running with insufficient warm ups and cool downs, and was therefore nursing a self-inflicted hip strain too.

Yoga seemed like the thing to try next. Now, I am no yogini! From years of weightlifting I had never felt stronger, but I also had never felt creakier (yes, I routinely skip stretching! Do not recommend). So, my yoga ‘practise’ for lack of a better word is incredibly slow and frankly is more of a stretching routine. I have not attempted any… daring poses. I make sure there are no distractions around me, take it very slowly, listen to what I’m being told to do and attempt it - calmly - and accept when I cannot do something.

It’s the practise of acceptance, combined with breathing techniques, which I find to be the valuable thing about yoga. Usually, I have some sort of strain or joint pain that needs working out, so I’ll use yoga as a way to attend to this pain. This is not a healthy way to be, but I believe it is the result of general inactivity over the last year - my body just has more aches and pains than it usually does! So, my yoga routine begins by doing a YouTube search for a yoga flow that deals with whichever body part is in need of attention. The best part is that there are so many free videos out there, I am yet to struggle finding the one I need! Once I’ve decided on a video, I roll out my mat and just take it as it comes.

This is invaluable to me, as my natural state of mind is to be constantly doing, deciding, planning, attempting something. Yoga isn’t about you, it’s in fact about the absence of you. Letting go of thoughts, a pause in rumination and speculation. It allows you to actually stop thinking, focusing on the breath and the present moment.

I’m looking forward to trying Sussexsport’s free live online yoga classes that run every Tuesday and Friday via Zoom as a good addition to my weekly routine.

Laila during a pre-lockdown US Girls Can weightlifting workshop at Sussexsport’s Falmer Sports Complex gym, at the University of Sussex.

With so much chaos in the space of a year came the need to plan and predict. When I lost my income, I immediately had to be on the look out for a new job, which in itself became a job. It’s hard, when you’ve got financial, mental health or personal issues going on, not to allow this to become a 24/7 problem. In line with my newly panicked state of mind, I was constantly wanting to do the most extreme form of everything, and this extended to exercise. I had to be sprinting, lifting heavier and with less pauses than before, increasing my endurance, making tangible and trackable progress so that I felt as though I was getting somewhere, making an improvement.

It turns out, sometimes you should do the opposite of what you’re inclined to do. By actually consciously choosing to just stop, to essentially let go of control, I have found that my mind operates in a different way. Yoga allows you to take pause, and your thoughts flow freely through the movements without assigning blame or priority to them individually.

I often find that after a yoga session, the answers I’ve been frantically searching for without success, will come to the fore. I have since continued cycling, running and lifting weights, but I now do these activities when it feels doable, rather than when I think I need to. The pandemic (and yoga) has taught me to go slowly and accept when things don’t go to plan, because nothing good can really come of insisting that things be just right all the time.

A year ago, if I didn’t feel like weightlifting, I would be angry at myself and think it equated to a loss of progress. Now, if I don’t feel like doing something I can more readily accept it and take a rest day (or week!). Likewise, I can choose to do something with less force. Sometimes, if it’s all my body can handle, I’ll do ten minutes of weights, or a twenty-minute walk outside just to get fresh air.

Things don’t have to be going at a pace all the time, and perhaps learning to curb the physical urge to be constantly doing something signifies mental progress that will make life more enjoyable day to day.

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