There can't be many people who can say they'll be coming out of lockdown in better shape than when they went in, but Susan Smith from County Tyrone can.
While most of us turn to Netflix, snacking and regular refills of wine to deal with cabin fever and anxiety under quarantine, Susan has been staying sane and active thanks to online yoga classes. She's been doing more yoga than before - four times a week instead of two. "Because the classes are online now, I have more access to yoga classes so it's worked out great," she says.
Susan started doing yoga a year ago following a hip replacement operation. She was keen to lose weight, so she also joined Slimming World, and was regularly swimming and walking the dog. She was keen to include yoga as part of her regime in order to work on "flexibility and strength." It's a keystone of her fitness plan, essential for keeping her body in good working condition so that she can maintain high activity levels overall.
The usefulness of yoga for rehabilitation is confirmed by Dr Donn Brennan, a GP and a doctor of Ayurvedic medicine who practices in Dublin, and is founding president of the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association in the UK. "In the UK yoga is increasingly seen as a modality of rehabilitation to be integrated into the National Health Service,"he says. "Yoga becomes of interest to people who really need to regain their flexibility and their ease of movement again, especially after illness"
Yoga itself is not a fat burner. Even the most demanding of yoga styles such as Vinyasa or Astanga don't score that highly in terms of calorie expenditure. You can expect to use up 90 calories by doing 30 minutes of yoga - about the amount in one large apple.
But look a little deeper and it becomes apparent that yoga's holistic approach may provide some crucial advantages for weight-loss and general health.
Professor Niall Moyna is an exercise physiologist from the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU. "Does yoga dramatically cause alterations in your muscular-skeletal systems, does it increase muscle mass? Very little..." he says. "It would have minimal impact on your weight." But when you are trying to lose weight, focussing on burning calories may be missing the point, he suggests, casually dropping the bombshell news that, "if you are trying to lose weight, exercise is not the way to do it. Exercise has lots of wonderful physical and mental health benefits, but if you want to lose weight, caloric restriction is a much better way of doing it." We need, he argues, to change the way we think about weight and exercise. "If you want to sustain weight-loss, that's where exercise comes in. And it's very undervalued from that perspective," he says.
Yoga's unique combination of psychological and physiological benefits explains why it helps protect the health of those who practice it. Yoga teachers across the world are noticing an uptick in the number of people seeking out classes online during lockdown.
"Yoga acts on the parasympathetic nervous symptom in a powerful way" Professor Moyna explains. We have two nervous systems, the first "is what's called the stress response - the sympathetic nervous system. And when that is continuously activated that can result in pathological conditions - increase your risk for hypertension, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions. The other system - the parasympathetic nervous system - is sort of the brakes," he says. "It slows down your heart rate, it slows down your brain waves. In our normal daily life, those two are in constant competition with each other. But the great thing about yoga is it really activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It allows our very systems in the body to come back to an equilibrium for a certain number of minutes per day. From that perspective, systemic, across all the physiological systems in the body, yoga has been shown to be very beneficial."
He's keen to point out that these benefits may be more crucial now more than ever, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. "If you are chronically stressed, your cortisol levels are elevated. And when your cortisol levels are elevated, that can suppress the immune system. And that increases our susceptibility to opportunistic infections. Particularly a virus like covid."
But how exactly does yoga engage the parasympathetic nervous system? According to Paula Mitten, of Durga Yoga in Maynooth it's all about the breathing. "The most important thing I feel yoga practice gives everybody is that we breathe more fully," she says. "When we breathe properly and more fully, we lower our stress levels. We lower the cortisol levels, the adrenaline levels in our body and we come out of a place of stress. When we are stressed, we stress eat, we're more inclined to gain weight and hold weight. Just by breathing we can calm our body."
Susan Smith agrees. "It's not just the yoga class itself, it's how it prepares you mentally for the rest of the day," says Susan. "It keeps you focussed, it keeps you in a positive frame of mind. You come out of the class and you just feel so calm and balanced. You want to stay in that frame of mind, so you don't want to go out and have a big meal and undo the good you have done to your body. If I'm stressed, I overeat. Yoga can keep you relaxed and balanced - that drives your will power and you are more able to focus on slimming," she says.
"The very tradition of yoga is the settled mind, in reality the settled state of mind is a state of integration, which influences profoundly the physical structure," says Dr Don Brennan. "That integrated state of body of mind has proven benefits. There's a significant body of research in relation to anxiety. Stress creates a lot of free radicals in the body which contributes to a lot of wear and tear and illness. So by virtue of the settled state of mind, there is less anxiety and stress and that generates a holistic health influence on the whole mind body system."
The culture which surrounds yoga can also have an effect on extending healthy behaviours outside of the studio, as well.
"Losing weight (through yoga) is one of the positive side effects if it happens, but it's not the main goal," says Fiona McNamara founder of Dublin City Hot Yoga.
"The journey that you have in your yoga practice changes your lifestyle," says McNamara. "A lot of times when we are eating, we are not conscious about what we're eating and actually considering the food and the drinks that you are putting into our mouth. When you start to practice yoga you start to get a little bit more conscious of your decisions."
Hot yoga, she explains, takes place in a heated studio room to encourage sweating. "It is very much a detoxifying practice," she says. "You come to class and you sweat through every single pore of your body."
Sweating buckets in class "you feel completely cleansed and you will naturally gravitate towards more hydrating foods. What I'm seeing from students is that naturally, their lifestyle changes. They make better food choices and then the weight falls off them," she says.
After all, the secret to a healthy body is all in the mind - maintaining the necessary discipline, composure and positivity to consistently make healthy choices even in difficult times. And that's where, according to Susan Smith, yoga practice is indispensable. "That bit of time for yourself to get yourself chilled out, destress, recharge your batteries, keep yourself focused that hour in the morning is absolutely superb for your mental well-being," she says.
Tomorrow: Reap the benefits of a daily walk
REBOOT YOUR BODY parts 1 and 2: