Feeling a loneliness hangover from 2020? Here’s the perfect antidote
We’ve just farewelled the year that broke and woke us. Feeling a loneliness hangover from 2020? Us too. Need an antidote? Learn yoga’s perspective on loneliness and solitude and a juicy yoga sequence.
Twenty twenty. What a year. Among conversations about homeschooling, panic buying, working from home, Zooming, career-pivoting madness, there was one thing I found myself talking about frequently with students and friends: loneliness.
Busy modern life had kept this feeling at bay for most of our adult lives. We had all been so distracted by the bright shiny lights of multitasking busyness that there was, quite simply, never any time to be “lonely”. And it wasn’t just those living alone who felt it. Some people were surrounded all the time by partners, flatmates, children, animals — but they hadn’t realised how desperately lonely they were until stuck at home with their crew 24/7. I know from my own experience, some of my loneliest moments have been in the company of others.
But for many people living alone during a year where life has shrunk in many ways, and been forced indoors due to bushfires and pandemics, the isolation and loneliness has been devastating. Young women and men usually at work, or out with friends, found themselves stuck at home, very alone, with a melancholy they had not previously experienced.
[Loneliness] can show you when it’s time to reconnect with others, but it can also be an indicator of underlying disease when those feelings become overwhelming.
As hard as single parenting/homeschooling a seven-year-old boy in a tiny apartment was for me, many times I felt grateful that at least I had my hands full and someone else to focus on. We had spent the first part of lockdown solo at our family farm and I remember the moment my son looked at me and said, “Can we go back to Sydney now? It’s lonely here.” I explained to him that we wouldn’t be able to spend time with people or play with them when we got back, and that we would be in our tiny apartment most of the time. He responded that he understood, but at least we would see other kids in the park — even if he didn’t play with them. He felt isolated and needed a visual reminder he was not alone during this strange, strange time.
In his 1988 best-selling book Solitude, leading psychiatrist and physician Anthony Storr challenged the existing status quo of the psychology world that up until then held interpersonal relationships to be the main source of happiness for individuals. Storr’s book argued that solitude was just as important for an individual’s wellbeing. Citing a vast number of extraordinary scholars and artists from Beethoven to Beatrix Potter, he argued that solitude was essential for creativity, productivity, progress and happiness. Solitude, he said, was good for us.
I think it’s really important here to make the distinction between “solitude” and “loneliness”. Solitude can be defined as the state of being alone. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a feeling of sadness about being socially isolated. What my son had communicated to me that morning in the countryside was that he felt socially isolated. Loneliness can be normal. It can show you when it’s time to reconnect with others, but it can also be an indicator of underlying disease when those feelings become overwhelming. That’s when we need to call in extra support. And if we see loved ones feeling lonely, we do something about it. We check in. We connect. We take care of one other.
Yoga point of view
From a yogic perspective, however, there is a belief that if we all practised solitude regularly we would not experience loneliness to the depths many of us have through the lockdowns, because solitude allows us to connect with parts of ourselves not dictated by external things. And yoga knows it’s the external things that often get us into all sorts of trouble. When we are always seeking happiness and fulfilment outside ourselves, we are inevitably going to suffer.
Yoga teaches you that there is something in you that is limitless and vast and connected to all things at all times.
The nature of the manifest world is that things are constantly changing. They begin, they have a middle, and they end. In addition, much of our energy is directed at yo-yoing around our whole lives, moving towards people we like (in order to feel happy), and away from people we don’t (to avoid feeling unhappy). At some point we must learn to look inside and seek fulfilment from parts of ourselves that have nothing to do with others, and are not subject to change; that deep internal part of us that nothing, and no one, can touch. No pandemic, no bushfire, no relationship … nothing. That’s the part of ourselves we discover through practice.
Yoga teaches you that there is something in you that is limitless and vast and connected to all things at all times, so much so, that if you really felt it and understood it, you would never feel alone. This is why the yoga practice is essentially a solitary practice. Sure, we can go to a busy studio and feel joy from being part of a community. But at the end of the day, it’s you who have to keep showing up, get on the mat and then face whatever arises during the practice. No one else can do it for you. No one gives you a yoga medal for consistent practice. It’s you who have to keep cheering yourself on to stay steady and consistent and to have faith.
Kaivalya is the name of the final pada, or chapter, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and is considered the goal of raja yoga: the royal path. Kaivalya has many translations in Sanskrit, but interestingly the main ones are “alone, isolated” or “absolute freedom/liberation”. So there is something about being “all-one” that leads us to the understanding that we are “all-one” and leads us to absolute freedom. In yoga sutras 2:17–2:25, Patanjali talks about kaivalya specifically and advises the yogi in training to notice the tendency to always turn more to the world’s material pleasures. He encourages us to recognise that yes, we are. As Madonna sang so eloquently, we are “material girls (and guys) in a material world.”
But we have to start to see the way the mind works in that material world — how it is always seeking pleasure and avoiding pain through external objects. The yoga practice shows you there is nothing outside of yourself. All of the things you feel when you move towards people and experiences come from inside you. Turn inwards and feel this. That joy you feel from connecting to someone? It’s who and what you truly are. It’s accessible always, in a crowded room or lying in your bedroom alone in savasana.
Sri Brahmanada Sarasvati defines yoga as “the state where nothing is missing.” If we felt this — if we felt whole — we wouldn’t try to fill that hole or that void with other people. We could love them fully without even needing their physical presence. One way to work with fostering wholeness is to contemplate what connects you to the feeling that nothing is missing, outside of others. Find the things that connect you to that feeling of fulfilment, joy and connectedness, and make time to do them, alone.
The antidote to loneliness is choosing your company well; be mindful of who you surround yourself with.
That’s not to say that connecting to others isn’t valuable, from the perspective of yoga. Satsang or sanga is considered by my teacher, Sharon Gannon, to be one of the most important yogic practices. But it’s not just hanging out with a bunch of people. It’s to be surrounded by like-minded yogis who are also interested in “sat” or “truth”. The antidote to loneliness is choosing your company well; be mindful of who you surround yourself with: people who take you closer to the goal of yoga, who make you feel nourished and connected. Being with your community is not always possible, as the last year has shown us. Sometimes, no matter how wonderful the company you keep, you have to go it alone. It’s the reality Arjuna has to face on the battlefield in the Bhagavadgita. If you desire yoga, at some point at some point you will have do the work, alone.
And so the answer to addressing loneliness through the yoga practice does not lie in the extremes of total solitude or always being with your community. Rather, it lies somewhere in between: a balance of connecting with the self in solitude while being mindful of who you spend the precious moments of your lives with. When you can’t be with those people, you don’t unravel. Instead, look inside and remember you are always connected. Near or far. Because ultimately, as Ram Dass says, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Yoga sequence for loneliness
The sequence below is designed to help you practise pratyhara or withdrawal of the senses. When you practise nada yoga, you also notice how quickly you hear sounds and give them a label. In the same way, dirga breath allows you to experience at a cellular level the nature of who and what you are through the breath. Yoga nidra takes you to a state of deep relaxation where you can also feel who you are beyond the body and mind.
Lie on your back. Bend knees and take them together. Stretch the arms out in the shape of a “T”. Drop the knees over to the left. To deepen, place left hand to outer edge of right thigh. Let the legs be heavy. Take five breaths. Inhale the knees back to centre. Exhale and drop them to the other side.
Knees together, press the buttocks back to heels. Reach hands forward and lengthen the side body and spine. Anchor the buttocks firmly back on heels or block. On an inhale, keep the seat anchored but come to fingertips and crawl the hands forward, lengthening side waist and spine a little more. On an exhale, place the palms back down. Place the forehead on the earth or block. Feel the connection of ajna chakra, the third eye centre, between the eyebrows on the earth or block. Relax the neck and allow the head to be heavy.
Virasana with nada yoga
Come to a kneeling position sitting back on the heels. Elevate your seat with a blanket, cushion or block. Take a moment to notice how your body, mind and breath feel. Shift your attention to listening. Notice sounds around you. Hear the most distant sounds. Be aware of how quickly you shift into making meaning to sound. When you hear a bird, you label it, “There’s a bird.” Instead, can you try to just hear a sound for what it is? A vibration, and then move on to the next sound. Over time, listen to sounds closer and closer, until you are hear the soft sound of your breath. Turn your listening inwards. Can you hear your heart beating, your blood flowing? What else can you hear? Sit and listen to your internal landscape.
Dirga pranayama — three-part yogic breath
Lying on your back, legs extended. Relax the body and notice quality of the breath. Check if the inhale and exhale is even. Is one easier? Is one nostril freer? Place hands on the lower belly. As you inhale a little deeper, breathe into the lower belly, feel the belly rise. As you exhale, the belly falls. Do this for a few breaths. When you’re ready, inhale fill the lower belly, abdomen and ribs. Fill the side and back ribs, and exhale let the breath go. Do this for a few breaths. Finally, breathe into lower belly, ribs and all the way up to the collar bones and chest. Whole body fills with breath. Exhale let the breath go. Take another five rounds of this three-part yogic breath.
Still lying on the back. Move your awareness to each body part and relax it as we go. Shift your attention to your right hand and relax. Right wrist. Forearm. Elbow. Upper arm. Shoulder. Right side of the waist. Right hip. Thigh. Knee. Shin. Ankle. Foot. Calf. Back of thigh. Buttock. The whole right side of the body relaxes. Shift awareness to left hand. Left wrist. Forearm. Elbow. Upper arm. Shoulder. Left side of the waist. Hip. Thigh. Knee. Shin. Ankle. Foot. Calf. Back of thigh. Buttock. The whole left side of the body relaxes. Awareness to crown of head, scalp, forehead. Eyebrows. Nose. Jaw. Teeth. Tongue. Lips. Chin. Throat. Chest. Belly. Pelvis. Lower back. Middle back. Upper back. Neck. Front of the body. Back of the body. The whole body relaxes. Relax for a few moments. Take a deep breath in, and out.