As face masks become a part of our everyday lives, the questions inevitably arise: Is it important to wear a mask during yoga practice? Is it safe? How do I practice yoga with a mask? Should the practice change to accommodate the need to wear one?
Let us take each of these questions in turn.
SHOULD I WEAR A MASK DURING YOGA PRACTICE?
It is clear that wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to reduce spread of the coronavirus. The mask reduces the airborne spread of our respiration which can contain the virus if we are infected. Worth noting here is that some people can be infected even if they show no symptoms. They can spread the virus just as easily as someone who feels sick, perhaps even more easily because they will not be thinking they are infected and will act more carelessly.
We should wear a mask anytime we are indoors because the air circulation is more stagnant than outdoors. This need is heightened when we are sharing a room with people, as we do in a yoga class. And it is further heightened when we are breathing a lot as when talking, singing, exercising or doing breathing exercises. The combination of these factors lead us to believe strongly that we should wear masks anytime we are practicing yoga in a studio, indoors with other people, regardless of whether or not we are 6 feet apart.
IS IT SAFE TO PRACTICE YOGA WITH A MASK?
The biggest concern we hear is about safety. Does wearing a mask hamper our ability to breathe effectively? In something like yoga that focuses so much on deep breathing, is it even possible to practice with a mask on? Does wearing a mask reduce the value of yoga practice?
The simple answer is that you can still practice yoga with a mask on. The practice will still be effective. Wearing a mask somewhat limits the ability to breathe deeply and quickly, but excepting extenuating circumstances, it is not dangerous to exercise or practice yoga while wearing one.
It seems that there are two things to pay attention two while practicing with a mask: your heart rate and lightheadedness. According to the New York Times, we should expect the heart rate to be a little higher when wearing a mask, though the reason isn't clear. Keep an eye on this while in a hot room, since the heart rate will already be elevated to help cool the body. It may be a good idea to cool the room a little bit.
Lightheadedness can come from lack of oxygen and anxiety while exercising. This will be most likely while exerting heavily in the most demanding postures and exercises. There is not a huge danger of this in yoga class, since we are not creating the oxygen demands of an olympic sprinter. But be aware nonetheless, since we need to breathe more when we do difficult exercises and immediately following. It may be a good idea to rest longer in-between postures.
The good news is that our ability to cool is not significantly effected by wearing a mask. The body cools through two main mechanisms, both of which are through the skin. First, the blood vessels in the skin dilate to bring blood to the surface. This is why the skin gets redder when we are hot. Second, we sweat. The evaporation of sweat takes heat away from the body. Neither of these processes are affected by wearing a mask, so there is no real need to fear overheating any more than normal.
HOW TO CHOOSE A MASK
Think of how specific you are with the clothes you wear to exercise or practice yoga. You've probably refined them over years to get just the right shape and material to suit your needs. If you do hot yoga and sweat a lot, you probably use synthetic materials that don't absorb sweat. Anyone who has tried practicing hot yoga in a cotton t-shirt knows how miserable it can be, since cotton attracts and holds sweat!
The same rules apply to facemasks. It is not recommended to use paper masks while exercising because the heavier breathing causes them to disintegrate, reducing their effectiveness. Cotton masks are probably not great for sweaty yoga because they will capture and hold onto sweat just like a t-shirt. It will be best to use synthetic athletic fabrics much like the ones that make up your other yoga clothes. Of course, this may mean that you need to get special masks for your yoga practice. Just like you choose your clothes with care, you will want to put a little thought and effort into your yoga masks. (We have seen athletic masks from Under Armor and Athleta. Probably other companies are making them too.)
CHANGE YOUR MASK EVERY 30 MINUTES
The obvious details of using a mask are well-known by now. It should cover your nose and mouth to prevent the mist of saliva and mucus when we breathe. Lesser known is this: it its recommended to change a mask every 30 minutes or so when exercising. When we breathe heavily, the mask will become saturated with sweat and saliva after awhile, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. So in a 60 minute class, bring a second mask and change halfway. In a longer class, consider bringing two extras and changing twice. This will maximize the comfort and ease while still maximizing safety.
ADJUSTING THE YOGA PRACTICE
It may be that we need to adjust our approach to yoga class when we wear a mask. Here are a couple of suggestions. They are simply trying to address the big issues that will come up due to the way the coronavirus spreads and the difficulty that wearing a mask may bring.
1) Adjust or skip breathing exercises. There are two reasons to do this. First is that heavy breathing increases spread of the virus. Second is that wearing a mask affects breathing more than anything else. The simplest way to adjust will be to slow and lengthen any breathing exercise, so that the air isn't moving as fast on the way in or out. Take an exercise that is normally 6 counts and make it 8. This has the added benefit of being more advanced!
2) Take longer rests. During and immediately after difficult postures or exercises is when the body's oxygen demands are the greatest, so breathing will be most strenuous. Because a mask will hinder the ability to breathe a little bit, take a little longer rest to allow the body to recover before moving on to the next exercise. This will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed when the practice is physically challenging.
3) A cooler temperature. Practicing yoga in a hot room makes the heart rate go up to help cool the body. This makes the body a little stressed, which is one of the reasons people love hot yoga. Add the stress of a mask that is reducing the air flow, and anxiety could overtake the mind. To avoid this, try cooling the room a bit. This will allow the heart rate to lower and the mind to relax, hopefully compensating for the added stress of the mask.
A little bit of yogic perspective. If you don't want to wear a mask, ask yourself why not. Is it because you've never had to before? Yoga is hugely about recognizing our mental patterns and removing them. So in that way this can be a great yogic lesson and practice.
Is it because you worry you will be uncomfortable or unsafe? Consider how unsafe you and your community are without masks. It is pretty easy to adjust the physical practice itself to support the bigger picture. If we are in this for health, we should do what will keep us healthy. If we are in it for spiritual progress, we should subvert our own egos and desires to do what is best for others.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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