Earlier this year I was feeling hopeful. The COVID-19 vaccine was being widely rolled out, hospitalizations related to the virus were down, and restaurants and venues began to reopen. As an essential healthcare professional—I am a wellness consultant for Hoag Hospital’s Women’s Health Institute—who had been working throughout the pandemic, it felt like a sense of normalcy was returning. I breathed a real sigh of relief.
But my relief was short-lived, and my hope is dissipating with the resurgence of COVID-19 and the Delta variant spreading rapidly in my home state of California and across the country.
As a BIWOC in science, the saddest part is seeing so much misinformation and disinformation being spread in yoga and wellness spaces. It pains me to see yoga philosophy being used to spread harmful anti-science and anti-vaccination rhetoric—because those fallacies make it harder for some people to differentiate between conspiracy theories and reality.
Every day I see the impact vaccine hesitancy is having on my community and in our hospitals in Orange County. ICUs are full and hospitalizations are reaching capacity across many states, particularly in the South. As a wellness professional, I feel called to present evidence-based information to combat the misinformation that I see being spread online and to compassionately offer advice from trustworthy BIPOC health and wellness experts surrounding common fears and anxieties about the COVID-19 vaccine.
See also: Getting Vaxxed Was My Act of Ahimsa
The threat of COVID is real
COVID-19 is a very real threat, especially to BIPOC communities who are disproportionately affected by both the illness and its impact on healthcare, education, and economic systems.”The current level of community transmission in the United States is still high and the burden of disease is mostly carried by minority and low-income communities, says Dr. Candice Taylor Lucas, MD, MPH, FAAP, associate clinical professor, Department of Pediatrics at UCI Health in Orange County, California. In July 2021, Non-Hispanic Black/African-American people in the United States were reported to be twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than those identifying as Non-Hispanic White, and were hospitalized at 2.8 times the rate of Non-Hispanic White people. Latinx persons died from COVID-19 at a rate 2.3 times that of White, non-Hispanic individuals and were hospitalized at the same rate as Black/African-Americans.
Children who aren’t yet old enough for the vaccine are also at risk, says Lucas. Although elderly individuals and people with chronic health issues were more vulnerable during the initial phases of the pandemic, the Delta variant is proving to impact both young and old people. Healthy young adults and children are dying from COVID-19, and one death is far too many. “The risk of COVID-19 is real, but in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, you can reduce your risk of acquiring the disease and in turn you help others who are not able to get the vaccine – like my pediatric patients and family members who are less than 12 years old or immunocompromised,” says Lucas.
“By getting the vaccine, you’re also contributing to our ability as a society to truly move past this pandemic,” she says. The longer the pandemic persists, the longer we exist in a world where interactions and engagements are limited by the looming reality that any single moment of exposure or participation in a gathering could result in an outbreak.
Combatting vaccine hesitancy through Svādhyāya and the Yamas
Because vaccination is a choice we own, it’s a way to practice svādhyāya or self-study and self-governance, says Shyam Ranganathan, a professor of philosophy at York University and a scholar of Yoga and South Asia.
See also: Polish the Mirror of Self-Reflection
If you’re hesitant about getting the vaccine, practice svādhyāya by examining your motives. If fear is at the root of your concerns, then you’re not self-governing but rather are being governed by your fear. In the face of overwhelming evidence of vaccination safety, hesitancy is not explainable by the evidence but by fear, says Ranganathan.
For BIPOC, vaccine hesitancy has unique and valid roots, says Dr. Amit Hiteshi, MD ,an internal medicine physician with Hoag Medical Group. Events in American history, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis study, have led some Black Americans to mistrust healthcare. That’s why, when Hiteshi’s patients voice concerns about vaccination, he doesn’t dismiss them. Instead, he addresses their fears with a combination of compassion and facts.
Some people shun the vaccine because they prefer natural cures or believe the body can self-heal. Ranganathan says this objection is rooted in egotism—conflating the Self with your outlook. In Yoga Sutra 11.6, Patanjali describes asmita, or false-identification, which is sometimes translated as ego. Listening to research and science are ways to get over our egos, says Ranganathan, who is also the founder of Yoga Philosophy. Here’s what evidence says about the most common vaccine fears:
- The vaccine contains a microchip. There is no microchip in the vaccine that can be used to track people, says Lucas. (People can be easily tracked by cell phones. But the vaccine? Not so much).
- The vaccine isn’t FDA approved. This concern was addressed this week when the FDA granted full U.S. approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
- The vaccine is dangerous. Hiteshi explains that distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was halted briefly as the CDC and FDA investigated reports of a rare type of blood clot in the brain occurring in recipients of this vaccine. But it turned out that less than 1 in a million people experienced this side effect. On the other hand, a study in the journal The Lancet found that being infected with COVID-19 incurred a risk that is eight to 10 times higher of experiencing this rare blood clot than from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
- The vaccine is a live virus. The vaccine uses messenger RNA, a molecule that tells the body to make the specific protein that the COVID-19 virus uses to enter cells, says Hiteshi. This stimulates the body to produce antibodies against the virus. Some people are concerned that the vaccine can change their DNA (it can’t) or impact their fertility—but research suggests that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women and does not impact sperm count.
- The vaccines were fast-tracked. The speedy production was due to numerous factors, including rapid isolation of COVID-19 genetic information to guide vaccine development, an abundance of resources due to government funding, and faster recruitment of trial participants using social media, says Hiteshi.
- Vaccinated individuals are getting COVID anyway. Breakthrough infections have occurred in those vaccinated against COVID-19, due to the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant. However, infections in vaccinated individuals tend to be milder. Research suggests there is a significantly lower risk of that infection causing hospitalization or death if you are vaccinated, Hiteshi points out.
Like masking, handwashing, and social distancing, getting vaccinated doesn’t just contribute to your own health. It also protects people around you from contracting the dangerous virus, notes Lucas. This is a part of practicing the Yamas—Yogic ethics, values, and morals—including ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth), and asteya (non-stealing), especially of others’ health and well-being.
Ayurvedic practices to support wellness
Even if you’re vaccinated, you should take care of your health. Certain Ayurvedic practices can support your immune system, says Hiteshi, but it’s worth noting that none of these practices can prevent COVID-19. “For our immune system to function at its highest capacity, we need to minimize stress and inflammation as best we can, and yoga and Ayurveda can help with that,” he says. He uses the following approaches for himself—and encourages his patients to do the same:
- Nasal rinsing. Your nose is a filter to the air you breathe. Keeping it clear of dust, pollen, and other irritants is crucial to the health of your respiratory system. Use a Neti Pot a few times weekly to clean this filter.
- Regular meditation. Evidence shows that meditation can boost your immune system and reduce levels of inflammatory markers in your blood. Hiteshi recommends using the 3-minute body scan meditation on the UCLA Mindful app to relax the mind and body. You can find other meditation practices here.
- Marma point treatment. This traditional Ayurvedic massage technique is believed to help sustain the flow of energy throughout your body. Massaging the talahridaya point—an area of your palm that can be found by bringing your middle finger down to the center of your palm, just above the mound of muscles at the base of your thumb—in a clockwise, circular fashion for up to 5 minutes is thought to stimulate circulation throughout the whole body, while strengthening the respiratory and immune systems.
- Food as medicine. Antioxidant-rich foods, like pecans and blueberries; beta-carotene rich foods, like carrots and apricots; foods rich in vitamin E, like avocado and spinach; and foods that contain vitamin C, like sweet red pepper and tangerines, all enhance immune function. Choose whole foods over processed foods or supplements as much as possible, as your body can absorb nutrients better when consumed in these natural forms.
About the Author
Anusha Wijeyakumar is a wellness consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention. Sign up for her 4-week workshop, Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita. Outside+ members get 50% off this on-demand course. They also get access to our complete archive, from exclusive sequences and meditations to full-length profiles of yoga luminaries. Not a member? There’s never been a better time to sign up.