Yoga for Chronic Illness

I find yoga really helps with my condition in so many ways so I wanted to write a post about it incase it can help you too!As I touched on in my previous post, I find yoga really helpful for relieving some of the aches and pains that come with ME and I’m sure it works just as well for other conditions like Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, and my sister finds it helps with her Lupus too.

It is really important with ME that you break the cycle of degeneration that happens over time. The early stages of the illness are characterised by extreme fatigue which can leave you bed-ridden for months at a time. During times when you are able to be a little more active, your limbs feel so heavy like they have weights attached to them and you are so scared of causing a flare-up that you take it really easy. Exercise is a no go and can actually become extremely scary if it has caused bad set backs in the past. This combination of fatigue/weakness/pain creates a sedentary lifestyle which results in your muscles becoming weaker, fitness levels dropping and stamina long gone, throw in the anxiety caused by fear of a setback and you have a downward spiral of degeneration. Many people who suffer from ME will end up wheelchair bound, totally dependent on carers, and some could even find their own organs giving up on them. It is true that you can die from ME-induced heart failure and other conditions but sadly most people who have “died from ME” took their own lives.

 

The point is, if you want to keep your ME (or other similar illness) under control, it is fundamental that you stop, prevent, and gradually reverse the downward spiral of physical degradation your body is experiencing. I have found that Yoga has been intrinsic in doing this. I started with a very gentle 15 min morning sequence that is completely floor work and mostly on your back which I found on Youtube. This became part of my daily routine, every morning. Of course there will be some days that you really can’t manage and it is extremely important to be kind and gentle and forgiving to your body on those days, and look forward to picking up the mat as soon as you feel well enough. Or maybe choose only the postures that you feel you can manage, do them in your bed, and thank yourself for that gift.

The most important thing I have learned from yoga with regards to my illness is that my body is my friend. We are working together, like a super hero comic duo to fight illness and regain optimum health. My body is not punishing me. My body is not my enemy. My body is not a dead weight dragging me down. She is my friend, my companion, my partner in crime, and she’s really struggling at the moment. So I must be kind, and patient with her; suggest activities that I know she will benefit from; feed her nutritious foods; take her to beautiful places where she can breath clean healing air; use kind words to her and together we will get through this. My body doesn’t want to be sick any more than I do, and team work makes the dream work!

At the beginning and end of my yoga practice I like to set an intention, and give thanks respectively. My intention is usually something along the lines of “to be patient with my body”, “to nurture my body”, “to strengthen my body”. I will also make a dedication at this point, usually dedicating my practice to a friend who I know is having a difficult time or to a loved one who has passed away, or strangers who are suffering. Then I begin my practice with these in mind, I find this really helps me to focus. When I finish I will take a few deep breaths in Child’s Pose or Namaste to give thanks. I will thank myself for making the time to prioritise my practice, I will thank my body for the gift of being able to do it today, I will thank my mum for everything, and I will express gratitude to the people in my life who support me, my employees, friends, family, teachers, healers. Then I will give thanks for the roof over my head and the mat beneath me that I may practice (and live) in safety, with comfort and privacy. I find these elements of my practice as important as all the physical work. As I mentioned in my previous post about pain, a lot of the symptoms of ME are exacerbated by emotional stress. The condition is intrinsically linked with the nervous system and so it is just as important to work on healing and nurturing the nervous system as it is to look after your muscles and joints. Deep breathing, meditative practice and positive thoughts help to support your parasympathetic nervous system which can in turn aid digestion (and therefore the proper absorption of nutrients and energy), and help the cells in your body to repair and recover.

I am a huge fan of yoga and really believe in its power to help all people with all kinds of issues (we’ve all got ’em!) I had been singing yoga’s praises to my sister for a number of years to help her with some issues she faces from Lupus and RSI she had been getting from her work as an artist. She had tried many classes and wasn’t able to find that illusive connection to the practice that I had been harping on about. I said it’s just a case of finding the right practice and the right teacher for you, keep at it. Then one Tuesday I got a phone call in the early evening from her, she was on cloud nine and had to share with me this wonderful yoga class (and teacher) she had literally just walked out of! “I think this is something you would be able to do, we could go together?”. I hadn’t been to regular yoga classes since getting sick, I used to practice Hatha, Vinyasa as well as Pilates regularly but just haven’t been strong enough to take on those types of classes. Much like my connection with my dance background mentioned in my first post, I get a huge amount of benefit from practicing as part of a community in a studio setting. I’m a very social person and I feel wonderfully at home in a big clear studio, stretching on the parquet floors. The sense of achievement and satisfaction I get from taking part in a class rather than just practicing at home is phenomenal, it feels like getting a little slice of my old pre-ME life back. So I started attending the class with my sister every week and the benefits have been phenomenal! The class we do is Restorative Yoga with Yoga Nidra (also known as yogic sleep), it is a very gentle and meditative class that focusses on creating compassionate connection with your body and experiencing deep relaxation. It is suitable for all levels and even those with injuries or conditions that you may think prevent you from trying yoga or getting back into yoga. Just make sure to speak to your teacher at the beginning of your class and let them know your problem areas so they can provide you with alternatives for any postures that could be problematic.

Yoga is a chance to detox your mind from the stresses of everyday life. Gift yourself a couple of hours a week away from the bustle of the streets, the glare of the TV, the worry of being ill, the blue light of your smart phone to recover. It is an opportunity to recognise how you connect and communicate with your body through your internal dialogue, are you speaking to yourself with compassion, patience, kindness and generosity? If you are not, use your practice to let go of those habits and nurture a collaborative team spirit between your mind and your body. Over time you will see the physical benefits as your body slowly becomes stronger and more flexible, or you may find it helps to reduce the pains you experience, even if it just means you stay in the same place rather than spiralling downwards that is a huge achievement.

Yoga is a wholistic practice that benefits your body, mind and spirit in multiple ways all at the same time. It will calm your nervous system, recondition your muscles, clear your mind, and stimulate your organs to improve their performance, cleansing and detoxifying on all levels. If you suffer from chronic pain, are physically weak and/or feel a disconnected relationship to your body then try looking into yoga and what it could do for you, find a local class, or start practicing at home (I strongly recommend working with a teacher if you are new to yoga as you could be unknowingly doing yourself harm if you are not practicing the correct techniques, yoga teachers are very kind, patient and healing people so don’t be shy to arrive to class early and talk with them about your problems, emotional and physical.)

I have recently discovered Yoga My Bed and M.E, gentle yoga programmes that are designed specifically for people with ME/CFS and can be practiced from your bed, in your PJs!

And if you like the idea of doing yoga from your bed, here is another video I have enjoyed.

Remember yoga is a practice, you’re not supposed to be a master, no body is. Each person’s practice is totally unique to them and will be different depending on their needs and abilities, I’ve been practicing for over 15 years and I still can’t put my heels on the floor in downward dog, I never have and probably never will!

The key is an acceptance of what you are able to achieve today as good enough and that is a very important lesson for those of us who live with chronic illness.

Please share your yoga stories below, or any questions you might have.

Much love and wellness,

Tara x

yoga for chronic illness

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