If You’re Chronically Ill Yoga is
the Best Medicine. Here’s Why

June 21st / 2017
Yoga

Today on International Yoga Day, you’ll see a lot of discussion on the benefits of a regular yoga practice. But those who would likely benefit the most probably conclude that yoga isn’t for them. Many of the popular images of beautiful celebrities as well as athletic and fit people deter those who do feel they are not in shape enough to try.

But just because you don’t have a yoga butt and will never do an arm balance in your life does not mean you can not benefit from yoga. Even the idea of walking into a class may be intimidating. However, if you are sick and live with a chronic illness, you are missing out on one of the most effective tools to improve your wellbeing.

I was lucky. I was already doing yoga when my body betrayed me. A man I loved practiced yoga to help him with grief and to balance his long hours of road cycling. After we broke up, I missed his emotional strength which I sensed he gleaned from his yoga practice, so I tried a class and another love affair ensued which has lasted nearly 25 years and which has surely saved my life. When I got very ill in 2000, my yoga practice was the only thing that alleviated my symptoms, and that relief gave me hope.

Before I got sick, yoga was all about the physical – the poses, the strength, the stretches. After I got sick my practice radically evolved and exploded like confetti. There were all these deeper pieces I didn’t even know existed. I learned different breathing techniques that supported my nervous system. I began to meditate which helped me ride out the riptide of strong emotions like anger and despair caused by the debilitating chronic illness that had destroyed my life. And I practiced restorative yoga poses and discovered the powerful practice of yoga nidra to address the irritations of my body.

Yoga helps in three ways. First, by practicing yoga you become more aware of your body. Second, yoga helps you to befriend your body, despite its betrayal. And third, yoga soothes your body.

1 /  Aware of Your Body

If you’re sick, your body coughs up a lot of discomfort. You may not sleep. Your gut may make you late or keep you from leaving your home and toilet at all. Your migraine headaches may make you retreat to a shaded room to lie down. Your rash may make you ashamed of wearing certain clothes. Your chronic pain may make you wish you were dead because you certainly are not living fully. All of this is distressing. And making you quite enough aware of your body already.

So why on earth would someone sick wish to become more aware of their body? Yoga will make you more aware of the sensations and suffering. Naturally when you’re trying to escape and flee all the aches and sores, why would anyone wish to increase her consciousness of all that?

It can be very scary. Yet, you’ll discover that if you can muster the courage to turn to whatever is making you ill at ease that that very approach will help dissipate the edge. The resistance itself defines and sharpens the sensations. By facing and softening towards the very thing you are trying to flee, your body will relax. The symptoms may remain (will likely remain), but through the awareness of yoga you’ll approach it with curiosity and without judgment. You’ll start to notice the nuances and the changing nature of your discomfort which will remind you that the sensations can change, that they do change. The discomfort may not dissolve but it’ll feel like it can. And often, that relief and that loosened grip is enough.

2 / Befriend Your Body

Sickness creates an alienation from the body. I felt profoundly angry at the loss of agency over my body and the loss of freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. My body was a prison I could not escape. I never felt rested. Ten hours of sleep did not translate into energy. Chaos in my body ensued, and the inner gremlins took over. I felt betrayed and out of control.

As you become reacquainted with your body through awareness, yoga will also help you re-inhabit your body. Yoga cultivates flexibility of the mind as much as flexibility in the body. You learn that every day on the mat is a unique experience for everyone. You are taught to observe and adjust and to do so without judgement. You begin to approach your body as a divine vessel that is ever changing. And that sense of the dynamic nature of your tissues and tightness and tone can shift your attitude towards your body profoundly. Over time and with your yoga practice and increasing knowledge, you become more responsive to your body and can befriend it again.

3 / Soothe Your Body

With the increased awareness of yoga and the increased responsiveness to your body, you will better be able to comfort the discomfort. Yoga and the large repertoire of poses and breathing techniques offers subtle and some not so subtle ways to shift your ill-being to better-being, if not wellbeing.

There are two types of knowledge – that in your head and that in your body which you experience. Before I got ill, I took my body’s physical abilities for granted. For a long time, I did not know why yoga worked. I just knew from experience that it did. A lot. I learned to trust the fact that yoga made me feel better and relieved my headache or stomach ache or weakness. That experiential knowledge provided a sense of agency over my body that had eluded me since I fell ill.

As you learn to soothe yourself and as you experience the relief from yoga, your confidence in your experience will grow and build on itself. When you’re sick, trusting your own assessments about your body is infinitely more essential. A regular yoga practice will nurture that assurance.

How to Start if You’re Sick

  1. Look for a teacher who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. I’ve been a member since 2004, and their periodical is an invaluable resource. Teachers trained in the Iyengar method also have a good foundation in helping those who face special physical challenges as the founder, BKS Iyengar began yoga because he was sick.
  2. Do not check your common sense at the door. If something does not feel right, do not do it. And ask.
  3. Ask questions. And if you do not get a good answer, find a teacher who can answer.
  4. Try, try again. If you try yoga (or have tried it) and it didn’t work, try another teacher. Different teachers have different skills and resonate with various students.
  5. Assess if you feel better after. If you don’t, find another teacher. Trust your experiences and instincts.

Yoga creates space for magic to happen. A misty morning does not always mean a cloudy day. An ailing body today does not mean your body will always disappoint you. Yoga taught me my own healing power. In honor of Yoga International Day, try yoga and get to know your own. You can do it!

 


 

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If you think that learning to touch your toes or even to stand on your head whole of yoga, you have missed most of its bounty, most of its blessings, and most of its beauty.

- B.K.S. Iyengar
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