What Yoga Taught Me About Managing Chronic Illness

“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”

— T.K.V. Desikachar

Wikipedia defines a chronic condition as something that “is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects or a disease that comes with time. The term chronic is often applied when the course of the disease lasts for more than three months. Common chronic diseases include arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, Lyme disease, autoimmune diseases, genetic disorders and some viral diseases such as hepatitis C and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.”

A few of the MANY chronic conditions, in addition to the ones mentioned in the definition above, are (Click the Wikipedia link above and scroll down to see a more complete list of chronic conditions):

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Mental Illness
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Obesity
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Obesity

Many people have multiple chronic conditions, such as myself. I deal with Psoriatic Arthritis, Non Radiographic Axial Spondyloarthritis, Lyme Disease, Sleep Apnea, Fibromyalgia and Mental Illness (I suffer from Anxiety Disorder).

If you live with a chronic condition yourself, then you know that it can make life very challenging. Chronic illnesses come with both physical and emotional issues that can oftentimes be overwhelming. Some of these conditions/diseases last for a long period of time and others are incurable (I’ve been dealing with most of my conditions for over 10 years now).

Those of us with chronic illness must take advantage of occasional help from others, but more importantly, we must learn to support ourselves by making lifestyle changes that can help us live a happy, fulfilling life.

For me, yoga has been HUGE in moving to a better place — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve been practicing yoga since 1999 and teaching since 2002, and there have been periods of time through the years when I’ve lost hope and my faith has been tested, and I let my yoga practice lapse. And every time I’ve done that, I’ve lost my ability to find that place of acceptance and peace.

If you’re struggling with managing one or more chronic conditions, then I urge you to try incorporating yoga into your life. If you’re skeptical about yoga, or scared to try it, let me assure you that:

  • There is no harm in trying at least one or two classes. What do you have to lose by giving it a go?
  • There is nothing to be afraid of. I promise. Like, really…I totally promise!

Here are 5 things yoga has taught me that have helped tremendously in managing my chronic conditions:

  1. The style of yoga you choose can make ALL the difference. Let’s be honest here….if you’re dealing with a chronic condition, then each day can be completely different when it comes to the symptoms you experience and how severe they are. Even on days I consider to be “good” days, I am still dealing with at least some degree of pain, fatigue and brain fog. And that affects my ability to concentrate, relax and sleep well.

    I used to plan out my yoga practices, but not anymore. And it’s not because I’m lazy, but because I never know what my body is capable of doing from one day to the next. I’d end up getting so frustrated with myself when I “failed” in my plan. I’d beat myself up and then all the negative talk would ramp up, and I’d end up with CRAZY amounts of stress and anxiety.

    These days, I can truly say I’m practicing yoga daily. However, the difference now is that I let my practice be guided by how I feel each day. When I’m in incredible amounts of pain, for example, a vigorous Vinyasa yoga practice is not good for me…in fact, it would most likely make everything much worse. So instead, I might incorporate a more restorative or gentle practice, and the length of time would be adjusted to suit how I’m feeling as well. When my anxiety and stress levels are through the roof, I’ll weave in a more challenging practice at the beginning and follow it up with yoga nidra, because for me, I need to physically challenge myself before I can sit still and focus (of course, what constitutes physically challenging for me will be determined by any physical symptoms I’m dealing with). But you get the idea.

    There are so many styles of yoga to choose from, and it can be hard to know what would work best for you. If you have questions on that, I’m here for you…just message me and I’m happy to either create something custom for you or direct you to resources that may help you find your style.
  2. Don’t give up on yourself. Yoga has taught me, over and over, that life is a journey and not a destination. And that it’s not a competition. There will always be days when we feel discouraged…that happens even for those who don’t deal with chronic conditions. But you are stronger than you think you are, and my practice on the mat has shown me that over and over again. And I’m not talking just about physical strength. It takes strength to do the work, to know that you need to go with the flow and just do what you can.
  3. Don’t dwell on what you can’t do…focus on what you CAN do. When I started yoga back in 1999, I practiced a more active Power Vinyasa style because physically, I didn’t have any limitations back then. My issues at that point stemmed from anxiety and stress more than anything. But when I developed the chronic conditions that DID cause physical limitations, I initially kept saying things to myself like, “Wow! I used to be able to do that…I wish I could get back to that more advanced expression of this pose.”

    All that did was cause me more stress and anxiety, and it also wrecked my self-esteem. Once I got over myself and really let the yoga in, I learned that I need to meet myself where I am at any given moment. I’ve learned to accept that there are certain things my body can no longer do and may never be able to do again…and I’m OK with that. I have my yoga props with me always, and I tailor the poses I do to fit in with what I need and can do on that given day.
  4. Meditation is key. First let me say that, just like there are various styles of physical yoga practices, there are also various ways you can meditate. So if the thought of sitting still terrifies you, I got you! Having a regular meditation routine is a terrific way to check in with yourself and gain perspective. Even if you only have time for 1 minute, it’s beneficial.

    If sitting cross-legged isn’t your thing, then think about trying the following:
    • Find a meditation app that resonates with you. I’ve tried Calm, Headspace and Balance. I love all of them, and I switch up which one I use based on what I’m in the mood for. There are free trials for all three of them, so check them out and see what you think. There are so many other apps, but these three are my go-to apps.
    • Find a breathing exercise to work on. When you practice breathwork, you’ll find that you become so focused on what you’re doing, you have no choice but to get out of your own head. And many breathing exercises can target particular conditions. For example, if you’re experiencing anxiety, try breathing in a way where your exhale lasts longer than your inhale (i.e., breathe in for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 6).
    • Walking meditation. Try walking in such a way that you focus on consciously placing your foot down by starting with the heel and rolling through to the toes of your feet…slow down the pace and notice how focusing on the feet in this way makes you feel…if you’re outside, maybe you also take time as you’re walking to notice what you see, what you smell, how the air feels on your skin, and what you hear.
  5. Rest is essential. Most physical yoga practices end in a pose called Savasana, which translates to Corpse Pose. I often refer to it in the classes I teach as Final Relaxation because, really, any shape you take with your body that allows you sufficient time to rest and completely relax your body are good. And you know what? I’ve noticed that I’m now more able to intuitively know when I need to take time to rest. If I’m not in a place where I can take a few minutes to lie down, I am usually able to at least find some area where I can sit quietly and recharge (which means, for me, NO TECHNOLOGY ALLOWED!).

I hope these little nuggets of wisdom can benefit you in some way. And if you’re new to yoga, remember that everyone — even the bendiest and strongest people you see in those beautiful posts on social media — had to start somewhere. And remember that yoga truly is a practice for EVERY BODY.

And also remember that I do struggle with my chronic conditions EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The difference for me now is that I am regaining my happiness and enjoying my life. And I must admit that I am MORE confident in myself in all aspects of my life…and I have yoga to thank for that. The lessons are there if you let them in.

Namaste and Have a Sparkling Day!

Melanie

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