Yoga is the Best Medicine
Yoga has been so pivotal to my survival.
I know I would be dead today but for yoga. I’ve been a practitioner of yoga since 1994, a teacher since 2003, and certified by International Association of Yoga Therapist as a therapist since 2017.
Yoga taught me I could survive the intense despair I felt about my life and the anger I felt towards my body for failing me and decimating my future, my finances and my family.
When we become ill, our bodies become terra incognito (an unknown land) or even terra pericolosa (perilous land). Sometimes our bodies become monstrous or a hydra with various debilitating symptoms popping up, unpredictably. You may feel terrorized by your body, never knowing what’s coming next and living in a state of fear, caution, and anger.
You do not have to live like that all the time - even if you’re sick.
Yoga is one of the most effective tools you can cultivate to improve your wellbeing and to have agency over your life again.
I was very fortunate. 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 over 25 years and which 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 in a concrete way that none of my doctors yet could.
Before I got sick, yoga was all about the physical – the poses, the strength, the stretches. My practice was simply cross-training for the running, biking and rowing I was doing.
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 then learned how to support my nervous system through breath, how to handle my emotions through meditation, how to deeply rest through yoga nidra, and how to practice restorative yoga in a way that was responsive to the uncomfortable and painful sensations.
That's when I determined I had to become a teacher. Yoga's healing power, I knew from my own personal experience, is immense.
Still, today, I have periods when I can’t get onto the floor without the room spinning as if I’d just done six shots of tequila. (I wish!)I have other times when my muscles are too weak to do standing poses never mind safely do any sort of inversions. And I go through times when the only yoga I can do is a breathing technique because I can barely walk to the bathroom. And all of that is okay.
With a repertoire of poses and practices, any one can learn how to use yoga to feel better. And with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement, you can stop loathing your body. That’s so beneficial too.
Many of the advertising images of beautiful celebrities, athletic people, and slim models practicing yoga deter many who feel they are not in good enough shape to even 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. Those who would likely benefit the most probably conclude that yoga just isn’t for them. They may think it’s too hard, too dangerous, too active or just too weird.
Others feel that they simply do not have the bandwidth to learn something new. Or that they physically don't have the energy to do anything physical other than to shower.
Yoga is a small word for a wide range of practices. The best yoga adapts to the practitioner and meets them where they are, where ever they are and however they are. And the best practitioner listens to their own body and learns how to navigate and surf the riptides and waves of symptoms.
Yoga helps us to abide living with illness in three ways. First, by practicing yoga you become more aware of your body in a way that is isn't scary or distressing. Second, yoga helps you to befriend your body, despite its betrayal. If sickness makes us flee from our bodies, yoga can help us to re-inhabit our bodies. And third, yoga soothes your body. You will rebuild your self-assurance and come to know that you actually dwell in a body that is responsive to you.
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 of your 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. That is absolutely true. It’s mostly scary in your head, and that translates into your body.
But through yoga, you will discover that if you can muster the energy and courage to turn to and perhaps even embrace whatever is making you ill at ease that that very approach will help dissipate the edge, the sharpest points, the scratching on the chalkboard. We do this carefully and with support and with patience and curiosity. Not with judgement about what should be or could be or would be but for our illness.
The resistance itself defines and pricks 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 be able approach it with questions of exploration and realize that the sensations are more dynamic that you thought.
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 of the vice of pain and agony is often 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. And you learn that every day is a unique experience too.
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.
Your tissues and tightness and tone can shift and knowing that, physically experiencing those shifts can also shift your attitude towards your body profoundly and positively.
Over time and with your yoga practice and increasing knowledge, you become more responsive to your body and can befriend it again. And for me, that was yoga’s greatest gift.
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 and meditation methods offer 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 which you experience in your body.
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. And worked very effectively too.
I learned to trust the fact that yoga made me feel better and that I could relieved my headache or stomach ache or weakness or fatigue or anxiety or grief.
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 cultivate that self-assurance and also help to rebuild your self-esteem.
HOW TO START YOGA IF YOU ARE SICK
Look for a teacher who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. I’ve been a member since 2004 and certified since 2017 as a yoga therapist. 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. If one type of yoga or a teacher isn’t helpful, then try another. Keep trying.
Do not check your common sense at the door. If something does not feel right, do not do it. And ask. Ask lots of questions, and if you don’t get good answers, try another place.
Ask questions. And if you do not get a good answer, find a teacher who can answer.
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.
Assess if you feel better after. If you don’t, find another teacher. Trust your own 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. Try yoga and get to know your own. You can do it!
LET’S DISCUSS ::
Have you ever tried yoga? What happened?
If you have not, what are your concerns?
What do you notice about your breath when you are feeling different ways?
Do you practice meditation?
EXTRA ELEMENTS OF INTEREST ::
Awake Through Rest
Very good resource for restorative yoga poses with Adrienne S. Baggs.
More active practice but mindful of varying abilities
Yoga and Chronic Illness: Choose a Practice That Works for You
Relief for Chronic Fatigue Through Yoga
Feeling Anxious? This Yoga Sequence Will Do The Trick
Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing by Timothy McCall, M.D.
This MD instructs yoga teachers and is a contributor to Yoga Journal
The Woman's Book of Yoga & Health
By the former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine and past managing editor of Yoga Journal