“Have you tried meditation?”
“How about yoga?”
I was asked again and again after living with chronic fatigue syndrome for over 6 years. The answer was always the same: “No. It’s not my thing.”
But as the months and the years went on and I wasn’t seeing any improvement from the medications my healthcare team was giving me, I decided things couldn’t get any worse, why not give yoga a try?
I signed up for an 8-week yoga and mindfulness course for people with environmental illnesses. I showed up on the mat sceptical, as, it turned out, were most of the other people in the class.
At the end of the 8-week course, I couldn’t believe the improvement to my health. I wasn’t cured (it takes more than a few weeks…and I hate the word cured, but that’s for another article), but I saw significant improvements to my health and energy levels. More importantly, I felt I now had the tools at my disposal to manage my pain and fatigue.
I know that it can be hard to dive in and give yoga and meditation a try. It feels a little ‘woo-woo’. As I often said to myself, “if a doctor or medication can’t help me, how will stretching and breathing help?”. I was also hesitant to try anything outside of traditional healthcare (or covered by insurance). I had already wasted a lot of money on cleanses, supplements, and naturopaths which led to no improvement in my symptoms.
But, yoga for chronic illness was (and is now even more so) easily accessible. The program I did was covered by health insurance. There are also many local classes you can attend and specialist videos you can find online to help you get started in a yoga practice for a much lower fee than the expensive alternative therapies I had tried (which cost upwards of $1000).
After I had been practising yoga for a few years and was seeing the lasting benefits of my practice, I started wondering why more doctors weren’t recommending yoga for chronic illness. I talked to others who had taken the course with me, as well as people I met online through blogging and discovered that almost everyone who had tried yoga had gotten at least some benefit from it. Some were like me who found a full recovery after a couple years of a yoga and meditation practice. Others were still ill but felt that yoga was an invaluable tool in managing their symptoms and a higher quality of life.
The reasons yoga for chronic illness isn’t recommended by so many healthcare practitioners is multi-fold. It’s difficult to scientifically study yoga because there are so many different types of yoga and the benefits people get from it vary from individual to individual. There is also the issue that people want medication. In a way, it validates your illness as “real” if there is a medication for it. Medication is a quick fix that you don’t have to make any lifestyle changes for. Pharmaceutical companies are also more than happy to fund drug trials and are not investing much in yoga or meditation studies. Despite these factors, many doctors are beginning to recommend yoga and meditation to their patients. There are also organisations such as The Minded Institute and Yoga As Medicine working to bring yoga into healthcare.
In this article, I’ll answer the questions: what is yoga? Will it really help you with your chronic illness? Is it better than other forms of exercise or complementary therapies? What do you need to know about yoga for chronic illness to practice it safely?
What is yoga?
In Sanskrit (the language spoken in ancient India and the language most yogic texts are written in), yoga means ‘to yoke’ or tie together. Despite some form of yoga being practised for over 2000 years, the yoga we practice today likely looks very different from the yoga that was practised by Hindu and Buddhist monks thousands of years ago. The monks used to practice yoga to relieve tension in their body so that they could sit in meditation for long periods of time.
In the last few decades, we’ve started to understand the health benefits of yoga outside of just spiritual transformation (or, for other modern yogi’s, outside of getting a “yoga body”).
By looking at the origins of yoga, we can see that yoga (especially yoga for chronic illness) is about more than just the physical postures. It’s about the mental state we create using the poses, breath work, meditation, mindfulness, visualisation, and other yogic techniques.
While the origins of yoga are spiritual, and we should pay tribute to the cultural lineage that yoga comes from, we now understand the benefits of yoga on the central nervous systems on the body, and how it can benefit people living with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and other illnesses find relief from their symptoms.
The simplest definition of yoga is linking the breath with movement.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice to observe your thoughts and feelings and change your state of consciousness. There are schools of meditation that come from all over the world. But when speaking of yoga and meditation together, we’re often speaking of meditation from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn’t about “stopping your thoughts” or “turning off your mind”.We can’t control the thoughts that come in and out of our mind. We can’t even shut off our brains when we’re sleeping! Instead, meditation is a practice that helps you observe those thoughts, and search for emotional or psychological blocks.
I love meditation for chronic illness because all you need to be able to do is sit or lie down! No physical movement or poses required!
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of staying present in the moment. By staying focused on the present, we can lessen our regrets from the past or worries about the future. This is a helpful practice for people with chronic illness because we often have catastrophic thoughts about our illness and our prospects (thoughts such as, “I’ll never get better”). By focusing on the present, we can choose to enjoy where we are right now. Even if we feel sick and tired, we can still enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread or a conversation with a friend.
Mindfulness can and should be practised during yoga class. However, mindfulness can be practised at any moment of the day. Mindfulness for chronic illness is a powerful tool that can increase your quality of life when practised regularly.
Research has found that people who practice mindfulness actually change their brains. We used to believe that after about age 27, our brains were set. Yet, in the last few years, scientists have realised this is not true. People who meditate and practice mindfulness regularly have more gray matter in their brains, and often have lower levels of cortisol – the stress hormone. Meditators and yogi’s bounce back from stressful events faster, also known as resilience. Many practitioners believe this is due to the mindfulness practised during yoga and meditation.
What is yoga for chronic illness and how does yoga for chronic illness benefit patients?
Yoga has been shown to have many therapeutic effects and can help people manage symptoms of chronic illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Research in the field is new, but studies here and here, as well as personal stories here, show that for many people, yoga has helped relieve pain and fatigue, and build muscle strength. For some, it's led to a full recovery. But, everybody is different, so it’s essential to try yoga for yourself and make your own decisions about whether it is beneficial to you.
Yoga for chronic illness is taking the pillars of yoga practice – postures – breath work – meditation – mindfulness, and putting together a series of classes that can help boost energy and reduce pain for people living with chronic illness. This is different than classes you’ll often find in your local studio which focus on fitness and strength over healing, mindfulness, and stress relief.
What are yoga therapy and accessible yoga?
Yoga therapy is a form of 1-on-1 yoga practice where a teacher works directly with a student to address their specific health needs. The teacher is usually an expert on the condition of the student and has studied western and yogic therapeutical practices extensively. Due to the focused 1-on-1 nature of yoga therapy classes students often see a lot of improvement. However, due to the highly specialised 1-on-1 nature of the classes, yoga therapy classes or workshops can be expensive. In my opinion, it’s well worth the price tag, but I know many with chronic illness aren’t able to work. You don’t need to spend any money to see the benefits of a yoga practice.
If you are interested in 1-on-1 yoga therapy, you can search for a therapist in your area, or I invite you to schedule a consult for online classes with me.
If yoga therapy isn’t what you’re looking for right now, you should be looking for accessible yoga classes. These are group classes or pre-recorded videos that focus on therapeutic methods for chronic conditions or generally make their classes accessible to all ability levels by giving many different modifications to the poses. Most of what I do on this blog is accessible yoga. I love the benefits from a 1-on-1 yoga practice, but for me, it’s more important to be able to reach more people with the basic concepts of yoga. Students can then choose to continue their practice with the path that works best for them.
How is yoga for chronic illness different than other treatments like ‘Pacing’ or ‘Graded Exercise Therapy’?
Yoga is more effective than other forms of exercise, such as walking, for the elderly or those with chronic illness. Yoga for chronic illness has more positive effects than other types of exercise therapies. While scientists are continuing to research the topic, many practitioners believe that the benefits of yoga over walking or other forms of exercise come from the breathing and meditation exercises that accompany a yoga practice. Another potential reason is that yoga moves the bodies in all different directions. With walking and most traditional forms of exercise, the movements are very repetitive and thus neglect many muscle groups and areas of the body.
Yoga is different than pacing or graded exercise therapy because, instead of increasing your exercise based on an amount of time, yoga works to meet your body where it is every time you practice. There is no award for being “good” at yoga. Progress is measured by the consistency of your practice not whether or not you can touch your toes or hold plank pose. Yoga accounts for the fact that one day you may be able to do an active flow practice and the next week you might need to do a restorative series in bed. Yoga works with your body, not against it.
What’s the science behind yoga for chronic illness?
There was a study done in 2014 that showed participants who practised yoga, showed significant increases in energy levels and reduction in pain levels. One of the most exciting findings from the yoga world has been that, compared to walking, yoga provided more benefits to the ageing and chronically ill. These studies found that yoga is more effective than walking in improving cardiac function, and people who practised yoga rather than walking showed more significant improvements in mood and anxiety than the walking group. We know that any form of exercise boosts your mood, but yoga seems to be more effective than most types of exercise in increasing well-being. Yoga was found to increase certain chemicals in the brain that are prescribed as drugs to those suffering from mood disorders.
In an eight-week mindfulness study done in 2017, participants showed improvements for anxiety, fatigue, and depression and patients reported an increased quality of life. Even after only 2 months of a mindfulness intervention, these improvements were still true three months later. This is promising because making a commitment to mindfulness through small daily changes can have a lasting impact on your quality of life.
Researchers from Harvard University conducted a groundbreaking study in 2011 that showed long-term meditators had more grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with memory, focus, learning, compassion, and self-awareness and less in the area associated with stress. The great news was these results were replicated after participants completed an eight-week MBSR program. You don’t need to meditate for years to change your brain, it only takes a few weeks!
These studies are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the numerous personal stories of health transformations through yoga.
In yoga, there is a concept called Samskara which indicates changing the brain or changing a behaviour, through repeated action. This is similar to the idea of neuroplasticity in science which says that contrary to what we used to believe about the brain being static after around age 27, we can change our brain by changing our actions or our environment.
What type of yoga is best for me?
There are many different types of yoga, and I don’t think that one school of yoga is better than another. What’s important is to find a teacher who understands your condition, and is able to make the class accessible to you. As mentioned above, yoga therapy is excellent for all types of chronic illness. Here are a few other recommendations for styles of yoga to try:
Yoga for Chronic Fatigue:
- Restorative Yoga
- Yin Yoga
- Hatha Yoga
- Restorative Flow
Yoga for Fibromyalgia and chronic pain:
- Iyengar yoga
- Restorative yoga
- Hatha Yoga
- Yoga nidra
Yoga for Lyme disease:
- Yin yoga
- Yoga nidra
- Restorative yoga
- Hatha Yoga
Yoga for insomnia:
- Restorative yoga
- Vinyasa flow
- Yoga nidra
How can you start practising yoga as someone with a chronic illness?
Ready to give yoga a try? The first thing to do is find a yoga for chronic illness teacher who understands your needs. This can be a teacher in your local community or someone online. I have some videos you can try here. I also recommend these organisations for finding accessible yoga teachers and yoga therapists in your area: The Minded Institute, Viniyoga Institute, International Association of Yoga Therapists.
You don’t need to go to several 60-minute classes a week. Even just 10-15 minutes 4-5 times a week can make a big difference to your health. This will also give you a chance to try a few different teachers, practices, and styles to see what works best for you.
While finding the right teacher is essential, it’s even more important to remember that your body is your own best teacher. Only you know how a posture feels to you, and if you feel any pain or discomfort, you should come out of the pose, take a pause in the practice, and talk to the teacher if possible. If it’s not possible to speak with the teacher, you can just hang out in child’s pose or savasana until moving on to the next pose. Yoga can help you connect with what your body and mind need to heal, it’s vital that you listen!
Try a free video
I hope this page has helped you understand why so many people are adding yoga for chronic illness to their healthcare routine. For people living with chronic illnesses like Fibromyalgia, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, Insomnia, and other related illnesses, yoga can provide a much-needed way to show yourself and your illness kindness. Remember, the most important thing is to learn what works for you and your body. The best way to find out if yoga is for you is to give it a try! Head over to the ‘free videos’ page to choose a short practice and begin your healing journey today!