I think most of us are familiar with this sort of conversation. It goes something like this:
Me: I have an incurable chronic illness that affects my ability to perform certain tasks
Nosy bystander: Have you tried this miracle supplement from [enter-name-of-multi-level-marketing-company-here]?
Me: No, but I have a skilled medical team working with me to find the best treatment options.
Nosy bystander: Have you tried probiotics?
Nosy bystander: Have you tried yoga?
Nosy bystander: Your chakras must be out of alignment.
Although well-intentioned, this is a frustrating social interaction to experience, especially when it is coming from someone you barely know. It suggests that the chronically ill person is not doing enough to ameliorate their condition. That on some level, it's their own fault.
These insensitive comments can come from anyone. Friends, relatives, complete strangers, and even spiritual teachers. I've heard many yoga teachers make false promises about the benefits of yoga. Although it is so much more than the physical poses, they present the practice of yoga strictly as a means of physical self-improvement. They talk about it as though getting on your yoga mat will magically remedy all of your problems. If you're not experiencing this miraculous healing, they will blame it on you for having such a cloudy aura or whatever other nonsense they can use to keep themselves safe in their bubble of denial. People don't want to accept the fact that chronic illness can happen to anyone for reasons that are beyond human control.
So I'm not here to tell you that you should try yoga because it will cure your chronic illness. That would be a lie. But I am here to tell you that you should try yoga because it will make living with chronic illness more bearable.
RELEASING MY EXPECTATIONS
When I began practicing yoga in 2010, I was hoping it would help me to take deeper breaths. At the time, I was experiencing shortness of breath while doing routine tasks, and I thought it was a result of being out of shape. I was eighteen years old and went running almost every day, so I have no clue where I got this idea. Turns out, my heart and lungs were being squished inside my chest due to a deformity called pectus excavatum. This is why I couldn't breathe. My internal organs were being squeezed by my own ribs. This is something that yoga could not fix, and I eventually had to have surgery to correct it.
This is just a small excerpt from my long and complicated chronic illness story, but things kind of snowballed after this.
Although yoga did not live up to my expectation of curing my breathing difficulties or any of my other symptoms, I stuck with it. This is because my yoga practice gave me more than I could have ever hoped for. It has taught me so much about myself, and it has helped me to live a more peaceful life. Although I am now living with multiple chronic illnesses that cause unpleasant and painful symptoms, yoga has given me the tools to cope with these difficulties in healthy ways.
HEALING BODY BETRAYAL
For a long time, I felt really angry at my body for not being healthy. I resented it. I felt betrayed. I did so much good for my body, yet it continued to sabotage me. I felt disconnected, like my body and I were two separate entities at war with each other.
As I continued with my yoga practice, that mindset began to shift. I noticed that in the moments I gave my full attention to my body, to my breath, I experienced calmness in my mind and relief in my body. When I stopped running away from myself and became fully present, the tension softened, and I felt better.
I realized that my body isn't fighting against me. It is fighting illness. It is fighting for me. It is my ally, not my enemy. Now, when I am feeling overwhelmed, I come home to my body. I place a hand over my heart and a hand over my belly, and I breathe. Because of my yoga practice, I have learned to work with my body instead of raging against it.
COPING WITH DIFFICULT SYMPTOMS
As chronic illness warriors, we often experience physical symptoms that can be frightening. Oftentimes, they are symptoms that most people might think would warrant a visit to the emergency room. But for us, this is our norm. To make matters worse, our bodies may release adrenaline in response to the physical symptoms we are experiencing, creating a physiological feeling of panic. The fear can easily swallow us whole.
After years of yoga practice, which includes meditation, I have learned to detach myself from my thoughts and tap into what we call Observer Consciousness. Now, when I experience new or intensified symptoms, I take a deep breath, step back and observe what is happening in my mind and in my body. I watch the activity with a sort of curiosity. I remind myself that everything in this life is temporary, including what I am experiencing now. I offer myself comfort and reassurance. I might even say to myself: It's going to be okay. I am safe. I am going to take care of you.
Giving myself this space to breathe allows me to respond to the situation peacefully and rationally rather than reacting out of panic.
ACCEPTING MY ILLNESS
Chronic illness elicits so many emotions, but especially grief. I’ve had to grieve the loss of the healthy life I thought I would have. I’ve had to grieve the loss of my healthy body. I’ve had to let go of a lot of the plans I had for my life. This is a hard thing to do, but with time, the weight of this grief has become lighter. There are still days when I feel sad and angry, but for the most part, I have accepted my illness, and I am at peace.
Yoga teaches us to release our expectations of how we think our life should look and to instead accept the present moment as it is. This means remaining present with our symptoms. Remaining present with our bodies. Remaining present with how we feel. Our resistance to reality is our greatest source of suffering. When we are able to let go and finally anchor ourselves in the present moment, we are able to experience contentment. We are able to experience peace.
I am so grateful for the lessons I have learned on my yoga mat, and I am honored that now I get to teach these practices to chronic illness warriors all over the globe. I believe it is possible to create an abundant life in spite of chronic illness, and we can use our yoga practice as a tool to achieve that potential.
So, have you tried yoga?