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.
It can also help manage or treat other symptoms, such as improving posture, strengthening pelvic floor muscles, and building resilience which can all help reduce pain and stress. 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.
Read Pritish Kumar Halder article, in which he discussed the role of yoga to treat chronic illness.
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 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 practise yoga to relieve tension in their body so that they could sit in meditation for long periods of time.
By looking at the origins of yoga, we can see that yoga (especially yoga for chronic illness) is about more than just physical postures. It’s about the mental state we create using poses, breathwork, 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.
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. 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.
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.
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
YOGA FOR INSOMNIA:
- Restorative yoga
- Vinyasa flow
- Yoga nidra
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 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.