Yoga. It’s everywhere. From passers-by on the sidewalk toting yoga mats, to health headlines in the media, it seems like yoga has saturated the mainstream. But if you live with a chronic condition, like fibromyalgia (FM), you may be unaware of what twisting yourself into a pretzel has do with managing your daily symptoms. In fact, you may be unaware that yoga isn’t about twisting yourself into a pretzel at all.
Research is clearly on the side of trying yoga to manage your fibromyalgia symptoms. The Oregon Health and Science University published a study in 2010 that compared the impact of an eight week yoga program on FM patients against a control group who received standard FM treatment. Researchers found that “pain was reduced in the yoga group by an average of 24 percent, fatigue by 30 percent and depression by 42 percent”.
So what is yoga actually all about? And how can it help you manage your chronic condition? To answer these questions, I asked my good friend and yoga therapist, Kathrin Gottwald, who also blogs at Soulicious Moments. Kathrin explains that “A carefully tailored yoga practice can not only lead to more flexibility and muscle tone, but also more awareness and potentially a different way of experiencing yourself and life.” This mind-body aspect of yoga exercise is at the core of what makes it effective. “Yoga means union,” explains Kathrin, “it is a practice to establish a feeling of connection to ourselves, others and the world around us.”
Before my diagnosis, I was a beginner yoga student. Although I was never a very athletic person, I found I craved my weekly class. Week to week, I noticed that my strength, balance and flexibility improved. I enjoyed being in my body, rather than in my head, for those 60 minutes. After my diagnosis, I assumed by yoga days were over. I could barely sit on the floor, after all!
Eventually, I attended a pain management class, which included a yoga component led by a teacher who herself had fibromyalgia. I began to include certain yoga poses into my daily stretching routine. Finally, I found a DVD with a yoga routine designed specifically for FM (see below). The genius part of the program is that they show each pose at 3 levels of ability, so you can customize your program based on your daily level of pain. I try to do this routine twice a week. I have the same benefits as before, even though my yoga routine is much gentler and shorter than before: feeling a positive connection to my body, feeling more present, and feeling my flexibility, balance and strength improve.
Beyond physical benefits, yoga is about developing body awareness and mental presence. Kathrin elaborates: “Yoga is not about perfecting the poses or contorting yourself into difficult positions, but it is all about how you relate to yourself and that which you encounter and experience in life. Especially for people living with chronic conditions it can be very beneficial to find skillful ways of relating to themselves and their illness.”
I also include a breathing practice three to four times a week along with my yoga routine. This is also an important part of yoga. As Kathrin notes, “In yoga the breath is considered our life force. The practice is to consciously move this energy within you and use it skilfully. Observing the breath and resting your awareness on your breath is already a yoga practice in itself.” Even if you are having a flare, and all you can do is breathe, you can still practice yoga. This practice has to do with sitting or lying quietly and focusing on the breath. When thoughts or sensations distract you, as they inevitably will, you gently bring your attention back to the breath as soon as you realize you have gotten carried away.
I find yoga helps me ‘practice’ being in the here and now, helps me to know the contents of my own mind and heart better, and increases my awareness of my body, so I can check in with what I am able to do day to day. In Kathrin’s words, “Yoga practice starts with being. We do not need to constantly strive to be different and improve. When we practice, we are just striving to be more fully ourselves.”
So if you want to start a yoga practice, where do you begin? You can work one-on-one with a yoga therapist or teacher. Kathrin explains that “in yoga therapy you work with a specific intention of finding more skilful ways of relating to yourself and your condition. This is a very personal and individual path. The yoga therapist will develop a targeted practice for you, which will be individually adapted as needed”.
More and more studios are beginning to offer targeted classes, like yoga for back pain or chair yoga, which you may be able to join. I definitely recommend asking if you can observe a class before joining, to ensure it is at your level and uses a therapeutic approach.
If this is out of your price range, several resources you can consider are listed below. These include instructional DVDs or online routines you can do at home. This is usually better for people with some yoga experience, to avoid injury. However you start, I hope you find greater presence, connection, and health!
- Yoga and Pilates for Fibromyalgia:Excellent at-home instructional video for people living with fibromyalgia. Includes modifications at three different intensity levels (from seated to standing) http://www.myalgia.com/VIDEOS/Video_Introduction.htm
- Overcome Pain with Gentle Yoga:is recommended by health professionals (note- more challenging than above). http://www.lifeisnow.ca/product-category/pain-management-products/#products/
- Free mindful yoga routine, including a chair yoga option http://palousemindfulness.com/disks/yoga1.html
- Yoga for Arthritis: presented by the Arthritis Foundationhttp://arthritis.yoga/store/products/arthritis-friendly-yoga/