4 Surprising Benefits of Yoga for Chronic Illness

From increasing flexibility and boosting immunity to improving sleep quality and relieving headaches, it’s no secret that there are tons of health benefits of yoga. The practice has also been found to be safe and effective as a complementary treatment for people with chronic illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, lupus and multiple sclerosis. But the biggest benefits of yoga for people with chronic illnesses may have nothing to do with treating symptoms. From helping you cope with a difficult diagnosis to feeling in control of your emotions, here are four reasons to consider adding yoga to your self-care, plus tips for getting started with a yoga practice that’s right for you.

1. Have a Coping Technique That’s Always There for You

“It can be as strenuous or as soft as I need, depending on the day, which makes it a welcome addition to my daily self-care.”

As anyone living with a chronic illness knows, symptoms can change from one day to the next. One day you can feel completely mobile, and the next you’re in the middle of a flare. But between the more rigorous flow style classes, gentle and restorative styles, pranayama (breath work) and meditation, yoga is a very adaptive practice that can be done every day — even if that means focusing on your breath for five minutes at a time on days when getting out of bed isn’t possible, says Alyssa MacKenzie, author of the blog Make Lemonade with Lupus who is also in the process of becoming a certified yoga teacher. The adaptive nature of yoga has helped her stay consistent, allowing the practice to help her cope with the physical and mental pain and uncertainty of living with lupus, mitochondrial dysfunction and dysautonomia.

“I have had periods of having a more rigorous practice, and I have gone through periods of a very restorative practice, and I think that is why the practice has stuck,” says MacKenzie. “It can be as strenuous or as soft as I need, depending on the day, which makes it a welcome addition to my daily self-care.”

2. Clear Brain Fog

Often, people with chronic conditions will suffer from difficulty with their memory, and experience periods of slower or sluggish cognition, says Baxter Bell, MD, ERYT 500, a board member for the International Association of Yoga Therapists and author of the blog Yoga for Healthy Aging. But a regular yoga practice might help you minimize the effects of brain fog. A 2010 study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition found that even just four sessions of mindfulness meditation training can improve attention. And another study in the journal Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery found improved selective attention in people with MS after 10 weeks of a hatha yoga program, which could help with focus.

3. Create Space for Yourself

“The practice can give space to the individual to sit with the worry and the concern and the reality of something changing and shifting in their lives.”

When you’re handed a diagnosis of a chronic illness, you’re forced to deal with a whirlwind of changes all at once. Between trying to help your family and friends understand your condition and dealing with the demands of work and life, finding time to truly absorb your diagnosis can be hard, to say the least. Bell recalls teaching restorative yoga to a woman in her 30’s who had recently been diagnosed with MS. She had a husband, kids and a full-time job, and was so busy dealing with everyone else coming to terms with her diagnosis that she hadn’t had much time for herself. “She was physically and emotionally very exhausted from this process,” he says.

“Within a few minutes of the very first posture, she started to really fall out of the sadness she had not been able to express,” says Bell. “The practice can give space to the individual to sit with the worry and the concern and the reality of something changing and shifting in their lives.”

4. Own Your Emotions

Sometimes, it’s OK not to feel OK, and practicing yoga can help you acknowledge that, says MacKenzie. For her, connecting the philosophy of yoga with the physical practice most people think of helped her go deeper into her head and accept what she saw.

“Not only did I suddenly have this ability to get stronger on days I felt well enough to be more active, and was able to better cope with the idea of being gentle to myself on less well days, I was able to at least make my mind feel better during both easier and harder times,” says MacKenzie. “That is huge when you are chronically ill, having that power. It is not even about exuding positivity or quieting negativity, it is this almost tangible power to just be OK with whatever moment I am in until it passes.”

Tips For Practicing Yoga With a Chronic Illness

Yoga is well known for its health benefits, but the practice could be especially beneficial to people living with a chronic illness.

Photo: Lena Bell

Are you interested in trying yoga, but you’re not sure where to start? These suggestions can help you safely ease into a regular yoga practice.

Consider Private Instruction

When you go to a public yoga class, there’s no guarantee that the teacher will have the proper experience to help you adapt the poses to your needs. Jumping right in like this could leave you feeling discouraged and less likely to return. Instead, look for a teacher in your area who is highly experienced working with people one-on-one or who has a been trained in yoga therapeutics, suggests Bell. Often, teachers will be willing to work with students on a sliding pay scale, especially if you explain your situation to them.

Starting with a couple of private sessions will help you get an understanding of what the poses look like, and what they feel like in your own body, plus any adaptations you may find are helpful or necessary, says MacKenzie.

“It really does serve you well when ready to begin classes, and helps ease those first class jitters,” she says. “Plus, it paves the way to a thoughtful home practice.”

Look for Gentle and Restorative Classes

If private classes aren’t for you, public classes labeled “gentle” or “restorative” will likely be the safest way to start, says Bell. Arrive early so you have a few minutes to introduce yourself to the teacher and clue him or her in on where you are right now, he says. “Personal responsibility is part of going to a public class. Give the teacher the opportunity to guide you correctly.”

Depending on where you live and how many yoga studios are in your area, you may also find a studio that offers speciality classes that will suite your needs. For example, some studios offer yoga for disability classes that are open to people of all ages living with any limiting condition.

Try Online Yoga

While hands-on instruction is a great way to learn, it is possible — and accessible — to begin yoga in your own home. Websites such as Yoga Journal, Gaia, oneOeight, and YogaGlo all offer a variety of classes and fairly comprehensive instruction either for free or for an affordable monthly subscription fee (and most offer a free trial). If getting out of bed is out of the question, try a meditation app like Headspace, or do an online search for guided meditations, suggests MacKenzie.

“Sometimes all my yoga practice is able to be is a few minutes of gentle stretching and intentional breathing in bed,” says MacKenzie. “But that minimal amount is incredibly beneficial.”

Has yoga helped you cope with your chronic illness? Tell us about your experience in the comments below, or share your practice using the hashtag #Chronicality.

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