I always thought yoga was too slow for me. Pilates was more my thing – it seemed more powerful, more energetic. But then, I got really unwell, and lifting my phone was challenging. After a few years of really struggling, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia and started a treatment plan. As time went on, going to physiotherapy, developing strength again, I decided to give yoga a try. I fell in love; head over heels (kind of like a yoga position) in love.
For me, yoga is one of the best forms of exercise that helps me cope with chronic pain. Since I find such benefits from the practice I want to share with you exactly how it helps me.
- Each yoga session I attend is time for me to get in touch with my body.
I make it a point to set an intention at the beginning of every session. I sit on my mat, breathe and promise myself that for the next hour my focus is to “Be in my body without expectations.” This encourages me to become fully aware of my body. You see, I typically spend my days ignoring the pain that I feel. I push it aside and focus on whatever task is in front of me. Though this is a functional coping method, when I relax or go to bed, the pain hits me like a tonne of bricks. Without other activities to keep me distracted, and lacking the energy to further actively distract myself, the pain raises itself into my view so that I can see nothing else. I use yoga to make sure this doesn’t happen. Pain is a lot like emotions, in that it needs to be seen to metabolise. Something that is not seen stays around until it is. So at yoga, I set my intention and I consciously feel the pain.
- Yoga teaches me to be with pain.
I start off the hour feeling sore and stiff. My bones creak, I feel weak, and my wrists don’t feel like they can carry me in downward dog for much longer. But I stay with it. I breathe through it. This allows me to be with the pain, to make space for it, and to realise that I can handle it. I don’t need to run away.
- Yoga gives me the opportunity to transform pain.
As I move, the pain shifts. From stiff, weak, achiness, it moves into a sweet burning stretch. I am sweaty and the asanas are challenging, but I am so focussed thanks to my awareness of my steady breath. My wrists loosen, I can carry myself and my bones sort of become lubricated.
- Yoga challenges my self-perception.
I leave class feeling ten times freer than when I walked in. From feeling fearful that I may not make it through the session, I leave happy with what I’ve accomplished. Throughout the past few months of practicing yoga, my perception of my body has shifted from being “sick and weak” to being “capable and strong”.
- Yoga is not competitive so I can take things at my own pace.
There are always more advanced yogis than me and more newbie yogis than me, but the practice is not about who can lift their feet off the ground during arm balances… It’s about being grateful for the body that you have for this life and taking care of it. Therefore, it’s important to listen to your body. Don’t worry about how the other people in class look . Just tune in… If a certain asana feels like it’s too much for you, that’s probably because it is. Your teacher is there to guide you in the asanas, but they don’t know what’s happening inside your body, so it is up to you to feel your limits and be truthful about them. Stop when you need to stop and come back when you’re ready. This is often a case of trial and error. I sometimes push myself too hard in class and end up having to skip the next two. It happens. It’s okay, take the rest you need and come back.
- At the end of a yoga session, I feel more alive.
I feel better mood-wise – more optimistic and less stressed. I like to look back and compare where I am now to when I was diagnosed with fibro in March 2016. I used to get flare-ups from 20 minutes of slow, gentle exercise in a heated pool. Now, I can get through an hour of yoga. I still get flare-ups and I still get sick too often for my liking. But my attitude towards chronic pain has evolved. When every movement was painful and waking up in the morning felt like torture, I felt like fibromyalgia was a slow death sentence. But with hard work, patience, and a lot of self-kindness, I am now able to deal with the condition in a manageable way. It’s a challenge, and I can handle it.
If you have chronic pain or chronic fatigue, you are likely to feel very tired after a yoga session, so be sure to make time for rest and recovery. Rest in a way that is best for you, and eat well enough to support yourself.
Although yoga usually eases my pain, when my body is in a high state of pain, strenuous movement can send me into an even bigger, longer-lasting flare-up. This causes my body to feel weaker and I become more susceptible to illness. Be in tune with your body. If you feel you don’t have enough energy for a yoga session, you probably don’t. Listen to your body and don’t let your head interfere with nagging thoughts that you “should go to yoga”. Consider gentle stretching, a slow walk, or meditation instead. All these activities will enable you to make contact with your body, thus enabling awareness, without the physical exertion.
A body treated with love, patience and acceptance will have an easier time than one that is filled with shame and resistance. Dealing with chronic pain is hard; make sure you are your biggest supporter and be compassionate with yourself when your body is not behaving as your mind wants it to. We don’t ask to have pain, it just comes…so make space for it and be open to what you can learn from it.
Please leave your comments and questions below. I’d love to hear your experiences of yoga and how you cope with chronic pain and fatigue.
N.B. Thank you to my friend Ania Boguszewska who guided me with the asanas for this photo shoot.