I’m a big fan of yoga, before my last major set back, I used to practise nearly every day. Now that my energy is starting to return, I’m starting to get down onto my mat a little more often again and remembering why I love it. I do a very gentle routine of about 20 minutes and always feel better afterwards. I’ve even found that it can reduce the intensity of a headache or even get rid of it all together. For me, yoga is a practise of being present in the moment, bringing me out of my mind and into a sense of oneness. It’s time spent engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so that my bodies resources can be sent to healing. I also like to believe that its helping to bring me close to health through unblocking and balancing my energy channels.
The importance of your approach
When I got ill the first time round, I was also practising yoga of sorts. Someone had given me a book and I copied the postures with all the dynamism that I was used to throwing at all aspect of my life. Back then I was just interested in how bendy and flexible I could be and I hadn’t really got what it really should be about. Every day I tried to be better than the day before, and instead of it being a relaxing, therapeutic activity I ended up with more and more painful muscles until I eventually gave it up. Further along my journey, once I learnt how to listen to my body, how to pace myself, how important it is not to exert, I took up yoga again and this time found it incredibly beneficial. The more experience with yoga I have the more I have become attuned to noticing tension in my body at any time of the day, and relaxing that tension straight away. This is a wonderful therapeutic skill for people with ME/CFS.
Yoga can be a very helpful activity for people with ME/CFS but also has its dangers if not approached with the right attitude. In the MEassociation 2010 survey 28% of people who tried yoga (of 812 respondents) found that it made them worse, whilst 39% experienced an improvement to their condition. Many people do yoga with a little to much enthusiasm and a certain level of competitiveness about how bendy you can be or how long you can hold a position. It is not always acknowledged by the instructors that we are all made differently and will all find that different stretches will offer us a different level of challenge compared to the person on the next mat. Some classes, particularly those run in fitness clubs even have an instructor who is biased more towards the fitness aspect of yoga and less towards the relaxation and spiritual side.
The aim of yoga is not about how flexible you can become or how long you can hold a difficult position, it needs to be about reaching a state of relaxation within each stretch. Stop any stretch and gently come out of the position the second that it becomes an effort. One important principle of yoga is ‘Ahimsa’ or non-violence, and although it can be a principle about your interaction with others, it also applies to how you treat yourself, and can be practised on the mat. When you can embrace the practise of doing yourself no harm in yoga, which means not exerting, overstretching or using too much energy, you are learning how to live a healthier life with ME/CFS.
As well as taking care not to measure yourself against other people, it is also very important not you measure yourself against what you could do yesterday or in last week’s class. Always remember that your daily ability can change for all sorts of reasons and that although there will hopefully be an overall improvement over time this will not be a straight forward linear improvement.
Yoga is a great practise for learning how to listen to your body in that moment and only go as far as you can go in a relaxed effortless manner, ignoring what you might expect yourself to be able to do. I believe that yoga could be beneficial to far more that 39% of people with this condition if it is approached with a gentle attitude and with a good, understanding instructor.
When looking for a yoga class, always talk to the instructor about the illness and make sure that they encourage you to listen to your body and focus on being in a relaxed state during each stretch. If they don’t, it might be worth looking for a different class. In some areas you may even find specialist classes run for people with this or other chronic illnesses like Sheffield Yoga for ME, but unfortunately these are still few and far between.
Online yoga for ME/CFS
The routine I practise is very roughly based on a routine from Deepak Chopra’s out of print audio CD and booklet: Chronic Fatigue: The Complete Mind/Body Solution, but has evolved over time. I’ve since come across this video, which is very similar to my practise.
Above all, teaching yoga to those with ME, or indeed any chronic condition, is about teaching students the value of pacing, of slowing down; of breathing properly and learning to relax, whilst facilitating them to get back in touch with their spiritual centre and to live more in the moment.’
The picture is from a wonderful yoga retreat in Thailand I went on in 2011!