Chronic Fatigue: Drawing Strength From Yoga

April 2, 2014    BY Erika Dillman
Fatigue and Yoga

Before I began studying yoga almost four years ago, I was a runner. I started running in sixth grade and it quickly became a vital part of my life. Running centered me, cleared my head of stress and negativity, boosted my confidence, and strengthened my body. The high from the endorphins my body produced during my runs was the best part. Sometimes I felt that I went into another state of being during a run, a feeling to which I became addicted.

“No Pain, No Gain” seemed like a perfectly legitimate motto to me, so I pushed my body to run every day whether it was -10ºF or 95ºF outside, whether I was healthy or ill. I ran through fatigue, mono-nucleosis, pneumonia, strained muscles, torn fascia, and fractured bones. When I was forced to take off time to heal an injury, I just transferred the same intensity to swimming. In fact, I applied the same intensity to most things I did.

Eventually, my body rebelled and I began having health problems that stopped me from running or doing any exercise. An acute case of bronchitis had left me with inflamed lungs, asthma, and chest pains. My lungs felt like they were made out of thick, scratchy wool that rubbed against the inside of my chest, making breathing painful and leaving me perpetually exhausted.

My body felt like it was falling apart, and my immune system was in overdrive. Every substance I came into contact with, every movement I made, seemed to make me ill.

My body felt like it was falling apart, and my immune system was in overdrive. Every substance I came into contact with, every movement I made, seemed to make me ill. I struggled to get through each day, overwhelmed by dizziness, chest pains, nausea, and numbness in my hands, arms, and face so severe that I often became disoriented and faint. Finally, a little over a year after my health had progressively deteriorated, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS). When my doctors couldn’t cure me, I was devastated. I didn’t know how to get my health back, and nothing I tried seemed to make me feel better.

During this time I began drawing cartoons of my life to express my anger, sadness, and utter frustration at living with a chronic illness. Unable to live the physical existence that I was used to, I felt helpless, lost, and completely disconnected from my body and my identity. If I couldn’t run, I didn’t know how to make myself feel good mentally or physically. 

I was sick of writing about my problems in my journal, confiding in friends and family, and constantly trying to explain an illness that many people didn’t believe in and nobody understood. In one of my first pictures, Erika Nervosa, tears arc from my eyes and thought bubbles, bursting with frantic stress and worry, crash into each other over my head. Images of every possible stressor crowd in around me: my illness, my job, my husband, my family, my doctors, environmental disasters, and my dwindling MCI calling circle. 

In another drawing I’m huddled in the corner of the page, cowering, exhausted, dizzy, with dark circles under my eyes. Moving in to attack me from every direction are human-sized dust mites, bumblebees, cats, dogs, and gigantic flowers—all of them bearing a frowning, evil version of my husband’s normally cheerful face. 

I didn’t think to analyze what the drawings meant for several months. Apparently, my body’s intelligence knew what was happening to me, but I couldn’t understand it or fix it. When I eventually did look at the pictures as something other than a humorous attempt to deflect how low I felt, it was so obvious. The first picture was my mind out of balance, and the second picture was my body out of balance. All of the animal, bug, and plant aggressors represented the many substances which battered my malfunctioning immune system, leaving me weak and debilitated. 

I suppose these drawings were my first steps in mind-body awareness because I soon realized that I had to find a way to regain my equilibrium. 

People suggested all sorts of cures for CFIDS: acupuncture, blue-green algae, Chinese herbs—all of which I did try eventually. But the alternative treatments were too much like regular medicine; they required me to take pills, go to offices for treatments, and rely on other people to change my health. 

I needed something deeper that would calm me down and help me reconnect with my body. More important, I wanted to do something physical, something that came from within me, so that I could regain confidence in myself and take charge of my health. 

Desperate to get my old body back and learn how to breathe again, I turned to yoga.

The Yoga Dictator

I had done some yoga breathing once when a yoga teacher came to my office to conduct a relaxation workshop. The breathing exercises had helped my lungs and my head feel better, although I felt a little funny lying on the floor making breathing noises in front of my co-workers. Something that the teacher said had stuck with me, even though I didn’t fully believe it. She said that yoga helped balance and unite mind and body.

Curious to find out more and propelled by desperation, I signed up for my first yoga class, despite a lingering skepticism. Breathing exercises in my office were one thing, but I was sort of a jock. I had never appreciated the value of an exercise that didn’t involve sweat, pain, and competition. And weren’t yoga people kind of weird? I wasn’t too sure about meeting them on their own turf. 

I associated yoga with a murky, mystical, other-worldly aura. I imagined dark rooms filled with patchouli incense and rows of thin, ascetic men and women sitting in the lotus position, chanting in trance-like unison. I couldn’t shake from my mind the pictures I’d seen in yoga books of gaunt, solemn men, wearing what looked like giant diapers, with one leg wrapped around their necks, and cold, expressionless women in Jack LaLanne-style polyester unitards nonchalantly twisting, bending, and lifting themselves into torturous positions. 

These images intimidated me because I knew that MY body could never do that, but also because I didn’t feel any energy or joy from the pictures. They were too serious and nobody seemed to be having any fun. I thought that they must all belong to a secret club where everyone was miserable. That was the price you had to pay for enlightenment.

Unfortunately, my worst suspicions were confirmed when I attended my first yoga class. I was pretty nervous about being there because I didn’t like putting myself into unfamiliar physical situations when I was so out of shape. I didn’t know the rituals, the lingo, the protocol. And I had long before lost all confidence in my frail body. 

The teacher, a brisk, short, hard-eyed woman in a tight aqua-blue unitard, came in, took my money (scolded me for paying with a check), and sent me to the other side of the room. As other people filed in and took their spaces on the floor, I started to feel dreadful. Once the class began I had no idea what the teacher was doing or how to breathe.

I struggled with every pose, feeling weak, tired, and foolish. At one point, the teacher marched over to me, grabbed my head and pulled it down into her face, rubbing my forehead with her thick, strong thumbs, commanding, “You cannot do yoga with a grimace! Open your third eye.” I was dying. I’d tried so hard to blend in and not make a spectacle of myself, and there I was with everyone looking at me and my third eye refusing to cooperate. I was determined to make it through the class, though, and I stuck with it, trying not to grimace as I twisted and contorted my scrawny, inflexible body.

Occasionally, the yoga dictator came over and yanked the hair on top of my head to remind me to stand up straight. Then, just when I was starting to feel like she’d forgotten about me, she called me to the front of the room to help her demonstrate a pose for the class. She stood bolt upright and started tightening and flexing her buttock muscles and rotating her ankles in some bizarre pose. Then she grabbed my hands, placed them on her butt and told me to hold on to her, then slide my hands down her legs to her ankles, so I could feel what her muscles were doing. 

Okay. I’m from the Midwest; we don’t touch other peoples’ butts. Not for any reason. And we certainly don’t do it in front of a room full of mirrors and people dressed in black leotards. I was mortified. As soon as class was over, I fled, traumatized (but with better posture). I never went back, and it took an entire year for me to try yoga again.

Okay. I’m from the Midwest; we don’t touch other peoples’ butts. Not for any reason. And we certainly don’t do it in front of a room full of mirrors and people dressed in black leotards.

I realized later that I had let my misconceptions about yoga get to me, and my pride kept me from looking for another class. The fact that the yoga dictator has classes to teach means that some people enjoy and thrive under a strict, disciplined format, but that style didn’t work for me. 

Before my illness I had always jumped into new situations, able to start in the middle, but that wasn’t who I was when I was sick. I needed a different approach. I had to start at the beginning, and I needed basic instructions, patience (from myself and from my teacher), and a minimum of jargon about third eyes.

I Start Bending

My second attempt at yoga came a year later, after nearly two years of illness. My condition had become worse, and I’d been forced to quit my job. I spent six months doing nothing but sleeping and worrying that I was dying. Too exhausted and disoriented to drive a car, read, or talk on the phone, I spent most of my days and nights lying on the couch, staring vacantly at the TV. Despite sleeping twelve to fourteen hours a night, taking a two-hour nap after breakfast, and another nap after lunch, I was still too exhausted most days even to shower. My formerly strong, athletic body became weak, atrophied, and emaciated. I had no energy, and I was deeply depressed. 

After another few months, anxious to get moving again, I began taking short five-minute walks to the grocery store a couple of times a week. One day I saw a bright pink flyer on the store bulletin board that advertised “FUN Yoga.” After talking with the teacher on the phone, I felt relieved. She seemed to understand my situation, and her kind voice put me at ease. The class sounded like just what I needed to get started: breathing exercises and stretching and flexibility poses—all at my own pace. This time it was going to be different. I was determined to reconnect with my body, and I knew that if I could do that I could also ease the tension in my mind. 

I was still a bit self-conscious when I arrived at class a few days later, but I soon felt that I was in the right place. There were only a handful of people sitting and talking on the floor in a small, dark room, and they all looked pretty normal. No fancy unitards, no mirrors, no solemn faces, just ordinary people in baggy sweats and T-shirts. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I realized that I wasn’t the only beginner or the only person with health problems. 

The class lasted an hour, but I ran out of steam after five minutes. I was so frail; every movement sent me into a coughing, choking fit. I spent the rest of the class exhausted and dizzy, resting on my blanket and trying to stay awake. 

Within about four months, three women and myself had become the core group of “regulars.”

Because the class was small we each received a lot of personal attention, which helped us gain confidence in learning the poses, and we became friends. We lingered after class to talk about our respective health rituals and swap phone numbers for naturopaths, acupuncturists, and massage therapists. I looked forward to the class every week because it was the one time I got out of the house and had some fun. 

Unlike in the yoga dictator’s class, we laughed as we attempted to twist, bend, and stretch our unwilling bodies into alignment. We whined about doing difficult poses (I used to ask, “Can’t we do the yoga of lying down?”) and we often joked that someone should put us, with all of our giggling and imperfections, in a yoga video called “Yoga for Real People.”

By this time I had worked up to doing fifteen minutes of yoga each class before I had to rest, and it took another two or three months before I could last for thirty minutes. Finally, after nine months, my lungs became less sensitive, my breathing improved, and I noticed that I was able to do several of the poses without collapsing.

During this period, I continued to draw my cartoons, and they slowly changed. I no longer drew myself as a cowering victim, although I still sometimes drew myself as a weak, exhausted skinny person. More often, I drew the me I wanted to be: smiling, active, energetic. I started drawing myself doing yoga, socializing with friends, and working at my desk, hoping that my body would someday catch up with my cartoon self. 

I also drew because I found in my daily practice that I couldn’t always remember the poses I had learned in class. Once I saw a picture, though, my body remembered exactly what to do. The more poses I learned, the more pictures I drew. After time, my yoga practice and my drawing both improved and began to enhance each other. 

When I was drawing I started to see new possibilities in how I approached the poses that I was struggling to master in class. And when I was learning a new pose in class, I visualized my cartoon self in the pose so that I would be able to draw it later. This process helped me take a few more steps toward mind-body awareness.

After a year, I was able to last through an entire class, sitting out only a few poses, and practicing at home a couple of days a week for about ten minutes a session. Now, four years later, I attend an hour-long yoga class once a week that emphasizes strength and stamina poses, I practice at home for ten to twenty minutes four or five days a week, and I take my yoga mat with me whenever I travel. 

As my yoga practice has improved, my drawings have become more active, more hopeful, and more energized. I draw myself running, practicing more difficult yoga poses, and even swinging upside down on a trapeze. 

I am still struggling with my illness. Yoga hasn’t cured me of CFIDS, but it has become an important part of my life. It helps me wake up in the morning, get the kinks out of my back after I’ve been working on my computer, and stay sane until I can run again. I often use yoga breathing exercises during the day to relax and clear my mind when my life gets too hectic. 

I am still struggling with my illness. Yoga hasn’t cured me of CFIDS, but it has become an important part of my life. It helps me wake up in the morning, get the kinks out of my back after I’ve been working on my computer, and stay sane until I can run again.

I’ve been surprised to learn that many of the physical and mental benefits I got from running, such as stress relief, physical strength, concentration, and a general feeling of well-being, I now get from yoga. I’m much more flexible than I ever was as a runner, which I know will help prevent injuries when I am able to be more active. Most important, yoga has helped me understand the value of balance, patience, and slowing down.

 

From the book The Little Yoga Book by Erika Dillman. Copyright © 1999 by Erika Dillman. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, Inc., NewYork, NY. All rights reserved.

Erika Dillman
Erika Dillman plans on living to 100, but started planning her own farewell fiesta at age 40 to make sure she gets the funeral she wants and deserves. She is the author of 10 books, including Outdoors Online: The Internet Guide to Everything Wild & Green and The Little Yoga Book, The Little Pilates Book, and The Little Strength Training Book from the popular "Little Book" series. She wishes she lived in London and wintered in New Zealand.

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