Yoga and Chronic Illness: Choose a Practice That Works for You
“Have you tried yoga?”
If you’re living with a chronic illness, this is probably a question you’ve been asked. Maybe it came from well-meaning friends or family members. Or perhaps your doctor recommended that you try it. But now you feel lost in a sea of different classes and styles and you don’t know where to start.
The good news is a lot of people have found yoga to be a helpful tool for improving their health. The research is beginning to back up personal stories in this area. Yoga can reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue in people living with chronic illness, and it can improve immune function. Yoga can also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that helps you to rest and heal) and increase GABA levels in your body (GABA—gamma-amino butyric acid—is a neurotransmitter which can help calm the brain. Low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety, depression, and insomnia).
However, there are so many different styles of yoga out there that it can be hard to figure out which type of class is best for your unique needs. Trying a new activity with a chronic illness can be a big risk—you don’t want to crash or make things worse. So how can you find the right yoga class?
Having invested much time in helping people with chronic illnesses to use yoga for healing, I’ve learned that it’s important to find both the right style of yoga and the right class for your needs.
What to Look for in a Yoga Class
1. A teacher experienced in working with chronic illness.
Finding the right teacher will make a world of difference. Look for a teacher who has lived with a chronic illness herself or who is an experienced yoga therapist. As with a search for any other type of therapist, you may need to try out a few different teachers until you find the right fit.
2. Names without descriptors like “power” or “intense.”
These classes tend to focus on aerobic and strength-building exercises rather than on helping the body relax and heal. Look for classes that have the word “gentle” in front of them instead.
3. Notice how you feel in the class.
When you do choose a class to go to, make sure you pay attention to how you are feeling during the class. Does the studio feel like a safe and supportive environment? Is the level of intensity in the class appropriate for you? Does the teacher make adaptations for different abilities? These inquiries can all help you determine if you’ve found the right class or if you need to keep searching.
Styles of Yoga to Consider
Now let’s take a closer look at some of the best styles of yoga for chronic illness. Try a few of them out, listen to your body during and after each class, and continue the practice that feels right for you.
Yoga therapy is “the application of yogic principles to a particular person with the objective of achieving a particular spiritual, psychological, or physiological goal” (IAYT).
Yoga therapy isn’t limited to a single style of yoga, and it often includes a combination of different yoga styles, breathwork, meditation, and lifestyle practices. It goes beyond the physical poses, or asanas, of yoga practice, providing a holistic approach to wellness. Yoga therapy is also highly individual. The teacher will ask a lot of questions about your lifestyle and activity levels to help build a practice that is appropriate for you.
Hatha literally means “force” and is the general term for any type of physical yoga (which applies to most classes we have in the West). But despite the fact that “hatha yoga” can technically refer to any physical yoga practice, you’ll find that most classes called hatha are gentle practices that combine basic asanas and breathwork. They’re usually less energetic than, for example, vinyasa flow or ashtanga classes. This is a good option for people who are moderately active.
This style of yoga is perfect for anyone who needs a deep relaxation. In most restorative classes, all of the poses will be practiced either seated or lying down, and the class will move at a slow pace. You’ll be led through a series of postures, using props to help make the poses comfortable. Postures are held for several minutes, and the focus is on deep breathing and relaxation.
Yin Yoga targets the connective tissues and joints of the body. Normally, when we practice yoga, we are working with our muscles and may neglect the deeper tissues in our body. Because Yin Yoga is not a vigorous form of exercise, it can be a great place for someone with a chronic illness to begin. Each pose is held for three to five minutes, and for this reason, students often find that the class is more challenging mentally than physically.
Like any new activity, you should check with your doctor (and listen to your body) when it comes to trying Yin Yoga. People with hypermobility disorders such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome should definitely check with their doctors before trying this style and, if given the go-ahead, should make sure to find an experienced teacher to guide them.
If you are unsure of your energy levels and don’t yet feel comfortable with physical yoga, this is a great practice to try! Also known as yogic sleep, yoga nidra is a guided meditation that helps you decrease stress and anxiety. It’s a wonderful alternative for people who have tried mindfulness meditation but found they were not able to sink deeply into the practice because their mind was always racing. Because yoga nidra is guided with words and imagery, many students find it easier to focus and relax during the practice.
“The practice of precision” was created by B.K.S Iyengar. This practice makes use of traditional hatha postures, with an intense focus on alignment. Iyengar practitioners use many props, making it possible for people of all abilities to participate. This style of yoga is very popular among yoga therapists due to its focus on personal adaptations for different bodies. As with hatha, I’d recommend a moderate level of energy to attend an Iyengar yoga class as there are standing and strength-based postures.
Restorative Flow Yoga
Restorative flow (also known as slow flow or gentle flow yoga) classes link the breath and movement for a dynamic class. These classes are for people with moderate levels of energy. It is an adaptation of the more energetic vinyasa flow classes that has a more gentle approach.
A private class with the right teacher is a great way to get started. In a private session, the teacher will be able to adapt the sequence to your needs, so you’ll have adjustments ready when you attend a group class. If there are no appropriate yoga teachers in your area, look for teachers who can offer classes via Skype or video conferencing.
Lastly, before beginning a yoga practice, you should speak to your doctor to see if it is right for you. Given your medical condition(s), ask if there are any postures you should avoid. If so, make a note of them and inform your teacher so that you can adapt the class together if needed.
I have found that yoga is an invaluable tool for improving health while living with a chronic illness. I hope that you will find the same to be true for you.
Kayla is a yoga teacher, writer, and constant traveler. She helps people living with chronic illnesses find relief through yoga. Her goal is to make yoga accessible so that people of all abilities can participate in her classes from around the world. Currently bunkered up in Europe, but originally from Canada, she’s visited, lived, and taught yoga in over 40 countries! Learn more about her work at: www.arogayoga.com/