Have you ever had one of those days when you don’t have the energy to get out of bed? What about one of those months? That’s how many of the 17 million people living with chronic fatigue syndrome feel on a regular basis. Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by the following symptoms lasting more than six months:
• Extreme fatigue with an unknown cause
• Fatigue not relieved by rest
• Agitation, restlessness, insomnia (despite feeling tired all day)
• Confusion, poor memory, trouble comprehending (also known as “brain fog”)
• Often pain or stiffness in the joints
I was told I had chronic fatigue syndrome when I was 13 years old. Once a very active child (both physically and intellectually), I was now unable to participate in any sports and often found it hard to read or concentrate in school. Some days or weeks I could barely get out of bed.
During this period, yoga was an invaluable resource for me. It was the only physical activity I could do that didn’t make me feel worse afterward (feeling worse afterward is known as post-exertional malaise or PEM). However, when I first started practicing, I couldn’t go to “regular” yoga classes. I had to work with a yoga therapist and use video resources that I would adapt to my own needs. It was this experience that led me to become a yoga teacher and help others living with chronic illnesses. Throughout my ten years of yoga, I’ve found a few practices that can be done from bed, whether you’re living with chronic fatigue syndrome, or are recovering from surgery, or have another illness that causes extreme fatigue.
Relaxation and Pranayama
Before I started an asana practice, I studied mindfulness meditation and integrated several different meditations, guided relaxations, and breathing exercises which are perfect to do on a can’t-get-out-of-bed day because they don’t require you to move at all, and actually bring you a deeper rest than watching TV or re-reading Harry Potter would.
What to try:
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
To do this practice, you’ll need to sit up, but you can prop yourself up with pillows if necessary. I often like to do alternate nostril breathing before the body-scan relaxation described below as it often helps me clear my head and balance my nervous system, allowing me to get deeper into the relaxation.
To begin, sit in a comfortable position and bring your right hand in front of you. Tuck your middle and index fingers into your palm, and place your thumb outside your right nostril and your ring finger outside your left nostril. Next, press your ring finger gently against your left nostril and inhale through the right. Then, release your left nostril and gently block the right to exhale through the left. Inhale through your left nostril and continue the process, alternating sides. Your inhales and exhales should be about six seconds each, keeping the breath balanced. Start by practicing for two to three minutes, eventually building up to 10 minutes if it’s comfortable for you! (You can find a guided alternate nostril breathing practice here.)
You can do this practice lying down, and you can guide yourself or use a guided relaxation track if you like. A body scan helps you to build awareness of your body and notice any areas in which you might be holding pain or tension. It can also bring you into a state of deep relaxation, which is beneficial if you have trouble sleeping. Many of my students fall asleep when they first start practicing a body-scan relaxation!
Start by lying down and bringing your attention to your toes, then slowly moving your focus to your entire foot, then, after a few breaths, to your calves, shins, thighs, hips, and through the rest of your entire body. When doing a body scan, try not to judge what you are noticing, just become aware of the sensations: For example, the tension in your right shoulder isn’t “bad,” but your shoulder may feel stiff, tense, light, or heavy.
I love to use this technique with my students. Pro athletes use visualization to win races, and recent research has shown that visualizing doing an exercise can be up to 70 percent as effective for muscles as actually doing the exercise, which makes visualization a perfect practice for those days when you can’t get out of bed.
To practice the technique, just put on your favorite yoga video or podcast, lie in bed, and imagine yourself doing the poses without actually moving your body.
While you may not feel up to doing a hatha or vinyasa yoga class, doing a yin or restorative practice in bed may be an excellent alternative as they can help release stress and tension without requiring you to exert much energy. Here are a few yoga poses to try in bed:
Supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose)
Lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together, letting your knees fall open to the sides. You can adjust the intensity of this stretch by sliding your feet closer to, or farther away from, your hips. If you want more support here, slide pillows under your knees or thighs. Hold for three to five minutes.
Viparita karani (inverted action pose)
Lie with the side of your body next to the wall or headboard with a pillow within hand’s reach. Slowly swivel onto your back, swinging your legs up the wall and sliding the pillow under your hips. Straightening your legs in this position will provide a stretch for your hamstrings, while keeping them bent might allow you to more fully relax. You can also adjust the distance between your hips and the wall as needed to get comfortable. This pose can help relieve lower back tension and activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that helps your body “rest and digest.” Having your legs above your chest also helps to drain lymph fluids, which can build up if you’ve been sedentary in bed for a length of time. Hold for five to seven minutes.
Salamba balasana (supported child’s pose)
Sit on your heels, bringing your knees a little wider than hip width apart. Place one or two pillows (you might need two if you’re using flatter bed pillows) lengthwise between your thighs and then walk your hands forward until one ear comes to rest on the pillow(s). If your hips are hovering uncomfortably above your feet, place an additional pillow under your hips. Hold for three to five minutes on this side and then switch sides for another three to five minutes.
When you’re ill, days when you can’t get out of bed can be stressful or frustrating or both. However, there are many tools at your disposal to help your body relax and recover. It’s important to listen to your body and allow it to guide you into knowing how and what it needs in terms of practice on these challenging days. I encourage you to experiment with some of the ideas I’ve shared and create a unique bed-day routine that nourishes you in body, heart, and mind!￼
Photography: Andrea Killam