Yoga doesn’t sit on the fringe of science any more – it’s the real deal. And the proven benefits of yoga for chronic illness, in specific, are mind-blowing.
Whether you have fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, neuropathic pain, arthritis or even Lupus. Yoga is probably an option for you.
Stats show that a weekly yoga class increased mobility in people with chronic lower back pain more than standard medical care.
If you want to try yoga, or are curious about how it can help your chronic illness. Here’s what you need to know right now.
- Looking after your physical body isn’t enough when it comes to a chronic illness.
We know that your mental health and your social surroundings play a big role in your wellbeing. You need to take a holistic approach if you’re going to manage your condition successfully.
- Yoga is beneficial to chronic illness patients because it combines breathe work, meditation and physical posture to help you gain better control of your mind and body.
- There are many different types of yoga. Each has a specific outcome. Which means that some types of yoga are better for people with a chronic illness than others.
- The fact that yoga is such a diverse form of therapy is what makes it practical for people with a chronic illness. Regardless of your physical limitations, there is a type of yoga for you.
- Yoga is not meant to be overwhelming. You should never be pushed out of your comfort zone unless you want to. The objective is to release your tension and allow happiness to infiltrate into your body.
“Yoga is not an alternative to traditional treatments but is a useful complementary therapy and a potential tool to regain overall health and wellbeing.” ~ Role of Yoga in Prevention, Management and Rehabilitation of Chronic Diseases
“[...] it is no longer meaningful to conceptualise and treat chronic illness in the limited terms of the pure physicality of the body.” ~ Amy Holte and Paul J. Mills, Yoga and Chronic Illness
This was just a taster. Now we're going to look at how yoga can really benefit you.
The Science Behind Why Yoga is Great for Chronic Illness
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. It’s an ancient practice with modern-day relevance.
Not only have scientists managed to back up the health benefits of yoga. But they’ve shown that it is also a valid form of holistic treatment for people with chronic illnesses.
Actively lowers your pain levels
No, I’m not joking. Yoga can help alleviate chronic pain.
Research is actually showing us that practising yoga regularly can counteract the effects of chronic pain in your brain.
This is because chronic pain weakens your brain structure in two main ways:
- Decreases the amount of grey matter you have. Which is responsible for pretty much everything, including: muscle control, memory, emotions, speech, and even pain tolerance.
- Breaks down the integrity of white matter. Which creates the communication channels between the different parts of your brain.
Yoga, on the other hand, or any form of mind-body practice can prevent and reverse this because it strengthens both your grey and white matter.
The most important thing to remember is that it needs to be incorporated into your lifestyle for the results to show. It’s not a once-off deal.
Stimulates your body’s ability to rest and heal
Stress is necessary for survival. It helps us gauge danger so that we can protect ourselves.
When our bodies’ are under chronic stress, which is normal if you have a chronic illness, it can really take a toll on your body’s overall wellbeing
This is because some or all of your stress responses (cardiovascular, endocrine, neurological, respiratory, digestive and immune mainly) are constantly activated.
What yoga has proved, is that regular practice can help you recover from your body’s physical stress responses. It does this by stimulating the part of your nervous system that prepares you for rest.
Improves your immune resilience
If you have a chronic illness and still want to kick butt on a daily basis – your immune system needs to be as strong as possible.
Yoga can help you here as well.
The same range of studies that show how yoga helps your body recover and rest, link to how it helps your immune response too.
Increases overall comfort
Yoga can help increase your overall comfort in order to cope with the symptoms and side effects you deal with every day.
Some of the most common ways it can do this are by:
- Improving muscle or joint stiffness;
- Aiding muscle or joint aches and pains;
- Decreasing fatigue and boosting energy levels
- Clearing brain fog;
- Helping internal organ function (such as your kidneys, liver, bladder and heart);
- Kickstarting your gut and bowel movement; and
- Minimising body inflammation.
Helps Promote a Healthy Body
“Yoga is designed to bring about increased physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” said M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., counselling psychologist and founder of Cardiac Yoga.
We’ve established that yoga has pretty versatile benefits by now. And they just keep getting better.
Regardless of having a chronic condition. Here are the general health benefits you can experience through yoga:
Cardio and circulatory health
As yoga is so good for stress management, it can help decrease blood pressure and heart disease.
Basically, yoga promotes cardiac health, blood flow and respiration. Not only does this have long term benefits – but also helps boost your energy and vitality right now.
“Hand in hand with leading a heart-healthy lifestyle, it really is possible for a yoga-based model to help prevent or reverse heart disease. It may not completely reverse it, but you will definitely see benefits.” Research Studies on the Role of Yoga in Chronic Diseases
Weight and diet management
As yoga is a mind-body practice, it allows you to tap a little deeper into how different foods affect your body.
Although more relaxing types of yoga may not necessarily make you burn the most calories – compared to sports like running. But it doesn’t mean it’s not helpful.
- Mindfulness during yoga may actually help you resist unhealthy foods and prevent you from binge-eating.
- Yoga helps shift your cravings to healthier, fresh foods. Given the fact that you shouldn’t do yoga on a full stomach, you might find yourself eating a small snack beforehand.
And after a session, it's more likely that you will crave something refreshing and unprocessed.
- Yoga can help you get more regulated sleep at night.
The better your quality of sleep, the fewer cravings you’ll have. The fewer cravings you have, the fewer unnecessary calories you’ll consume. Additionally, poor sleep can slow down your metabolism quite a bit.
Fitness and vitality levels
Regardless of whether you have a chronic illness or not, yoga can be good for almost anyone.
Some of the most common ways that yoga can help you build physical resilience, include:
- Improved flexibility – This can also help alleviate the discomfort you may feel from tight muscles or ligaments around your body.
- Increased muscle strength and tone – Yes, this looks good. But it’s more than that. Muscle strength can actually help prevent other chronic illness issues from starting.
- Protects your joints and cartilage from breaking down – This is because you exercise many joints that are often neglected. Without movement, nutrients can’t be passed to your joints and they begin to age.
- Allows for lymphatic drainage – The movements you make during yoga help your body naturally conduct lymph drainage. This is super important because it helps strengthen your body’s immune system.
- Protection from injury – When you combine all the points we’ve just mentioned above, you get a pretty resilient body that can withstand a lot more physical strain than it did before.
Offers Positive Mental Health Benefits
We’ve spoken about the physical health benefits, now it’s time to look at the mental health benefits.
Although these two things are not exactly the same. They’re actually closely interlinked and need to be looked at as a whole.
Here are some of the main mental health benefits that yoga can have.
Aid depression, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia
The combination of mindfulness, meditation and yoga can help you manage a whole variety of mental health issues.
I still find my medication quite necessary, but some people have been able to ditch the drugs altogether and rely on yoga to keep their mood stable.
Here are the two main ways that yoga can help here:
It helps keep your brain calm
I know this may sound funny – but it’s true. Your brain needs to relax. And yoga can achieve this by increasing the release of a specific neurotransmitter called GABA.
It helps reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses
Your stress response is also known as your flight-or-fight response. And it’s necessary for survival.
Chronic stress, which can happen when you have a chronic illness, can create brain changes that lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia.
Yoga is proven to help alleviate the impact of these overactive stress responses and soothe your symptoms.
“Eda et al reviewed recent studies that have examined the effects of yoga on chronic diseases, […] and suggested that yoga might benefit patients with chronic diseases, decreasing distress thereby improving functional performance.”
Improve your outlook and quality of life
Enhances compassion and self-awareness
Remember when we spoke about gray matter? Well, it’s shown that people who meditate actually have more grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness.
Opens the opportunity to work on self-improvement
Yoga and meditation give you the chance to have your own space when you just need that space and time to work on yourself. It’s a great way to remove yourself from difficult situations and you deal with life’s demands in an objective way.
Helps you create healthy body awareness
Body awareness is an intrinsic part of yoga. A good yoga teacher will always bring your attention to how each movement should make you feel.
So, your understanding of, and confidence in, your body should improve.
Improve mental strength
Improves memory, focus and learning
Meditation, once again, shows how an increase of grey matter in our brains can help you improve your memory, focus and learning capabilities as well.
Clears brain fog
Brain fog can be particularly frustrating to deal with when you’re trying to complete daily tasks. And I must admit, yoga does a decent job at minimising your symptoms.
In fact, a 2010 study found that even just four sessions of mindfulness meditation training can improve your attention span and give you mental clarity.
Improves Self-confidence and Self-Esteem
Yoga should not make you feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.
If it is, then you may want to relook at the type and level of yoga you’ve chosen. You should also look at how your instructor is caring for you during a lesson.
Yoga is meant to make you feel at ease with your body and your mind. It’s meant to wake you up and invigorate you. It should help you appreciate your body.
Slowly, your self-confidence and self-esteem should begin to flourish. And here’s why:
Everything is geared towards helping you
It doesn’t matter what type of yoga you’ve chosen, the intensity of the class or how you’re feeling – yoga should always feel supportive and helpful.
The best way to take advantage of this is by thinking about what your current goals and objectives are. Write them down and discuss them with your teacher.
Yoga is so diverse and adaptable, that it’s usually possible to create lessons that fulfil exactly what you want them to.
You can also track your lessons, take photographs and document how you feel from one session to another. This is a great way to look back and see the progress you’ve made.
You’re never expected to push yourself beyond what’s safe
“... when working with students with chronic illness, safety and comfort are the goal of the class.
It’s important to let go of expectations of “perfect” postures, of keeping up for full times, or, depending on energy levels, of completing the entire class plan or kriya.” ~ Spirit Voyage
If you feel like you’re pushing yourself too hard, you have full right to use the chronic illness card to stop what you’re doing.
This isn’t something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Remember not to be so hard on yourself.
Just getting to the class is an incredible step forward. No one else in that room has to deal with your kind of pain, so their opinions or judgements are null and void.
Gentle yoga is Inclusive of all abilities
If you’re feeling uncomfortable in a standard class, try to get into a gentle yoga class.
Even better, do some research and see if there are any yoga classes for people with chronic illnesses around you.
Something like this could be exactly what you need because it could provide you with a lot more emotional support.
You will have the opportunity to bond with others who are in a similar predicament to you and learn to have each other’s support when you are in class.
In true yogic fashion, I’d like to thank you for your time.
I hope that this has inspired you to get onto your own journey to health through mind-body power.
And if this is something that you do try, I’d love to hear your story.