Some of the most visited posts on my site centre around yoga for CFS and chronic illness, but I’ve been wanting to really get to the bottom of the relationship between these two for a while. Does yoga help or hinder chronic illness? Should we be exploring moving our bodies when we’re so sick, or should we just rest up? Can yoga and chronic illness really go together?
Last week, gorgeous Kayla from Aroga Yoga commented on one of my posts, and a hop, skip and a jump over to her site told me that this was the lady I needed to speak with. Kayla specialises in teaching yoga to those with chronic illnesses and her enthusiasm for bringing yoga to as many people as possible is really inspiring. She has such a fantastic perspective on chronic illness and life. (The fact that she is also based just around the corner from where my husband and I used to live in London was also a big sign that she was my gal!).
I’m so delighted to introduce you to Kayla and would love to hear your thoughts below (and your reaction to her incredible spider story!)
1) Describe how you would love everyone to feel in 3 words.
Happy, healthy and fulfilled.
2) Describe yourself in 3 words.
Enthusiastic, honest, hard-working, foodie (can I have 4?).
3) What inspired you to want to help those with chronic illness through yoga?
Before I became ill, I was an active person. I loved playing sports and was a competitive swimmer. Being ill took all that away from me and completely changed my life. One of the things that helped me most in recovery was taking a mindful yoga course. I think I found yoga comforting because it was the first physical exercise I could do since I had become ill that didn’t make me feel worse. The first few classes I did, I was afraid of regressing, but after months of practice and not feeling bad afterwards, I began to lose that fear. It was so exciting to have an activity that didn’t have to be surrounded with anxiety. It was a great way for me to re-connect with my body in a positive way, after having a negative relation through illness for so long.
As I continued to practice yoga, I got stronger and built my endurance. But the thing that makes yoga special for me is the meditative side of the exercise. I think the reason that I don’t regress is because I’m not listening to music or thinking about my day when I’m doing yoga. I’m completely in the moment, watching my body.
As I recovered, my views on health, illness, and life began to change drastically. A lot of the ideas I had had about what I wanted to do as a career vanished. This was a hard time for me as I had to mourn those other parts of myself. But I knew I needed to find a path that would allow me to live a healthy lifestyle while helping others.
When I first started studying to be a yoga teacher, I didn’t have the idea to teach people with chronic illness at all! But as I continued studying yoga, and meeting more people who had recovered from a variety of illnesses with yoga, the idea came to me. Having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and PCOS myself, I knew how lost and hopeless people with chronic illnesses can feel. I also know that the advice of well-wishers is not always helpful. So I wanted to design a program especially geared towards people living with chronic illnesses.
4) How can yoga help those chronic illnesses?
Great question! There are so many facets to yoga that it can help on a lot of different levels. I think at the most basic level, yoga is a safe way for people with chronic illness to exercise. It is gentle and slow moving, and the pace is adaptable to each individual level. Allowing people living with chronic illness to build up strength and endurance is important for the recovery journey. We all know exercise is important, but people living with chronic illnesses need to find a way to move that won’t make their symptoms worse. Exercises like yoga, chi gong, tai chi, or a gentle pilates class can help condition our bodies in a safe way. People often report feeling relaxed, rather than exhausted, after a yoga class.
On the next level is the meditative side of yoga. Many people think meditation just helps you relax. This is often a great side benefit but not always true! Sometimes I feel stressed out after meditating! Meditating helps you be with whatever is going on inside you right now. This will help people recognise their limits and not push themselves too far when practicing yoga. It can also help release or work through mental or emotional blocks that are causing stress.
The final level is all the research that is currently being done into yoga as a medicine. New studies are finding that yoga is more beneficial to people than other forms of exercise. Research into yoga for chronic conditions shows that people who practice yoga have a higher quality of life, show a reduction in symptoms, and are more likely to recover than those who receive traditional treatments.
5) What would you say to anyone with a chronic illness who’s been thinking of trying to yoga, but isn’t sure it’s for them?
I know it can be scary to try something new, especially if you have already tried so many things to get your health back.
There are a lot of free videos online that you can try from home and see if yoga is for you. Find a teacher who you trust, and who understands your illness. Finding the right teacher is key to getting the benefits of yoga.
6) What are your non-negotiables when it comes to your health?
Finding time to meditate and do yoga- it is scheduled into my work day so I can’t miss it! Not being too hard on myself. Lots of fresh fruit and veggies. A few glasses of wine doesn’t hurt either ;).
7) How has fear appeared in your life and what do you do when it does?
When I first started living alone, I loved it. A nice apartment all to myself! And then, a few weeks into my independent bliss, I saw a spider on the wall. A big, fat, ugly spider. I had had spiders in my room before, but never this big and never while living completely alone in a strange country. Was it poisonous? Should I kill it? What should I do? The spider hung out on my wall and ceiling for days. Out of reach of a vacuum cleaner, and I was too afraid to dispose of it by hand. I slept with the light on, I noticed it didn’t seem to move around as much in the light as I wove in and out of consciousness, fearing to sleep. Finally, I realised I needed to sleep. If the spider hadn’t attacked me yet, it probably wasn’t going to. We could learn to share the space. That night I closed the light and slept normally. In the morning, I saw the spider crawl into a crevice above the wardrobe. I could see we were going to learn to share the room.
I think I went through something similar when living with my chronic illness. At first I was so afraid of what might happen to me or to my health I felt I had to be a vigilante. I refused to believe this illness was chronic, I could be rid of it by fighting it or ignoring it or discovering the cure myself if I had to. I could be tough and fight. I’m known for being stubborn, and this could be a strength of mine. But as the years went on and I started practicing yoga and meditation, I realised that I needed to find a home for my illness inside me. It was here to stay for now, and the only thing my fighting attitude was doing was stressing me out and keeping me up at night while my illness was hanging out on the ceiling. Once I began to make a space inside of me for my illness to live, life became so much easier. Instead of trying to live a ‘normal’ life, I made accommodations for my illness. We were sharing the space now. We were a team. It was this acceptance of the illness and the fear that allowed me to heal, and live a life I love.
Fear, and conquering fear, can make you tough. It can show you what you’re made of. But accepting fear is equally as hard as standing up to a fear. I think the greatest skill is determining when to overcome and when to accept and live with your fears.
8) What do you do or say to yourself if you’re having an ‘off’ day?
My gut instinct is to be hard on myself, so I work hard to counteract that. As I’ve become more in-tune with my health it’s easier to figure out what caused my ‘off day’ (I’m looking at you, cheeseburgers). I think it’s important to realise that everyone has off days, even healthy people, and it’s ok to have them sometimes. It’s also important to realise sometimes you need to indulge. I like to live by the 80/20 rule. I try to live by my health rules 80% of the time, and 20% of the time I allow myself indulgences, even if I know it will make me feel bad afterwards (I’m looking at you, bacon cheeseburgers). I don’t think anyone has the will power to be healthy 100% of the time! I know us health bloggers might seem like that sometimes, but I’m learning it’s important to cut yourself some slack!
9) What projects are you working on at the moment?
My biggest project right now is bringing yoga online. I was teaching a course and some classes in London, but I realised that this is not the most accessible way for people with chronic illness to try yoga. Transportation (especially in London) can be exhausting, and it’s no fun missing a class because you had an unexpected off day. By bringing the classes online my students can go at their own pace from their own place. Some of the videos are even doable from bed!
I am now running a 6 week course, where students get a new video emailed to them once a week. They also get access to a few shorter videos to practice in between. During the course students have unlimited email access to me and have the chance to take part in 2 group video chats to ask questions and meet other students during the course!
If you’re not ready to dive into the course yet, I have some free starter videos available on my website, and try to keep my blog updated with yoga resources and tips!
10) Any other words of support and encouragement to share with my readers.
I can already tell you’re doing the right thing by reading this blog! Doing your own investigations and taking responsibility for your own health and your own choices is so important to your recovery! Don’t give up hope, I know it can be so frustrating. And heartbreaking. And hopeless. But I truly believe you can lead a life you love. You’re on the right track!
Bio: Kayla is a certified yoga instructor and founder of Aroga Yoga. She uses her personal experiences with illness to help others heal with yoga.