A letter to yogis with chronic illness

meditation for chronic illness

Since I started this blog, and started telling my story, specifically, “When Breathing isn’t Easy – A Cystic Fibrosis Adult’s Journey to Teaching Yoga,” I began to get emails from people with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) or parents of children with CF from all over the world. I’ve done my best to give advice based on what I’ve learned and on my own personal experience. I often hear from yogis with CF about their struggles with practicing yoga without being self-conscious, which I don’t think is unique to people with CF.

So, here’s a letter to the yogis who have expressed doubt about pursuing yoga because they are afraid some aspect of their illness will be bothersome to other people in a yoga class.  While this one is targeted at someone with CF, the message is applicable to all of the yogis out there battling chronic illness.

“Dear Awesome Yogi,

I certainly understand what you’re going through, and your concern about starting a regular practice in class out of fear that your cough will distract or irritate other students.  As people with CF (or any chronic illness for that matter), we don’t ever want to be a bother to anyone or be pitied, etc., right?
 
The thing is, our cough is really a bigger deal to us than to anyone else.  I used to struggle through savasana because it was hard to breathe lying flat on my back, and I didn’t want to disturb anyone.  So, I started taking savasana on my side or sitting against the wall.
 
For the yoga teachers whom I saw regularly, I let them know about my challenges, and the modifications I chose to make.  None of them ever have a problem with it.  In fact, all of them had additional, helpful suggestions on how I can modify my poses so I can get the most out of my practice without adding mind struggle to the mix.
 
I also had the same reservations about teacher training.  I thought, “what if I start coughing during meditation?”  “what if I have to miss a week because I’m sick?”  “what if I get made fun of because I’m too thin?”  Turns out,  it was the most loving, welcoming and accepting experience I’ve ever had.  It literally changed my life, and my preconceived view that people judge me because of my illness.
 
In training, we had several check-ins during the day in which we went around in a circle and discussed what we were feeling, anything that was on our minds, etc.  Right away, when it was my turn, I shared with my fellow students.  I told them about my disease, my struggles, my  triumph, my concerns, and no one responded with pity or disgust.  I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders as I unburdened myself from this “secret” I was harboring in an effort to protect myself.   My fellow teacher colleagues were understanding, and it actually led more people to open up about their own issues.
 
The coughing was rarely an issue.  In fact,during meditation, if I had to cough, I realized that they were all probably deeply into their meditation or just understanding because no one acted ‘disturbed.’
 
Yoga is about cultivating acceptance of exactly where you are right now.  It’s also about silencing the mind despite what’s going on around you.  So, maybe our cough serves as outside noise to someone who’s working on their personal meditation practice and needs to learn how to focus inward despite what’s going on outside of their space.
What you have to recognize is that EVERYONE has some hangup about themselves.  Something they’re self-conscious about that they either flat out with didn’t exist, or something they’re working through.  So, you’re not as alone as you think.  If you have to cough, cough.  If it causes you so much anxiety that you can’t focus on your practice, step outside.  Have your coughing fit, and come back to class.

Yoga, pranayama and meditation will help your lung capacity as well as your self-acceptance, and help with anxiety.  Use your anxiety about your illness as an opportunity to grow, spiritually.  when you feel a wave of emotion or fear begin to rise up, simply let it go.  Or better yet, ride it all the way to shore and know that you’re not alone.  
 
Keep in touch, and let me know if you need anything else.
 
Sincerely,
Lisa”

Again, while I know this is slanted for someone with a respiratory disorder, the message is the same. Don’t be ashamed of who you are, no matter what. If you have an illness that you’re battling and someone in your yoga class is ‘disturbed’ by it. That’s their problem to work through. Allow you to be yourself, and all that comes with it. Accept yourself with the same unconditional love you would show a child who needs you.

Love starts with you.

(Photo: The Conversation)

Namaste.

– Your Charmed Yogi

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I recently submitted a post to the Atlanta Yoga Scene entitled, “When Breathing isn’t Easy – A CF Adult’s Journey to Teaching Yoga.”  That post has started a whirlwind of exposure as people with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) and families of … Continue reading

When Breathing isn’t Easy – A Cystic Fibrosis Adult’s Journey to Teaching Yoga

breathe-rockI recently had the opportunity to tell the story of my journey as a kid with a grim diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis to becoming an (almost 40) adult who teaches yoga — who teaches about the breath.

When I was five years old, my parent’s received a devastating blow.  They learned that me, their only child, had Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic lung disease that would gradually progress making it difficult for me to breathe and take part in activities like other children. It would also shorten my lifespan.

Read the whole post, When Breathing isn’t Easy – A Cystic Fibrosis Adult’s Journey to Teaching Yoga

Namaste.

-Your Charmed Yogi

Just Breathe – even when it isn’t easy

breath-artworkPranayama is a Sanskrit word meaning “extension of the prana or breath” or more accurately, “extension of the life force”.  Put simply, it’s the art of breath control.  For some people taking just one full conscious breath is not part of their day.  We live in a world full of anxiety & fear; moving too quickly from one moment to the next. Short, shallow breaths have become normal and almost nobody realizes that they’re doing it.   As an adult with a chronic respiratory illness,  breath had been a struggle at times throughout my life.  But then I discovered yoga.   In addition to the asanas or poses, I learned how to breathe for the first time in my life.  I didn’t realize that,  for much of my life, I wasn’t taking  full breaths, and when I finally experienced what it was like to take a full, conscious breath, it was like the first real breath I’d ever taken.   I realized that my illness played a part, but that I’d fostered bad breathing habits for years as a result of anxiety, fearfulness, and simply a  lack of awareness.

As children, we just let that belly hang out and breathe — true diaphragmatic breathing.  As we get older, stress manifests itself in breath holding, or a tightened belly, restricting breathing to just the upper lungs.   The body actually interprets this kind of breathing as a fight or flight response set off by the sympathetic nervous system.  Every time you neglect to take a full breath, it’s the same response as if your body is under attack.   No wonder so many people suffer from sleep disorders or are just plain tired or anxious much of the time. So, let the belly hang and relax — no one’s looking.

Try this.  Find a comfortable seated position without anything restricting your belly or chest.  Give yourself breathing room (pun intended).  On an inhale, expand the diaphragm, then breathe up into the lungs, and hold if for just a moment. Then let it out slowly for a truly complete breath.   This full, diaphragmatic breathing, activates the calming response of the parasympathetic nervous system.  Notice that you feel calmer, lighter, and more present.  If you practice 3-5 of these full, conscious breaths often throughout each day, it will once again become your natural respiratory state and not such a concerted effort.  In addition to oxygenating the blood, and removing carbon dioxide gas, this three-part breath also known as “yogic complete breath” brings you back to the present and calms the mind.  I find this type of breathing the most beneficial in increasing lung capacity and relaxing my “chest armor.”

breathe-tagxedo

In my yoga classes, I’m a virtual pest about reminding my students to breathe and to let the breath guide the pace of their Vinyasa.  If they try to “catch up” to the pose with their breath, they’re back into a shallow, stressed breathing pattern and they’re out of their practice.  Let the breath guide you on and off the mat.  If you’re in the midst of a crisis, or you’re in a difficult pose and find yourself panting or holding, breathe in feel the word, “let,”  and when you breathe out feel the word, “go.”  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  And, let go.

For Danni & Ruby with Love, breathe deeply and often.

Namaste.

– Your Charmed Yogi