Anyone reading this blog may well have picked up on my enthusiasm for yoga, so I thought it was about time I put something into words to explain why I ‘harp on’ about it so much in this blog.
My Mum practiced yoga when I was a little girl so I grew up with it, although in truth I didn’t start practicing regularly myself until my late 20’s, but my awareness and appreciation of it certainly far predates my knowledge and experience of lupus. As I’ve never been an especially sporty type what originally attracted me to yoga is that it is so inclusive: it’s is not the exclusive domain of the fit and gorgeous! What is wonderful is that it’s for anyone and everyone, and can be practiced anywhere and at anytime (or all the time when you really get the hang of it!). I’ve always liked the fact that it doesn’t matter how young or old you are, neither does it matter what your background or personal beliefs are; nor (as I was to discover to my relief) does it matter how ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ you are. Yoga recognises that everyone is unique and different and can be tailored to the individual whatever their situation. And thankfully, unlike many regular exercise classes, I’ve always appreciated that yoga doesn’t embrace a ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. In fact it’s quite the reverse: it is about listening to the body and working with it.
From the start the general health benefits of yoga were also attractive. On a physical level, amongst other things yoga has the ability to help create a more toned, flexible, and strong body, to improve respiration, energy, and vitality, to help maintain a balanced metabolism, promote cardio and circulatory health and relieve pain. And, with practice, yoga is proven to have a hugely positive effect on emotional and mental health. Regular yoga practice often helps the student start to find an improved ability to relax and handle stressful situations, to focus their energy and attention more effectively, to think more positively, as well as developing greater self awareness and of the world around them. Who could knock all that?
But when lupus made its unwelcome entry into my life, yoga took on a whole new meaning. I eventually learnt that practicing yoga was quite frankly invaluable to the point that now, if I had my way, I would insist that yoga was formally prescribed by doctors along with the necessary medicines to everyone with lupus. This is because in my view there are certain core issues to living with lupus that the fundamental practices and philosophies at the very heart of yoga address. For example:
Individuality: As we know lupus is a very individual disease which is partly what makes it so complex: although the root of the problem may be the same for everyone, the symptoms rarely are and even for the individual the symptoms change and vary greatly day-to-day and over time. This is where the flexibility of yoga comes into its own for us ‘loopies’. As I explained earlier, yoga is flexible so it can be adapted to meet the needs of anyone with lupus regardless of how it is affecting them (or not) at any given time, so they can continue to practice and address the issues affecting them as and when they occur. Throughout my problems with lupus including during some of my more poorly moments, I learnt I could use yoga in some form or another to my benefit.
Energy: Lack of energy is the blight of many a ‘loopy's’ life and is one of the more persistent problems. Working on creating, distributing and maintaining a healthy balance of energy and vitality (or ‘prana’ as it is known in yoga terms) is core to yoga practice and philosophy.
Flexibility and mobility: Arthritic aches and pains and flexibility are another more common lupus symptom. The gentle physical postures of yoga are proven to ease the aches and pains and improve flexibility. In spite of the impression you may have of yoga based on the misleading pictures of contortionist bodies twisted in fancy positions that are bandied around, yoga is not just for acrobats. I am certainly never going to be a bendy type of person, but thanks to yoga at least I have now restored a comfortable and respectable range of movement, my overall flexibility has certainly improved and the joint aches and pains are no longer a permanent feature of my life.
Relaxation: Stress is known to be one of the main triggers of lupus and stress and depression can also be consequences of the disease. Yoga helps us manage these things and when practiced often can help prevent them before they occur. Certainly for me I’ve discovered the equation is simple: less stress = less lupus. ‘Yoga nidra’, is a technique of yogic or 'psychic sleep' which induces deep relaxation and has the potential to help ‘loopies’ chill and manage stress. I recommend the following CD that you can try it at home as a good place to start:
Pain management: Physical pain in various different shapes and forms is a common feature of having lupus and yoga teaches us techniques to manage it. A particular example in my own life that springs to mind is that I find that yoga breathing and relaxation techniques help me cope better with nasty procedures such as lumbar punctures and blood tests there are also a number of yoga postures I use to help relieve particular symptoms such as headaches.
Psychology: Much of Living Well with Lupus is about how we learn to adapt our minds to cope with the complexities of lupus. I, for one, was taken aback by the psychological impact the disease had on me when it got really out of control. Now, whilst yoga is often thought of as a mode of exercise popularised by particular celebrities, it is in fact far more. Yoga is a healing system of theory and practice: not just a set of exercises but an entire philosophy of being with the goal of achieving peace of mind and of body. I understand it as an approach to life that seeks to help the individual find a way to focus on being at one with themselves and the world around them; in lupus terms yoga can help provide a kind of constant impenetrable internal health that exists regardless of the unpredictable antics of the lupus.
Perhaps the best and most succinct explanation of how yoga can help us live a better life with lupus (or indeed without it) comes from B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the world's greatist living yoga masters explains:
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured”
So, I’d strongly advise anyone with lupus to give it a go. What have you got to lose? If you do decide to give it a go, it is worth noting that there are lots of different styles of yoga and classes vary greatly (I’ve been to some that are a bit too ‘out there’ for me to take seriously) but as with everything, tastes vary! So if you don’t like the first class you go to, it is definitely worth trying another. I’d personally recommend looking for either a ‘hatha’ or ‘Iyengar’ class although I reckon that ultimately a lot of it comes down to your opinion of the teacher.
NB The picture at top is me enjoying a spot of yoga practice at the top of a hill in the Peak District this summer!