Thursday, 4 February 2016

Yoga by Jess Bruce

This article is written by Jess Bruce,  author of the interesting,  informative and insightful My Journey Thru ME blog.

I only began practising yoga after my body had completely crashed out with ME/CFS. Prior to that yoga was not part of my life in any way. What began as merely a couple of minutes of physical poses each day has developed into full on love and passion for this amazing thing called yoga. I am very grateful that ME/CFS brought me to yoga. I’m a firm believer that every cloud has a silver lining and yoga is definitely that for me.
My love for yoga essentially comes from how good I feel during and after practising. It genuinely helps me clear my head, ease my myalgia aches and helps me to generally feel more refreshed and alive.

Yoga concentrates your mind into your body: onto the posture (asana) you are holding and onto your breathing (pranayama). It brings you into the moment and quietens that constant crazy chatter going on in your mind that saps so much energy. By doing this yoga calms your whole nervous system which reduces your flight or fight stress response, which in turn eases your ME/CFS symptoms. That's it in a nutshell really. Now I'm not a doctor and definitely not a yoga teacher (I’ve been practising for 3 years but would still consider myself very much a beginner) but that's my understanding of how it works.
I'm not saying yoga is some kind of magic bullet cure for ME/CFS, because of course it is not. If only hey? Treating and managing ME/CFS is a giant jigsaw puzzle. But calming your nervous system and your stress responses can play a huge part in recovery from ME/CFS, hence the big role yoga can play. That's without even mentioning that stretching your body through yoga postures eases tense muscles and provides very gentle exercise when more physical exercise is off limits to people with ME/CFS. And that can only be a good thing.
Now let's be clear, I'm not talking about sweating yourself silly in a Bikram yoga class, nor burning calories with multiple sun salutations in Vinyasa yoga or even putting yourself through a 90 minute class of any description. Given increased activity, not to mention exercise exacerbates ME/CFS symptoms, a yoga practice that is suitable for those of us with ME/CFS has to be GENTLE and RESTORATIVE. This is crucial to yoga being helpful and not a catastrophic hindrance to your ME/CFS symptoms.

The world of yoga can be confusing, there are so many different kinds out there. But please don't be put off. Hatha is the most widespread form of yoga in the western world and it is gentle and restorative to boot. It is suitable for all levels and especially beginners. It includes a variety of poses combined with slow and mindful movement, with an emphasis on breath work and relaxation.
I think the most valuable piece of advice about yoga that I can give is: do not, do not, DO NOT, be put off before you get going. A lot of yogic vocabulary tends to be in Sanskrit in honour of  yoga's ancient origins, for a newcomer this can make yoga seem daunting and like it is only meant for Indian gurus, meditating monks and the ultra fit, in the know skinny blondes. Not falling into any of these categories, I do admit that I found yoga a bit baffling and overwhelming at first. But I persevered and am so happy I did because now I reap huge rewards and I genuinely believe yoga has helped, and continues to help, my ME/CFS.

Armed with my mum's beginners yoga book I embarked gingerly down the yoga road. At first I was only practising a couple of postures a day, maybe a tree, a rag doll and supine spinal twist, totalling no more than 10 minutes absolute tops. But over the last three years I've gradually increased this to 15 and then up to 20 minutes. I’ve built myself up to being able to do downward dog, bridge and shoulder stand to name but a few postures.

Now I practice for 25 - 30 minutes each morning and some days again late afternoon or before bed. I practice at home, sometimes with my mum, but other times with books, DVDs and yoga podcasts as my teacher. My yoga aim is to get well enough to be able to travel to and cope with an actual yoga class. But for now, I immensely enjoy my practice at home.
Some days I stick with seated or lying down gentle restorative poses. I never hold any individual pose for very long so as not to strain my tired muscles - I find my stamina has improved over time but is still not particularly good. On better ME / CFS days I can now practise one or two sequences such as this gentle flow from Recently I've also introduced Sun Salutations into my practice. Although I do this in time with my breath, I do it very slowly and perhaps only one or two repetitions on each side. But over time I hope to build myself up further.
I've found how much yoga I'm able to do, is a good benchmark for how far I've come in my recovery and for how my body is feeling on a particular day. On down days I may not practice for very long but I always try and practice a little. If my body hurts whilst I'm practising, then I try gentler poses or on the worst days I simply lie down on my mat and rest in corpse pose (savasana) and listen to a meditation.

Headaches are one of my most persistent ME/CFS symptoms after myalgia and fatigue and I’ve found that yoga really helps ease my head. Even after a short session of simple lying down stretches and gentle forward bends my head feels clearer and lighter.
I am calmer and happier through my yoga practice. Even on very fatigued days, yoga eases the  lethargy and that horrible sluggish feeling. It just seems to get the blood and energy flowing a little better.

The resources I have listed here are ones that help me maintain my home practice. I am not affiliated to any of the resources I have mentioned here. I simply enjoy using them.
Yoga need not be an expensive hobby. All you really need is a mat, such as this one from Amazon:
Or buy a beginners kit which includes a belt and block which will help you ease your body into new poses such as this one:
When I first started out with yoga I found Fiona Agombar’s Yoga For Fatigue book and DVD invaluable: Fiona suffered from ME/CFS herself and credits her recovery to yoga. Her book gives great insight into how yoga can help ME/CFS as well as including simple ME/CFS friendly sequences and clear explanations of yoga poses.
There is tons of free info about yoga poses as well as lots of video sequences to practice along with on I particularly love this sequence by Jason Crandell:
Recently I have discovered several iPad / iPhone Apps which enhance a home yoga practice: Yoga Studio, All-in Yoga and Pocket Yoga are the three I’ve discovered. All available to download for a small charge from the Apple App Store (I presume they are also available on Android and Blackberry as well). My favourite is Yoga Studio because it has numerous sequences available to download as videos that you can practice along with. The sequences are categorised into beginner, intermediate and advanced as well as varying lengths from 15 minutes to 1 hour. There are also specific sequences for relaxation, strength and flexibility. What’s even better is the tool that allows you to put together your own sequence by selecting poses which is perfect for building up an ME/CFS friendly sequence. The app compiles your chosen poses into a video sequence for you to practice along with.
As you can no doubt tell I love yoga. If it appeals to you, take it slowly, be gentle and listen to your body, but do try yoga and see what it can do for you.
Jess Bruce, November 2013
Twitter: @myjourneythrume
Facebook: My Journey Thru ME