More and more research is showing that yoga and meditation offer tremendous benefits to people who suffer from chronic illnesses. That’s not to say that yoga will cure a long-term or chronic disease. However, a consistent practice of yoga and mediation often helps people who are dealing with illness by reducing stress, alleviating symptoms of the disease and side effects of medication, boosting the immune system, and increasing overall comfort.
It’s believed that many of these benefits are a direct result of yoga’s emphasis on breathing and focusing the mind, which also helps to relieve some of the mental distress that accompanies long-term illness. A yoga class geared specifically to people with a particular illness or condition can also provide a great deal of emotional support to students, who have the opportunity to bond with others in similar conditions.
As a yoga teacher, it’s important to recognize that the needs of this population are often different from those of a general student population. The most important elements in this type of class are safety and comfort, as well as relaxation.
Of course safety and comfort are important in ALL yoga classes. But 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. If the primary need that day is to rest, plan for some gentle movements and then a long savasana (final relaxation) or yoga nidra.
In a general yoga class, a teacher might introduce 25 different postures during the course of the class. In a class with people suffering from chronic illness, the number of postures taught is much lower, there is more time to transition from one to the next, and more rest time is built in.
It also means avoiding certain postures that may cause discomfort. For many people, sitting on the floor in “easy pose” is not easy. Have a chair ready as a back up. Depending on where the students are in the process of their illness, some yoga poses may be counter-indicated, so be sure to ask if there are any particular movements their doctors have advised them to not do, or any parts of the body that need to be treated with more care and compassion. For example, a woman who recently had breast cancer surgery may need be very careful with postures that involve weight-bearing on the arms.
In a Kundalini yoga class, this would mean selecting kriyas that move slowly and don’t involve a large number of poses. The Basic Spinal Energy Series in Sadhana Guidelines is an excellent example of a kriya that is appropriate for students with limited mobility or strength. The manual Infinity and Me also offers some good choices, including two very gentle but engaging kriyas: Creating Magnetic Fields to Expand Your Inner Self and Experience the Relationship of the Pranic Body and the Physical Body.
It’s critically important to incorporate a good deal of meditation into the classes. Even if someone is limited in their physical movements, they can benefit fully from meditation, calming the mind and reducing anxiety. Kirtan Kriya is a very good choice, as well as the Healing Ra Ma Da Sa, both available on the beautiful Cycle of Life CD by Mirabai Ceiba.
You may also want to refer to guided meditation CDs such as River of Light – Getting Free of Stress or calming, meditative instrumentals like Music for Meditation – Inner Stillness. Students with chronic illnesses can use these CD’s to begin to develop a daily practice, which will hopefully help them cope with their conditions better in the long term.
(Editor’s Note: For guided meditation, we recommend Ramdesh Kaur’s Journey into Stillness. For people with chronic illness, her Journey to the Golden Temple is a beautiful track for physical healing and rejuvenation.)