Yoga for People Living with Chronic Illness

mature woman yoga exercise on beachMore 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.

Kundalini Yoga: Sadhana Guidelines

Infinity and Me

I also recommend checking out the book Relax and Renew by Guru Rattana for some other suggestions of stress reduction techniques and simple breathing exercises.

Relax and Renew

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.

Cycle of Life

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.

River of Light – Getting Free of Stress

Music for Meditation – Inner Stillness

(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.)

Journey into Stillness by Ramdesh Kaur

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Julie Eisenberg

Julie Eisenberg (Jiwan Shakti Kaur) is a Level 2 Kundalini Yoga Teacher and Teacher Trainer. She is the owner of LIghthouse Yoga Center (www.lighthouseyogacenter.com), Washington, DC’s largest Kundalini Yoga Studio. Jiwan Shakti started practicing yoga in the mid-1990s as a way to decompress from a stressful job and since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing the teachings with anyone who will listen. Over the years, as her practice deepened and evolved, Jiwan Shakti began to understand yoga as a tool of personal transformation and empowerment. She teaches yoga to the homeless and to low-income Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Washington region, and she thoroughly believes in the transformative power of the practice.

3 Comments

  1. thank you for the audio recommendations. i’m looking them up right now for my healing journey.

    Reply
  2. Hi Karen, Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

    Reply
  3. As someone with ME [CFS], who struggles with a daily physical practice, this leapt out at me:

    “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.”

    I’ve struggled greatly with the paralysis that comes with perfectionism, so that it’s taken ages to get from the insights that a) meditation counts as yoga practice, and b) even just 3 minutes of Sat Kriya followed by savasana counts as a daily practice to actually ACCEPTING that not doing the full 90-minute session on my DVD is OK.

    Yoga’s about sustainability, and a sustainable practice is what I’m slowly moving towards. And I only just realised reading this that I can allow myself greater recovery time. So obvious that I didn’t even notice it. Thank you!

    Reply

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