How Becoming a Yoga Teacher Has Helped Me Manage My Rheumatoid Arthritis
Editor’s note: The following is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before beginning new treatment plans.
I would like to share my experience of living with a chronic pain condition in the hope it might give some assistance and insight to others in a similar situation.
I am a yoga teacher and as such, you might expect me to be flexible and strong, and in reality I don’t do too badly. I say this with a sense of achievement as I also have rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease of the joints and connective tissue.
Five years ago I was a corporate career woman. I had fantastic jobs in the city and the swagger to match. I was always busy rushing from meeting to meeting being super important and I played as hard as I worked.
Like many people, I fully expected my lifestyle to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, and like many people I was mistaken.
In 2012, I developed RA and, to be honest, I was knocked sideways with the impact of being in continuous pain. It was inescapable. It was the first thing I felt in the morning and (assuming sleep didn’t allude me altogether) it was my last waking thought. It filled my head all day and every day and it had started to redefine me as a person.
I was afraid of the future and incredibly sad over the past I had lost.
I was eventually prescribed drugs to manage my condition and in some respects, the side effects of them were as bad as the RA itself.
Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug, made me sick, tired and initially didn’t even reduce the pain. Aside from all this I found myself in a maze of well-meaning advice and I really didn’t know which way to turn.
It was 2013 when I decided to train to be a yoga teacher and at this point my pain was around an eight out of 10 most days. I had listened to health professionals who advised that increasing the amount of exercise I did daily would help. I researched the advice, and yes, it made perfect sense. The more you flex and compress a joint, the more the connective tissue is stimulated, stiffness is reduced and the joint degradation slows down.
The issue I had was that the pain I felt while moving increased my anxiety and brought my reality into sharp focus – and aside from anything else it hurt a lot. I found myself surrounded by people who were stronger and more able than myself, and as a result I would leave classes feeling awful.
My yoga teacher training taught me to move and breathe daily in a way that supported both my mind and my body.
This is where you might expect me to say that yoga cured my RA. Unfortunately not, but yoga and meditation have been significant in providing me with a toolkit to cope with my condition and I am pleased to say that, today, my RA is largely under control.
What did I learn?
Pain is not constant and unchanging. When you feel pain continually, your brain may trick you into thinking you feel the same type and level of pain all the time. This isn’t always true. If you use meditation techniques to really feel the body and the breath, you will notice it is constantly changing and you are likely not feeling 100 percent pain 100 percent of the time. Tuning into the pain and almost making friends with it allows you to reduce the associated anxiety. You can use the breath to breathe through the pain and in doing so, the body relaxes and it subsides a little.
If you are in agony, focus on it rather than away from it and be confident that the moment will pass. You don’t have to cope with a lifetime of pain but just one moment at a time.
Don’t jump out of bed onto sore joints. Spend a few moments in bed gently moving the joints in the morning before you launch into your daily schedule. Five minutes is all it takes to soften the start of your day, and as a result you will likely have a more positive perspective.
Own your own body. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, don’t do it. Whether that is staying in that yoga pose or walking an additional few meters.
Move as much and as fully as you can but rest when you need to. You know your body far better than anyone else.
Don’t suffer your suffering (as the Buddhists say). In the moments you feel OK, give yourself permission to feel OK. Enjoy each and every enjoyable moment.
Eat as healthily as you can but don’t it dominate you. As great as they are, you will not cure any condition with green smoothies.
How has this shaped my teaching?
Firstly, let me say how grateful I am to have the opportunity to teach yoga. It is truly an honor, but not only that, my teaching schedule ensures I move my body every day, and as a result I really reap the benefit.
My objective, as a teacher, is for everyone who comes to my class to feel relaxed and do what they can. After all, just leaning into our objectives yields great results and in my experience the most impressive yogi in the room is very often the one who turns up despite life’s challenges.
I really want to support everyone in developing their own yoga practice but I am especially keen to assist those who feel they can’t do yoga because… And this is because you can. You don’t need to be strong, bendy or beautiful in lycra in order to benefit from yoga. So if you can’t come to my classes, find a teacher or a class somewhere that suits your learning style.
In summary, RA is a pain, literally. However, with the benefit of hindsight, RA has given me far more than it has taken. The mental strength I have developed easily outstrips the physical strength I have lost. In addition to this I feel my perspective on life is softer and more empathetic.
Overall I am a happier, more content person than I was back in 2011, so I guess it was actually a gift.
This post originally appeared on The Yoga Club.
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Thinkstock photo via fizkes.