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5 Ways to Practice Yoga, When Chronic Illness Means You Can’t Downward Dog

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I was a yoga teacher who could no longer practice yoga. Going upside-down would increase the pressure in my head, concerns about hyper-mobility reduced my ability to stretch and, to top it all off, I was told to cut down my activity for while because of concerns that I might have an exercise intolerance. It felt like I was being pranked — this could not be possible!  Not only was I being asked to give up my favorite hobby, I was losing one of my main coping mechanisms.

But yoga is so much more than the physical practice. In the absence of being able to do the physical postures, I started focusing on other, equally as powerful components of yoga.

Here are some of my favorites, and how they helped me while living with chronic illness:

1. Satya, or the practice of being truthful.

Satya is one of the five practices of self-restraint observed by yogis. These
self-restraint practices are referred to in Sanskrit as Yamas. While being ill, I dedicated myself to truth by exploring my emotions, desires and fears through journaling. Then I would practice speaking my truth by being vulnerable with close friends and family — even when doing so seemed scary.

2. Saucha, or the practice of cleanliness.

Saucha is one of the five Niyamas, or yogic duties. I focused on Saucha by using green products and eating organic as much as my budget would allow me. In addition, I utilized an infrared sauna and a neti pot with the intent of cleansing my body.

3. Svadhyaya, or the study of spiritual texts.

Svadhyaya is also one of the Niyamas, or yogic duties. For me, spiritual texts included memoirs. I read about the lives of people who have also struggled, and learning from their resiliency. I would take notes on how I could use their lessons in my own life and filled notebooks with quotes I could turn to when needing motivation.

4. Pranayama, or breath work.

Although sitting down and practicing specific breathing exercises was not something I always had the energy for, becoming aware of my breath became an important tool in my wellness toolbox.

When I noticed I was holding my breath, I would take a moment to inhale into my belly and then exhale fully. Over time, I began to naturally adjust my breathing in stressful situations without even knowing it.

5. Dharana, or concentrated awareness.

I practiced Dharana by choosing to take phone breaks, focusing on nature when walking and by being aware of my senses while completing daily tasks. One of my favorite daily practices was sniffing a jar full of coffee beans so I could reignite my mindful awareness.

Eventually I was able to slowly engage in yoga postures again. And when I did, I noticed a big change in myself. It was clear that my time spent focusing on the non-physical aspects of yoga, and not just my downward dog, had deepened my practice.

To find yoga practices that may fit into your life while being ill, I would recommend looking into the eight limbs of yoga, the Yamas and the Niyamas.

Namaste, warriors.

Getty image by Yolya

Originally published: May 13, 2020
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