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Stop Telling People With a Chronic Illness to 'Try Yoga'

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An amazing thing happens when you have an incurable, chronic illness: every person you meet happens to have the cure for your illness. Isn’t that incredible? It’s somehow never your doctors, or anybody in medical research, or the dozens of other people you’ve spoken to with the same diagnosis; not even your own decade of experience with your illness is a match for the person you just met five minutes ago that has never even heard of your illness when they utter the dreaded question “Have you tried yoga?”

People with chronic illnesses hear all kinds of strange comments in response to our health conditions: people tell us about some distant relation who had a similar illness that was cured by celery juice; some people will use the opportunity to try to sell us their MLM products; I’ve even had people ask me if I’m drinking enough water as if that would somehow cure the systemic inflammation in my brain and body. These insensitive responses are from well-meaning people who only want to help, of course, but they don’t seem to stop to consider that their unsolicited medical advice may be inappropriate and unwanted. In the chronic illness community, no comment seems quite as ubiquitous or hated as the suggestion to try yoga.

So, my dear Ableds, I would like to share three reasons why you should never recommend yoga to chronically ill people, from a chronically ill “yogi”:

1. They’ve heard it.

Trust me, they have heard it. Probably about 3,986 times. They’ve heard it from family, from friends, from acquaintances. They’ve heard it from their doctor, their aunt, their neighbor, their high school friend, and strangers on the internet. They’ve heard it as they explored treatment options and they’ve heard it from out of nowhere in a casual conversation. Yes, we’ve all heard how wonderful yoga is. In fact, it’s likely we’ve already looked into and tried all of the things you’ve heard about, and a lot of things you haven’t heard of too. Also, if your chronically ill friend is anything like me, the more people tell them to do something, the less likely they will be to do it. If you truly believe others would benefit from yoga, know that hearing it for the bazillionth time might have the opposite effect you’re going for: you could push them further away from ever wanting to try it.

2. You don’t know what they’re dealing with.

You don’t know all of their symptoms, their diagnoses, or the ins and outs of their particular illness(es). You don’t know if a doctor would advise this physical exercise, or if their therapist would recommend this intimate connection with their body. Just because yoga is viewed by non-disabled folks as a “gentle” exercise, does not mean it is actually gentle on every body.

Yoga is not necessarily physically and mentally or emotionally safe for everyone. There was a long time when I was far too sick to do yoga: unbearable pain, debilitating fatigue, and something called exercise intolerance in which physical activity literally made me sick. I was also extremely dissociated from my body at the time and could have caused myself an injury. And did you know that interoceptive practices can cause distress and survival responses in some people who have experienced trauma? Plus, you don’t know if they’ve already tried yoga 50 times before, or what 50 other things they’re already doing for their health.

Every treatment is not for every person. We’re all different. Yoga is not going to be a good fit for everyone at all times, and that does not mean they’re “doing it wrong” or just need to “push through.”

3. Yoga is not a cure.

I am proof of this. I know this may come as a surprise to some people who tout yoga as a cure-all, but I’ve been practicing yoga at least three times a week for three years, and guess what? I am still sick, I am still in pain, and I still have mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, I love yoga. I find it incredibly helpful and I do agree that a lot of people could benefit from a routine practice. It helps me with anxiety and dissociation, it helps me connect with my body and regulate my nervous system, and if I’m consistent with my practice, I do believe that gently moving my body each day reduces my overall pain by about… 7%? Maybe? When you are living with chronic pain, 7% is a big deal, but let’s be clear: an at-best-7%-ease-in-pain is not a cure. It’s a useful tool in my toolbelt for managing my illnesses and I do feel that, at this point, it is helpful for my continued healing… but yoga is not going to magically fix my chronic pain, illness, or cPTSD.

Listen, I understand that people mean well and just want to help. We don’t always know what to say, and many of us have been taught to offer solutions to other people’s problems rather than offering support, which is what we really should be doing. I get it, I am guilty of this too: I used to sell essential oils, and I have this knee-jerk reaction to ask people if they’ve seen a chiropractor when I hear about back and neck problems. Sure, a chiropractor can help some people with certain issues, and I have personally experienced symptom relief from a couple of essential oils. I can also recognize that drinking enough water is important, and I bet even celery juice has some good qualities too.

However, none of these things are cures, and we need to learn to resist the urge to offer unsolicited and oversimplified medical advice for complex, incurable, chronic medical conditions. Saying others’ debilitating health issues can be fixed by “just trying yoga!” is dismissive, insulting, and shuts down the person who is most likely just looking for acknowledgment, compassion, and support. Remember that yoga, like any therapy or treatment or exercise, is a personal — and medical — decision, and we need to stop pushing it on others, however useful we might feel it is.

Whatever your go-to suggested cure is for chronically ill people, before you say those words “Have you tried…?” again, remind yourself: they’ve heard it, you don’t know their full health story, and regardless, whatever you are about to suggest is not an actual cure. Instead, consider offering words of comfort (“I’m here for you if you’d like to talk more about this”), support (“How can I best support you right now?”), acknowledgment (“That sounds so hard” or “Thank you for trusting me with that information”), or perhaps ask them a question (“That’s interesting, what causes this illness?” or “I don’t know much about that, what does treatment look like?”). Even better, tell them you’d be interested in learning more about their illness and ask if they can suggest resources so you can do some reading on your own — then follow through by actually looking up the suggestions they make.

We’re all going to have moments when we say the wrong thing, and that’s OK. The important part is that we reflect on how we might respond differently in the future, and try to do better next time. To my chronically ill friends: as much as I do love yoga, I will do my best to never tell you to try yoga or any other faux cure, and I encourage everyone reading this to refrain from doing so too.

This story originally appeared on Disabled in the Wild.

Originally published: March 11, 2022
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