The Mighty Logo

How Yoga Helps Me Rediscover Myself After a Chronic Illness Diagnosis

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

“You must lose yourself to find yourself.”

I have been thinking a lot about what has been lost with illness. I have been chronically ill for years, and there isn’t one aspect of my life that disease has not touched and taken away from. My work, friendships, career, mental health, social life, future goals, family, marriage, and ultimately my identity: this sickness has had an impact on everything I see and feel. I am like a house after a fire, with every inch covered in ash. Every ache, pain and discomfort, every medication, vitamin, supplement, and doctor visit, every thought, worry, anxiety, and concern is a reminder of what has been taken from me, what illness has done not only to my body but to my life.

I used to be outgoing, a spark plug, loud, and full of energy — always looking for the next professional and academic goal to accomplish, but I have been quieted and halted by disease. Illness has made me reticent, soft and often reserved, but in that quiet I am rediscovering myself and learning who I really am. Being sick has taken so much from me, and most days I get caught up with that loss, but today I am trying to find meaning in this loss.

Illness has brought me to yoga, and yoga to mindfulness, and through this practice, I am rediscovering myself. In yoga practice, one must focus on the breath to control the body while in a pose. By focusing on the breath, I focus on the present, and in turn become more aware of my thoughts and my own body. Through this awareness and through this focus on the present moment in my body and on my breath, I am finding mental healing and a sense of calm.

Every day, after my yoga practice, when I lay in corpse pose, I repeat the following: “I am grateful for this moment, I am grateful for this practice, I am grateful for this body, I am grateful for this breath. In gratitude, I practice.”

I created this mantra because I realized I spent so much time being angry at myself for not being able to do what I used to, for not being healthy, for not having energy, for not being who I envisioned I would be. I would blame this vessel, constantly putting myself and my body down.

The truth is, when you are ill, your mind can turn against you and negative self-talk can become the norm. Thoughts about what you can’t do and what has been lost and taken become constant. Sometimes you aren’t even aware this is happening, and you just don’t know how else to be because the pain is too much and the loss is too great. But with yoga and mindfulness, I am becoming more aware of myself, and that awareness has led to change. I am changing the way I think about myself and the way I talk to myself. This in turn has changed the relationship I have with my body, and it has helped me refocus on what there is to be grateful for in this moment.

With this practice, I have become more aware of what has been given and less concerned with what has been lost. Yes, I have lost so much, but in that loss has been gain because sometimes you must lose yourself to find yourself. Sickness stripped me of my goals, stripped me of those characteristics valued by society such as being productive, earning good money, being accomplished, being a busy professional. By practicing yoga, I am changing my perception, I am changing my goals and my sense of self. I am realizing that illness has slowed me down and that can be a good thing. It is so easy to get caught up in our fast-paced, goal-oriented world that we forget to care for ourselves, we forget about our true passions, and we forget to do the things that bring us happiness.

Sickness has forced me to re-evaluate my life. I am now more present, more empathetic, a better listener, a better healer. Illness has allowed me to refocus my energy on my passion for writing and in doing so redefine myself. I used to be too busy to write even though it was my dream to be a writer. Now, because of sickness, I have the time to share myself through writing. Illness has given me invaluable experience and new perspective I can use to help others, and it has given me the courage to share myself. Illness has taught me so much about medicine and the medical field. It has blessed me with knowledge I would have otherwise not known. Where I once was outgoing I am now more observant, more understanding and more in tuned with the pain of others. Illness has taught me the true meaning in life is defined by the self not by societal norms. There are days I miss my old self deeply, days where all I can feel at my core is “I wish I wasn’t sick.” But I am learning to let go of what I can’t control; there is nothing I can do but grieve, remember, and embrace the new me, here, in this moment. By embracing the moment, I become more aware of what has been given.

Sometimes, when I am tired and in pain, I hate getting on that yoga mat. My body and mind want to resort to my old ways, but I know every time I get on the mat, I gain a deeper sense of self, so I get on the mat anyways. With each pose and with each breath I bring healing and new life into this body. I have learned about the power of breath: it is what grounds us, it is what heals us, it is what connects us to our bodies and to the precious here and now. It may seem strange, but sickness has taught me to be mindful, to be patient and kind to myself, to value my needs, and focus on myself. It is through yoga and mindfulness that I am learning to love this body even with its limitations. It is through the breath that I heal. I did lose my sense of identity, but there is so much to be found in that loss.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: September 21, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home