Stretch It Out When You’re Sick and Tired: Yoga as Medicine for Chronic Illness

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, I didn’t quite understand what would happen to my body. I had always been a healthy individual, and suddenly I wasn’t. My days were shrouded in a cloud of wondering how I would survive this disease, and I was often overcome with darkness that immobilized me. Exercise, even getting out of the house, and most physical activities, held no interest for me.

Everything in my life, though, eventually returned to normal. I worked, played with my daughter, cooked some fine meals, and enjoyed the occasional day trip…until my cancer returned, metastasized, and suddenly I found myself living with the daily struggles of chronic disease.

Breast cancer research has come so far, though there is still a long way to go toward the eradication of the disease. Till then, managing the ups and downs and aches and pains of a chronic disease is an individual struggle. What has helped me thrive during my nine-year survivorship?

Yoga

Besides cancer, people with any number of common chronic diseases can benefit from yoga. Here’s how:

  1. Yoga breaks up the monotony of your medical appointments. This is a practical benefit! Just when it seems as though you can’t take one more appointment with your oncologist, primary care doctor, phlebotomist, cardiology, endocrinologist, or pharmacist, there’s a bright spot in your calendar. Your weekly yoga session!
  2. Yoga allows you to regain a sense of control over your body. So often, when we have a chronic disease, no matter how well we try to take care of our bodies, we often have no control over what is occurring inside ourselves. Yoga allows you to regain some of that control. You decide how far you are willing to stretch, how long you are going to hold a pose, how fast or slow your body can move into each new position. That sense of control is empowering!
  3. Yoga allows you to be social in a safe environment. Women and men of all persuasions attend yoga, and you’ll be surprised how friendly everyone can be. You’re all on that yoga journey together, if only for that hour-long session, and bonds of friendship can be easily forged. Additionally, if you seek out a yoga program for people dealing with a similar chronic disease as your own, you’ll have that much more in common.
  4. Yoga also allows you to be solitary in a safe environment. Sometimes, when you’re not feeling well, you want to be alone. There is no obligation to be social at yoga. You can get in your own zone of peace and serenity, and no one will try to push you out of it. And because of the group setting of a yoga session, you can feel a sense of community without alienation.
  5. Yoga lets you move at your own pace. When I wanted to get back into shape after going through radiation and chemotherapy, I tried Zumba. Zumba is basically a group dance aerobics class, and you’re sunk if you can’t keep up! In yoga, you decide how far you want to push yourself and how long you want to hold your poses. Your yoga instructor guides you with a gentle voice through the poses, and there is usually some magical, soothing music emanating through the studio speakers. I never feel rush, never feel like I am falling behind the group pace, and never feel like I’m struggling when I do yoga. This freedom empowers me to push myself a little more every time, to achieve a new personal best.
  6. The physical benefits of yoga are unmatched. Yoga focuses on the mental and the physical. The gentle movements ease your mind and allow your body to begin moving again after periods of time when you may have been inactive due to your disease. Doctors recommend gentle exercise and activity for those with chronic disease, and yoga fits the bill. Its ancient movements are still relevant for the modern age.

Yoga won’t keep your chronic disease from flaring up. It won’t cure you either. For me, yoga has provided the space for my body to feel strong and healthy again even during times when I felt weak and low. I found the sense of community, serenity, and inner peace I experienced before, during, and after yoga to be unmatched. With many studios and hospitals offering free yoga sessions to those living with chronic disease, now’s the time to give yoga a try!

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Madelaine is Philadelphia freelancer with a passion for healthy eating, gentle exercise, literature across all genres, and helping others become their best selves. As a long-term cancer survivor, she finds the beauty in every day and hopes to leave a lasting mark in her community.