What is Yoga?
The best definition I’ve read of how yoga developed comes from my friends over at Nerd Fitness.com (we’re not really friends. They don’t know me at all – yet).
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, a bunch of Hindu wise men sat in meditation for hours and hours. For weeks and months and years they sat and chanted and read and talked with each other about what they learned, rarely standing or walking or lifting things. It probably didn’t take long for them to realize that as they tried to improve their minds and souls, they were absolutely neglecting their bodies…Clearly, their weak muscles, stiff joints, and poor balance needed to be improved. They had to reunite body and mind. The ultimate multi-taskers, they invented a system of movement that combined meditation, self-discovery, and seriously hardcore exercise, all in one. They invented yoga, which in Sanskrit means Union (or yoking, as in “harnessing together”).
Yoga has been enjoying an explosion in popularity for the proposed physical benefits and it’s easy to see why: yoga practice is said to promote flexibility, improve bone and muscle strength and reduce stress. In the US, yoga has mutated into a million different incarnations, some barely recognizable as “yoga” as we understand it. There’s yoga done suspended in mid-air, laughter yoga, nude yoga and even “tantrum yoga” – where you can scream your stress away. You can appreciate yoga simply as a great exercise, or go the whole hog by studying the philosophy behind it, making it a way of life. With so many types of yoga available, it can be staggering to know where to start, or even if yoga’s a good idea for lupus patients in general. As with anything else when it comes to lupus, a lot depends on your individual symptoms and abilities.
There are many reported benefits of having a yoga practice. For those of us with stiff and sore joints the exercises can help us regain some flexibility. If you’re bones are a little weak from years of steroid use, yoga can strengthen the surrounding muscles and make movement easier over time. If you can do the more weight-bearing poses, then yoga can help prevent further bone loss. In fact, some studies have shown that yoga can be a great exercise for those with back problems, improving function (though not so much pain). Yoga is one of the few “alternative” treatments that have a decent body of research done about its benefits. Also, like most other forms of exercise, it’s purported to help lower stress and help anxiety, though with variations such as Yin yoga that specifically focus on restfulness and relaxing the body, yoga might have extra points in this area. And with so many forms to choose from, there’s probably a practice out there just right for you.
Of course, yoga has its dangers as well. It’s very easy to injure yourself if you do poses incorrectly or do poses that your body isn’t ready for. And yoga classes done in intense heat or other extreme environments can add even more stress on the body. For those of us with lupus, our bodies can develop weaknesses over time that we aren’t even aware of – until that body part calls it quits in the middle of our day. There’s a great New York Times article that goes into detail about some of the historic problems with yoga-related injuries; it’s a must-read if you’re doing or thinking of starting yoga. While any yoga teacher can prescribe modifications, there’s no way to know what experience they have with the complications that lupus patients can have. Would you let a doctor with no lupus experience guide your treatments? Why do the same for a yoga teacher?
My Yoga Journey
When I started with yoga, even the beginner classes were painful and difficult. Even with the help of cushioned props and modified poses (which is why I highly suggest going to class if you’re just starting out – a video can’t adjust your pose for you), my wrists and ankles just weren’t strong enough to support me. It was discouraging to go to a class only to be unable to do half the poses, so I started hunting around for something better suited for me. I tried a few dvd’s and classes specifically marketed as “gentle” or for seniors and found the pace of those to be more my speed. Eventually, I found my way to yoga created for people with mobility problems. All the poses were done either in or with the support of a chair. This was great for my specific problems as I didn’t have to put my body weight on my feet, knees or wrists for long periods.
If you’re thinking about starting out a yoga practice, here are some of my top tips below to help keep you on the safe track:
- Speak to your doctor and have a good checkup before starting yoga (or any exercise program). If you’ve been having pains in a specific part of your body it might be a good idea to have an x-ray or MRI done to see if there’s damage you’re unaware of.
- Research, research, research. And then, research some more.
- Take a class instead of starting with a dvd. An experienced teacher can modify a pose to your needs, while videos often only show one kind of modification (if that).
- Don’t be shy about taking classes marketed for seniors. Most of the exercise classes I take are technically for seniors, but I find them to be the perfect pace for me.
- Consider alternatives to yoga. A physical therapist can create routines specially tailored to your limitations and goals.