Yoga, Crohn’s Disease and How I Got My Life Back

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When people ask me how I got into yoga, I usually tell them I used it to rehab an injury. That’s true. After fracturing my lower back, yoga helped me regain strength and flexibility in my back and left leg, both of which were also affected by the fracture. I tell them how at peace yoga makes my mind and body feel. I explain how yoga makes me feel better in all aspects of my life. I tell them I believe yoga is great for the body but better for the soul, and when I teach, I rattle all off the bountiful mental, physical, emotional, and health benefits of each pose.

Sometimes I wonder whether people taking the class and therefore listening to the long list of benefits, wonder if I did an extensive Google search before hitting the mat. I wonder if they ponder whether I cite yoga’s healing powers because it sounds good or because a guru told me about them.

Living with Crohn’s Disease

What most people don’t know is that I’ve experienced yoga’s healing firsthand, and not just with an injury. What I never tell people―whether it be out of embarrassment or because it never comes up in conversation―is that I have a chronic illness. I have Crohn’s disease. To put it simply, Crohn’s is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which is every bit as glamorous as it sounds. Basically, my immune system attacks my gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately, there isn’t a tremendous amount known about Crohn’s: Although it is an immune-related disease, it isn’t technically an autoimmune disorder. There is no known cure for Crohn’s.

I have always had a sensitive stomach, but around the age of fourteen or fifteen, my symptoms shifted. I determinedly ignored the fact that I was sick. Then, this past summer, debilitating pain resulted in me being hospitalized and receiving the official diagnosis.

Crohn’s isn’t fun to discuss and even less enjoyable to have. It isn’t a “trendy” illness or allergy (not that I believe any disorder or disease falls into that category); it is awkward and often unpredictable. It makes everyday activities, like going to work or going out, seem like monumental tasks. Aside from being almost perpetually sick to my stomach―I have learned to hide this well―Crohn’s comes with a whole host of sub-symptoms: I have episodes of exhaustion so intense that sometimes talking seems like work (challenging for someone like me, who loves good conversation), my joints ache, I’m usually unintentionally vitamin deficient. This has resulted in anemia, meaning my iron levels are low.

I’ve tried every elimination diet in the book. Half the time, I get so exhausted and frustrated trying to figure out what or when to eat, it feels easier to just not eat anything. So I usually don’t, which prompts all sorts of (warranted) questions about my dubious eating habits. The worst part is the nearly all-consuming anxiety that stems from never feeling in control. Over the summer, I was embarrassed to leave my dorm. I looked sick: Hair coming out in handfuls, pale, dry skin. It didn’t look pretty and felt even worse.

How Yoga Gave Me My Life Back

So how in the world does a person like this do yoga, let alone anything else? Honestly, I believe that yoga makes it possible.

As a former ballet dancer, I practiced yoga occasionally, using it as a training supplement, but two years ago, as a freshman in college, I really fell in love with it. Caught up in feeling lonely and sick and sorry for myself, I stumbled into a hot yoga class.

I haven’t been the same since.

I emerged feeling rejuvenated and alive in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I felt clear-headed and alert, but calm. I wasn’t anxious about my stomach or whatever was happening in my life at that moment. Yoga stripped away the layers of illness, insecurity, and panic, and built them back up with peace. Peace, I found, is the most fulfilling substance of all.

I don’t use prescription medication to treat Crohn’s. I take over-the-counter meds on an as-needed basis. I’ve tried to restore my body to as natural a state as possible, and while I believe yoga has certainly helped with the physical symptoms of the illness, what I think it really changed was my mind.

What You Think You Become

“What you think, you become” is not an overstatement. If you think frantic, depressing thoughts, they will eventually manifest themselves physically. When your entire body feels broken, it is all too easy to fall into a “what is wrong with me” mindset.

Yoga doesn’t try to answer the question “What is wrong with me?” Instead, yoga demonstrates all the many, many things that are right with you. It shows you yourself at your purest, your freest, your lightest. That version of you is the truth. We all have things that are less than ideal, whether it be a difficult situation, an illness, poor body image. But what we forget is that we all possess things that are inexplicably right; that are noble and wonderful and worthy. Yoga made it possible for me to see these things in myself.

I actually credit Crohn’s with a lot. Because of this illness, I am more patient and understanding, I am more in tune with my body and I try to focus on what is right instead of the wrong.

I have a long way to go and a lot to work on, but every time I stand on a yoga mat, I feel myself getting better. I want people to know that whatever you believe is wrong with you, there are dozens of things that are right with you, and the world deserves to see them. You owe it to yourself. Every time you feel too sick or too sad or too wrong, please step onto that mat, close your eyes and let yoga heal every part of you.

It is the greatest cure.



Quadratus Lumborum and Mindful Back Health in Yoga

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Low back pain is an increasing issue in our society dominated by poor posture, sedentary lifestyles, and chronic sitting patterns. The source of low back pain can vary, but a great deal of these muscular dysfunctions emanate from the quadratus lumborum muscles.

Most of us are quite familiar with the erector spinae muscles that travel from the hip crest/sacrum to various points up the vertebrae and ribs. These muscles function primarily as extensors of the back. Few people (including yoga teachers) are aware of the all-important quadratus lumborum muscles that are located deep toward the erector spinae.

The quadratus lumborum muscles sit on either side of the vertebrae. They originate on the iliac crest (hip bone) and insert on the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae and the 12th (last) rib.

When both sides contract, they extend the spine (and/or depress the ribcage from behind). When only one side contracts, the spine flexes laterally and/or elevates the ilium (hip) on that same side. In forced expiration, the quadratus lumborum will fix the 12 ribs.

When Back Pain Can Occur

Dysfunction and low back pain can settle into the quadratus lumborum under a few conditions:

  • If the erector spinae are weak or inhibited (as they often are in chronic seated postures), the quadratus lumborum attempts to take up the slack and loading in back extension and spinal stabilization leading to overall muscle fatigue.
  • If muscle imbalances build up across the pelvis (e.g., tight hip flexors), the lower vertebrae can shift into chronic excessive curvature (lordosis), which will shorten and weaken the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae.
  • If poor posture and upper body muscle tension forms across the chest and shoulders, rounded-back posture (kyphosis) will pull the rib cage up and away from the hip crest. This places stress and drag on the quadratus lumborum and portions of the erector spinae.
  • The deep gluteals (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) are responsible for hip abduction and pelvic stabilization in walking and other gait patterns. If these deep gluteal muscles are weak and inhibited, the quadratus lumborum and tensor fascia latae have to compensate to stabilize the pelvis.
  • Some physical experts have also found that tight hip adductor muscles (groin) can inhibit (through reciprocal inhibition) the gluteus medius muscles. As mentioned above, the quadratus lumborum muscle may compensate for the gluteus medius muscle’s lack of activity and pelvic stabilization.

How to Keep Your Back Healthy with Yoga

Understanding that the dysfunction residing in the quadratus lumborum is often the result of dysfunction and tension imbalances coming from other muscles, here are some initial approaches to maintaining health of the quadratus lumborum:

  • Develop a strategy to maintain fluid balance in upper and lower body posture patterns to avoid chronic hip flexor tightness, back extensor tension, and loss of natural vertebral curvature and pelvic placement
  • Stretch the chest, front of the shoulders, hip flexors, groin, and lower back frequently
  • Strengthen back extensors and overall core stabilizers
  • Strengthen and stretch deep gluteals to unload unnecessary engagement of the quadratus lumborum
  • Engage in proper therapeutic treatments when discomfort and pain develop

Need help with yoga for back pain? Sign up for our Yoga Foundations Guide with Rodney Yee & Colleen Saidman Yee!

Do These Yoga Poses for Back Pain

Here are some basic, accessible stretches readily prescribed to restore and maintain flexibility in the quadratus lumborum muscles:

Child’s Pose

Seated / Supported Side Bends

Lying Bend Knee Twists

When aiming to stretch the quadratus lumborum muscles and other lower back musculature, I would personally recommend avoid using forward bends like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Paschimottasana (Seated Two Leg Forward Bend) and other similar poses.

Due to the nature of intervertebral disc compression in spinal flexion, these types of forward bends would be better served to actually involve engagement of the back extensors and transverse abdomen in order to extend the spine, shift the ‘flexion’ into the hips, unload the lower vertebrae and protect against disc compression.

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