Yoga, Crohn’s Disease and How I Got My Life Back
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.
Addiction Recovery Through Yoga
With all the images online of toned women in tights pulling themselves into pretzel-like poses, it’s easy to focus on the physical side of yoga, thinking of it as an exercise class that ends with a mini nap. But the ancient practice of yoga can also help with drug and alcohol addiction, diseases that affect millions of us in this fast-paced, modern world.
While yoga can be a powerful tool for personal transformation and recovery, many people write it off before even stepping onto a mat, saying they’re not flexible enough or they can’t afford the classes. Yet the mind-body connection, stress relief and personal growth that can occur through the regular practice of yoga can be just what a recovering addict needs. Yoga encourages a person to reconnect to their breath, body, mind and heart. Here are just a few ways yoga can help release the mind and body from the grips of drug and alcohol addiction.
Yoga Eases Stress
“It was such a crazy/stressful/hectic day… I need a drink” is such a common phrase in our culture, it’s easy to forget that there are healthy ways to cope with stress. Many addicts have become so dependent on their substance of choice, they’ve forgotten that movement or even just a few deep breaths can bring a real sense of calm to the day. And that moment of calm can lead to healthier choices as you move toward a sober life.
The benefits of mindful movement and breathing, which are at the center of many yoga classes, have been proven to increase overall health.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 20 to 30 minutes of deep breathing has been shown to help the body kick into a relaxation response, where stress levels drop and blood pressure decreases. “Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness,” according to an article on the organization’s website. “Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body—it brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quiets your mind.”
Nearly all yoga classes encourage students to consciously inhale and exhale, which brings peace to the mind and body, even as we move through a practice. If you commit even further, and regularly practice at home or at a studio, you might find yourself using deep breathing or a short yoga sequence to help you stay strong through a moment of temptation or stress.
This is especially important for addicts, as many suffer from post-acute withdrawal symptoms, or PAWS, in the early stages of recovery. These symptoms often include anxiety and mood swings. One study has shown that yoga directly helps to increase GABA, a neurotransmitter that aids in relaxing the nervous system, therefore improving your mood and decreasing anxiety.
Yoga Increases Self-Awareness
Addicts are often accused by their loved ones of being selfish. But devoting regular time to the kind of reflection that comes with yoga can be beneficial to those in recovery. More meditative types of the practice, like Yin Yoga, where there is little movement and just a few poses done in a single class, can create a meaningful space for really checking in with ourselves. While the questions that come to mind might not always be pleasant, these classes are set up as safe spaces for students to release emotions, and teachers are aware that their students might be struggling with all kinds of personal issues while in their studio. This type of contemplative yoga can help with anxiety, depression and even sleep issues. By dealing with some of the other factors that might be causing stress and unhappiness in your life, you might have more resolve or energy to commit to a recovery plan or time in a rehabilitation center.
Addressing the Roots of Addiction
Yoga is not superior in dealing with one addiction over another. Yoga begins to address the roots of a problem rather than the symptoms, making it a common tool among recovery from many addictions. If someone struggling with alcohol or drug addiction gets sober only to find him- or herself struggling with another addiction, such as food or gambling, yoga practices can be implemented to support in recovery from both addictions.
Yoga for General Wellbeing
Yoga can also be used as a tool to support general wellbeing regardless of addiction. For example, long deep breathing, or “yogic breathing,” has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase stress resilience. Yoga can also be used to assist in dealing with trauma. According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in the field of trauma treatment, yoga may be more effective than many medications in treating PTSD. “Medication can be quite nice to sort of dampen some of the symptoms,” he states. “But in the end, people need to own their bodies, they need to own their physical experiences. And, in order to overcome your trauma, it needs to be safe to go inside and to experience yourself.”
Yoga asks you to show up for yourself. Although deep breathing can help relieve stress at any moment during the day, a physical yoga practice requires regularly carving out time for yourself. Even if you are just going to spend a few minutes stretching in your living room, you still must make the time to practice. As with any other type of physical exercise, you’ll see more benefits if you practice regularly. Yoga, for example, has been proven to ease chronic back pain and joint pain. Some studies have found that it can also help with mental health issues.
German researchers, for example, studied a small group of women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed.” Over a three-month period, they took two 90-minute yoga classes a week. At the end of the study, their stress, anxiety and overall health all improved. Similar studies have also shown the one-off benefits of even attending a single yoga class. The uniting factor in all of these cases? The participants showed up for themselves and attended a class. They might have had stressful days or felt anxiety about trying yoga or were plagued by depression, but they put all of that aside and spent the hour (or more) bending, breathing and stretching.
It’s easy to put off a yoga practice: to buy a mat or a DVD and let it go dusty. Or to attend a single class, but never step foot in the studio again. But the more you commit to yourself, and a regular mind-body practice, the more overall benefits you’ll begin to see and feel. A single healthy decision, like deciding to roll out your yoga mat, can change your focus for the day and encourage another healthy decision. Over time, those mindful moments will add up, perhaps leading to an overall more positive outlook and healthier lifestyle.
The Art of Surrender
Yoga requires us to surrender. The first of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” In a similar vein, yoga asks again and again that we drop everything that is not necessary in our lives. Most teachers will begin the class with a mind-clearing exercise and a short moment to set an intention. This helps us focus on the moment, and release all the other stresses in life. Similarly, some poses require surrender, as well.
Maybe there’s a complicated pose in class that you simply cannot twist your body into. That doesn’t mean you have to flop down on your mat or write the pose off for good. It simply means that accepting that today, that pose is not happening.
The same idea is true during some of the more “relaxing” poses. While your body might be still in a seated position, you may feel your mind racing. Again, yoga teaches us to simply surrender and to be present with who we are, where we are, right now. By engaging in a regular practice, we learn that acceptance comes with not being able to control the world around us but by allowing the world around us to exist as it is. By doing so we learn the art and gift of peaceful surrender.
In terms of learning to let go of expectations and limitations, yoga can be a boon for those who are recovering from addiction. In AA, the moment of surrender becomes “the firm bedrock upon which a happy and purposeful life is built.” The same is true in yoga: When we accept that a pose is out of our reach or that our minds cannot be quieted, we might finally find a moment of true freedom.