A Personal Journey: Autoimmune Disease, Yoga and Self-Care

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Toe)
I first met Renee at a meditation retreat in Los Angeles. After discovering that we both had multiple dietary restrictions AND happened to go to the same college, we became fast friends. Over the past few years, both of us have been on our own journeys to find what foods and lifestyle choices affect how we feel, and we’ve been a natural support system for eachother. Even after Renee was formally diagnosed with thyroid disease a  few months ago, she continued her journey of self-discovery and self-care rather than just relying on the diagnosis and medication. I asked Renee to share her experience and some of the challenges and remedies that she has discovered for herself, in particular her yoga practice and how that has affected other parts of her life. Below is her guest post. –Jennifer

As a native Californian, I started “doing” yoga when I was studying Communications and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.  As a competitive gymnast in my early life, I loved the challenging physical workout that yoga provided and, at the time, was oblivious to any other benefits it could offer.

While working at Fortune 500 companies such as Nestlé and Yahoo!, I started experiencing thyroid and digestive issues that made both days and nights a challenge.  I continued to push myself to excel in the corporate world, but that took all my energy; I had little left to continue pursuing activities that had previously enriched my life.

Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease was both a relief and a blow:  Finally, there was a reason for my symptoms –  but wait, I have a disease?!

After exploring numerous potential remedies, I have found that what has been most effective is a holistic approach to healing with nutrition, mindfulness, and exercise as essential supplements to my daily prescribed thyroid medication.  I have also realized that yoga is not only a physical but also a mental practice that is first and foremost centered on the breath:  a way for me to learn to be content in my own skin and let go of the stress of trying to be perfect.

I am committed now more than ever to do what I can to aid my own healing, to share my journey with you, and to empower you on your journey toward whole body health.  Here are some specific tools I have found to be helpful in caring for myself and increasing my energy and ease throughout my day.

Write a Letter
If you find yourself mulling over an aspect of yourself or your life that makes you feel ashamed or self-conscious or that you just do not like, write a self-compassion letter to reframe and healthfully change your thought process regarding the internal conflict.  Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving friend or family member about how they view your perceived shortcoming.  Don’t worry about spelling or grammar; allow the words to flow through your pen (or keyboard) as they come to your mind.  When you are done, read the letter aloud to yourself and absorb the truth of the letter.  Later, or whenever you are feeling conflicted about this aspect of yourself, read the letter again as a way to experience self-compassion and unconditional acceptance of yourself.

Grappling with issues like fatigue, stage fright, body image, etc., I am amazed again and again that I somehow always know the right re-assuring words to say to myself.  I have the power to be my best ally.  Taking 15 minutes to write a letter and then practicing self-compassion through re-reading has helped me become more resilient and has deactivated previously stressful situations.

Touch Yourself
Physical touch (not necessarily sexual) is one of the major ways that we can express love to each other and to ourselves.  As a daily practice, consider self-massaging or gentle dry brushing, the latter of which not only helps exfoliate dead skin cells but also improves blood circulation and lymphatic drainage.  It may seem daunting to fit in moments of self-care into your already busy day, but consider incorporating mindful touch into your daily routines:  Massage your face when you are cleansing and moisturizing in the morning, and your body when you are in bed ready for sleep – my favorite is rubbing my hand near my sternum à la Vicks VapoRub commercials.  It is unbelievably and surprisingly comforting.  As you do these morning and evening massages, you can even incorporate positive affirmations such as “I am powerful” or “I am calm.”

When I first started social dancing, I remember that I particularly enjoyed salsa because the friends I danced with always greeted each other with cheek kisses or hugs – and not the side body, halfway hugs with which I grew up in traditionally non-physically oriented Asian culture, but full, warm embraces.  If those around you are comfortable, be generous with your touch!  Kiss your partner, pet your dog, high five a friend, offer a child a piggyback ride – there’s a good chance that the touch is doing as much good for you as it is for them.

Most of us can inhale and exhale without thinking too much about it – and that can be a good thing, because breathing is vital to living.  But when is the last time you paid attention to this simple action that is literally giving you life? The breath is the foundation of the physical practice in yoga  – and, dare I say, in life – and has tremendous power to shape our mental and physical experiences.  For example, traditional yoga texts teach us that keeping your inhale and exhale equal in length has a balancing effect on your body.  Lengthening your inhale (i.e., making your inhale longer than your exhale) can have a heating or energizing quality, and would be great to do in the morning when you are getting ready for work, or during an afternoon slump.  On the other hand, lengthening your exhale can have a cooling or calming effect, and is appropriate in the evening or when you are in a stressful situation.

Build a relationship with your breath and your body and mind will thank you.  When you are in yoga class, even if the teacher does not provide the cue, anchor each movement with breath.  In the morning when you want to wake up, try a breathing practice where you start out with an even ratio between your inhale and exhale, and gradually lengthen your inhale so that it is twice the length of your exhale.  In the evening, after you are done with work or before bed, relax by gradually lengthening your exhale so that it is twice the length of your inhale.  Perhaps set a few – even as little as five – minutes aside each a day just breathing and allowing your mind to focus gently on this simple, yet profoundly important act.

Drink Bone Broth – and Not Just on Sick Days
I had the privilege of growing up in a home where my mother made a nourishing soup of vegetables, herbs, and animal bones nearly every day.  I loved the smell of it wafting up to my childhood bedroom; in college, soup was the part of my mom’s cooking that I missed the most (and that’s saying a lot because she’s a great cook), and I reminded her of that often when I came home from the holidays.  I have always known that bone broth tastes and smells delicious, but it wasn’t until later that I learned of its tremendous health benefits:  It contains fat, protein, minerals, and gelatin which help your immune system, joints, bones, gut, and so much more.  Plus, the warmth of the liquid keeps you satiated.

A couple years ago, I started cooking my own chicken broth.  Now, I always have some on hand in my refrigerator or freezer, and it is an easy snack to have at any time of the day just before I feel my stomach grumbling.  I bring it with me when I’m running errands, working out, and art modeling.  Because it’s liquid, it is quickly digestible, does not need a utensil to consume, and is nearly as inconspicuous as water.  I drink 16 to 32 ounces each day and have found more sustainable energy throughout the day as a result.  Did I mention that I LOVE chicken broth?

Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff)Take the Stairs
Vinyasa (vi = “special”; nyasa = “placement”) Krama (“step”) is the act of practicing yoga in a gradual and intelligent way, so that each step we take takes us in the right direction in our yoga practice. For example, we advance from easy poses to the more challenging, and from moving dynamically to holding poses.  This concept of slow, steady progressive movement can be applied to more than just yoga – certainly it applies to all forms of exercise if not to all of life.

Exercise is a powerful tool to help both our bodies and minds feel and become stronger. Make exercise a regular part of your life by finding physical activities and a schedule that you can sustain, commit to, and, most importantly, find pleasurable. I currently see a personal trainer, and attend Pilates, Hatha yoga, and Acroyoga group classes.  This tailored cross training plan helps satisfy my love of learning and desire for variety.

A sustainable exercise routine means different things for each person.  After I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, I have found through lots of trial and error that the best schedule for me is exercising every other day: one day of formalized exercise where I’m seeing a trainer or attending a class, followed by one day of rest.  If I’m tired, I still go to whatever session I’ve mentally committed to, and make it a point to allow myself to take it easy – with no qualms (which takes consistent practice for the overachiever in me). Staying on a schedule allows my body to put Vinyasa Krama to practice and build strength slowly but surely; getting my blood flowing with a community of like-minded friends energizes me and lifts my spirit.

Pratikriyasana (prati = “counter”; kriya = “action”; asana = “pose”) is another concept in yoga that can be applied beyond yoga. Counterposes are essential because they neutralize potential negative effects of strenuous asanas in a yoga practice.  As T. K. V. Desikachar says in The Heart of Yoga:  “It is not enough to climb the tree; we must be able to get down too” (page 27).  Counterposes should always be easier than the preceding asana.

I consider rest days as a “counterposes” to my workouts. A day of rest is key to my muscle recovery and ensuring I do not burn out.  If I happen to have extra energy on these days, I take a walk with a friend or on the way to run errands at the grocery store and library – or something else that’s light.

Whether you enjoy exercising daily or a few times per week, practicing yoga or playing with your kids, working out solo or with a group, find a schedule and activities that are fulfilling and sustainable for you.  Listen to your body, make time to care for yourself through exercise, and experience how truly strong and powerful you are.

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