The Healing Power of Yoga

It is my fervent belief that yoga saved me from a life of chronic illness, but when my neurologist at the time, Dr. Purcell, suggested it, I didn’t have any idea of the healing powers that yoga offered.  I was just so desperate to be well that I would have done anything that might actually help.  It was only later that I came to understand why yoga healed me the way that it did.  

It shocked me at the time that my nausea went away almost instantly after starting yoga classes.  I couldn’t account for it, but I was grateful for it beyond words.  The constant year-long nausea and vomiting had been the worst part of my illness, by far.  After that, I quickly re-gained the strength, stamina and motivation that had abandoned me, and I began to live again.

It took years to obtain the diagnosis that eventually led to a coherent treatment plan.  It wasn’t until well after I recovered that the label “spasmodic torticollis” came into my life.  I had to google it to understand exactly what it described, having never heard of it before.  It’s such an unusual and odd sounding term that when people ask for my diagnosis and I give it to them, they usually give me a blank look and say, “What was that again?”

In his book, Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More, Loren Fishman, MD has a fortuitous little blurb about my condition.  He writes, “A third condition that occurs in the neck isn’t as common, but if you’ve had it or even if you’ve seen it on someone else, you won’t forget it.  It’s called spastic torticollis—literally spasmodic turning of the neck.  It happens when one group of muscles gets really tight and turns the neck.  Sometimes the head turns in jerking motions, and sometimes it turns and stays in an unnatural place.” (Fishman 122-123).  

For some time after recovering from the worst of my illness, I had the jerking motions Dr. Fishman describes above.  My head would involuntarily turn to the right over and over.  It was embarrassing.  During the day, when I was in public, I would fight the head turning with everything that I had, and completely exhaust myself.  At home, when I was alone, I would relax and let my head do what it would, leading to half watched TV shows and great difficulty in keeping my place when reading.  Fishman writes, “This is a condition so painful and so intransigent that you may need a yoga therapist or a doctor who can give an injection that will alleviate it at least temporarily” (Fishman 122-123).  

Dr. Fishman’s assertion that spasmodic torticollis is extremely painful is, I think, the reason that my diagnosis and treatment took so incredibly long to obtain.  I don’t have much pain at all.  I have the odd headache, and my neck and shoulders tend to be a little bit sore, but I really don’t have significant pain.  In the very beginning of my illness, my ears and my scalp on the left side of my head hurt, making it difficult to sleep or wear a headset, but that pain went away fairly quickly.  

Doctors kept asking me about pain, and when I said I didn’t have much, they immediately dismissed me as a “hysterical woman” trying to get attention for something that wasn’t really very bad.  I would like to point out that pain is not the only thing that makes an illness terrible.  In fact, I probably would have preferred pain to the ongoing nausea and vomiting that I endured for a year and a half.  At least people that are in pain can eat, and they don’t starve to death.  

However, Dr. Fishman is right about the injections.  Every three months I go in to see my current neurologist, Dr. Matich, who is wonderful and warm and helpful, and she uses a machine to measure my involuntary muscle contractions.  She does this by inserting a probe into each affected muscle and listening to the sounds they create through a special machine.  Sometimes my muscles whoosh and growl like storms.  Dr. Matich then injects botox into the extra loud muscles to help them relax, and I can hear the muscle-storms grow calm.  Over time, this has been a helpful addition to my care, but I honestly don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as yoga.

In Healing Yoga, Dr. Fishman describes how “Laboratory and clinical studies have confirmed that pain from upper cervical joints and muscles can be referred to the head” (Fishman, 121).  I think this was exactly the complicating factor in my own illness.  I believe that what happened to me goes something like this: the whiplash injury that I endured caused the upper cervical muscles in my neck to go into spasm, which irritated muscles and nerves in my head, leading to migraine symptoms, but no pain.  I had the visual disturbance, nausea, vomiting and cognition problems that go with severe migraine, but the pain never showed up, which confused everyone—including me.

If he had known about me and my illness, I believe that Dr. Fishman would have backed up my neurologist’s suggestion that I treat my symptoms with yoga.  Dr. Fishman writes, “Appropriate yoga is good for almost anything that ails the neck and for pain referred from the neck to the head. . .  It improves suppleness of the neck muscles and increases the versatility of the joints so they can move more easily in many different ways.  It refines the coordination of the various muscle groups, so muscles aren’t pulling against each other with such ferocity” (Fishman, 123).  I believe that these benefits are part of the reason that I began to feel much better quickly after beginning my yoga practice.  With my neck muscles in spasm, I needed something to interrupt the process of pulling muscles irritating the tissues in my head, and yoga miraculously did that for me.

However, I think there was another contributing factor.  I think that the muscles, nerves, and other tissues in my neck and my head were terribly inflamed by the whiplash injury, at least partially causing the migraine symptoms.  Multiple studies have shown that inflammation is a leading factor in many of the chronic illnesses that people suffer from, such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.  Treatments for pain often focus on decreasing inflammation using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), such as over the counter ibuprofen, or stronger prescription versions, like Naprosyn.  Many people, including myself, take a daily turmeric pill, which is a spice used in some forms of cooking, because it’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory qualities. 

I didn’t know it at the time that I started my yoga practice, but yoga decreases inflammation too.  Dr. Fishman writes, “We physicians can’t do much apart from medication for swelling of joints; your body can do more by itself, using a molecule called PGC-1alpha. This is a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory that reduces swelling anywhere it occurs in the human body.  Gentle activities such as yoga and tai chi, and especially yoga done for long periods of time, encourage the body to release this miraculous substance from your muscles” (Fishman, 122).  The joints in my neck were certainly inflamed after the traumatic whiplash injury that I suffered, and I believe that getting involved in yoga significantly helped to reduce that swelling through the release of PGC-1alpha.  How miraculous!  

Because of its anti-inflammatory effect, I believe that yoga should be a frontline treatment for any physical ailment that is caused by inflammation.  Can you imagine the wellness that would result if doctors would prescribe yoga for arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and any of the other ailments that they usually prescribe pain medication for?  I truly believe that the world would be a much healthier and happier place.

Speaking of happiness, I’d like to say a little about how chronic illness affects mood.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . .chronic pain does more than cause people to lose days of work.  It’s depressing.  It produces anxiety.  It makes life so hard that sometimes it doesn’t feel worth living.  I think it’s extremely important to address pain that could be or is becoming chronic and end it as soon as possible” (Fishman, 86).  While Dr. Fishman talks about chronic pain being depressing, I would like to add that chronic illness is depressing whether pain is involved or not.  Before my injury and subsequent illness in 2011, I was the happiest I’d ever been.  I had found a group of people where I seemed to fit in completely for the first time in my life.  I was active and social and enjoying every minute of it.  Then, the whiplash injury happened, and my happy life became very small and extremely unpleasant.  

As I sought help, doctors kept telling me that my symptoms were the result of anxiety, and they kept pointing out how anxious I was in the appointments, and how sad and alone I was.  I argued that I was anxious because I kept seeking help from professionals who dismissed my symptoms, and I was depressed because I was terribly ill and unable to do the things that made my previous life so wonderful.  But the doctors continued to insist that my symptoms were the result of anxiety and depression, not the other way around.  I found this incredibly frustrating and demeaning, and it’s refreshing to have Dr. Fishman acknowledge that chronic illness leads to a life that doesn’t feel worth living, because it absolutely does.

However, it appears that the psychological effects of chronic pain and illness are even worse than I previously thought.  Dr. Fishman writes, “. . . there is a less-recognized reason: chronic pain that lasts more than a year seems to have negative effects that last much longer.  A study done at Northwestern University shows that a year of chronic back pain actually shrinks the gray matter in the brain by as much as 11 percent, the equivalent of ten to twenty years of normal aging, and that loss is directly related to the duration of the pain” (Fishman, 86).  Ten to twenty years of normal aging caused by one year of chronic illness!  Honestly, that blows my mind, but I’ve seen it happen.  

In my own case, after my illness went into remission, and I got treatment that made sense, it took a couple more years for me to be able to focus on reading a book, or to be able to write the way that I had prior to getting sick.  I’m sure that recovering from brain atrophy was one of the reasons that it took me almost 10 years to get my book project together.

My grandmother became ill within the past few years.  Within a year of getting sick, she went from a vibrant older woman who managed a home of her own and loved to sew quilts, to a woman who needed 24-hour care and couldn’t recognize her own grandchildren.  Now she’s living in a nursing home that specializes in dementia care, and I’m certain that her illness was a major contributing factor to her mental decline.

Truly, we must take chronic illness and chronic pain seriously.  It not only decreases life satisfaction, causes anxiety and depression, it actually causes brain damage.  The good news is that in addition to other wonderful effects we’ve already discussed, yoga can help with the terrible mood and brain problems brought on by illness.  Fishman writes, “Clinical trials confirm that yoga helps reduce distress and depression and promotes a sense of calm well-being” (Fishman, 191).  He also explains that yoga is being used to treat PTSD. “The Naval Medical Center in San Diego and other military VA hospitals are offering yoga to help Marines, soldiers, sailors and others wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Preliminary military studies have found that the calming effect of yoga can assist PTSD patients in dealing with hypervigilance, flashbacks, depression and anxiety” (Fishman, 201).  Honestly, I think yoga is the cure-all that people are looking for, but it is under-prescribed and under-utilized.

Please spread the word about the healing effects of yoga.  Even though it’s more work than taking a pill, I think it’s more than worth the effort.  It saved my life.  It could save yours too.  Dr. Fishman lists multiple ailments that he has personally and effectively treated with yoga, including: back pain (both neurological and musculoskeletal), rotator cuff syndrome, headache, weight control, bone health (osteoporosis), insomnia, scoliosis, premenstrual syndrome, depression, restless leg syndrome, bunion, and plantar fasciitis.  While this is an extensive list, I’m willing to bet that there are many more conditions that would respond positively to treatment through yoga, and I encourage you to give it a try.

The Fourfold Path to Forgiveness: A Way to Release Hurt and Resentment

Growing up, I had this idea that forgiveness was something granted upon the repentant.  I thought that when people realized that they had wronged someone, they went to that person and said that they were sorry, and then they received an “I forgive you” as a reward.

As I grew older, I realized that things rarely work this way.  Often, when we have been wronged, the person who wronged us doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we are hurt.  Sometimes, even when they do apologize, we don’t want to grant forgiveness.  It can feel like condoning their bad behavior.

However, the weight of the resentments that we carry can become a burden almost impossible to bear, and they can keep us in what Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu call “The Revenge Cycle” in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.  In The Revenge Cycle, a hurt leads to pain, which leads to choosing to harm another, which leads to rejecting shared humanity, which leads to revenge-retaliation-payback, and then to more violence cruelty and hurt.  And the cycle repeats and repeats.

We can see the Revenge Cycle play itself out in recurrent wars between countries, couples who constantly fight, and feuds between families or family members.  The resentment that they refuse to let go of keeps them from stepping out of the cycle and choosing to forgive in order to end the violence.  While it may feel like violence should be answered with violence, this does nothing to end the pain for everyone involved, and in fact tends to lead to more pain.  Choosing against revenge is truly the strong road, and the path toward healing.

Sometimes when I discuss with people that they need to work on forgiving their abusers, they tell me that they can’t because it would be letting that person off the hook.  They say that by continuing to hold the grudge, they are punishing that person for the hurt that they caused.  Unfortunately, this usually isn’t true.  Usually abusers don’t have any idea about the hurt and resentment that their victims are holding against them.  The result is that the only person that is punished is the one holding the pain.  Choosing to release it is a way for people who have been wronged to heal themselves.

Forgiving is for the victim, not the perpetrator.  In forgiving, victims release the hurt and the resentment that has been eating at their insides.  And in doing so, they regain power over their own lives.

Desmond Tutu was instrumental in South Africa in both ending apartheid, and in helping the country to heal from the violence caused by apartheid laws.  He founded The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which created the safe space necessary for victims of apartheid violence to talk with their abusers in order to create healing, and to release pain and resentment.

Tutu lays out four steps to forgiveness:

  1. Telling the story.  “Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed.  It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting” (Tutu, p. 71). Often, after abuse, people hide the stories of their hurt.  But silence and secrets are the breeding ground of shame, and by exposing the stories to the light, we can dispel the shame of the secrets.  It is important to choose carefully to whom we tell our stories.  If it is possible to tell the perpetrator of the hurt in a safe way, that might be preferable.  However, if the perpetrator is not available, or not open to the story, a therapist or a trusted friend/advisor might be a good choice.
  2. Naming the hurt.  “Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. . . We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it” (Tutu, p. 95).  Sometimes the very act of naming the emotion can take some of the power out of it.  By saying, “Oh, I’m feeling hurt, or anxious, or sad,” we give our attention and caring to the emotion, which is the first step in allowing it to heal.  Emotions that we ignore tend to grow, and come out in ways that can be surprising.
  3. Granting forgiveness.  “We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts.  It is how we move from victim to hero.  A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others.  Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future” (Tutu, p. 121).  Whether or not the perpetrator of your hurt knows that you have forgiven is not important.  You know.  You know that you have set down the load of your anger, hurt and betrayal.  What a relief!  This can be a slow process.  Sometimes it takes several attempts over time to release  the fulness of the pain.  Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect the process to be completed overnight.
  4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.  “A preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue.  When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our hearts and a piece of our history.  The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment”  (Tutu, p. 148).  Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship is difficult and personal.  If the relationship is one where the benefits outweigh the costs, then renewal can be a good plan as long as both parties agree.  However, if having a relationship with the person who hurt you is unsafe, too painful, or puts other people in your life in danger, it is likely that releasing the relationship is the best choice.  Take your time with this decision, and make sure that your heart feels comfortable with the choice that you make.

While this process may seem daunting in the face of overwhelming pain, it is truly the best path towards healing yourself of the pain and resentment you may be carrying due to the hurtful actions of others.  If it is possible for victims of apartheid violence and oppression to meet with their perpetrators, tell their stories, name their hurts, grant forgiveness, and make a choice about whether to renew or release the relationship, I believe that it is possible in almost any situation.

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that people pretend these situations never happened.  They are never spoken about, and the feelings are suppressed.  In these situations, nobody grows.  The perpetrator never understands the depth of the hurts that they have caused, and the victims never release the pain and resentment or take their power back.  

If you choose to confront your abuser, be aware that he or she may reject your story.  If that occurs, that doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong or that your story lacks merit.  Instead, I would suggest that the abuser was not ready to hear what you had to say and has a lot of work to do on him or herself.  With that knowledge, choose a different person to tell your story to, so that you can heal.  A therapist is always a good choice.

As you read this, there may be many situations that come up for you that you have been holding on to and would benefit from releasing.  If you would like more information about doing so, here are some resources for you:

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Psychology Today Article on Forgiveness

Mayo Clinic Article on Forgiveness

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.