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 Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.

Medically-Induced Trauma is Caused by Not Being Seen

Last week, I got the clean-out-the-closet bug, and I decided to start with the bathroom medicine cabinet.  In true Marie Kondo fashion, I pulled everything out of the cabinet, and dumped it all into the sink, filling it up with random bottles of pills and personal hygiene products.  After wiping down the empty shelves, I examined each item in order to decide whether to keep it or throw it away.  Quickly, I discovered that this wasn’t an ordinary clean-out-the-cabinet moment.  This was the moment that I had chosen to throw away all of the expired bottles of medication from my illness in 2011.

The bottles had been sitting there, undisturbed, for nine years, because I wasn’t yet ready to look at them, and the idea of letting go of any of the medications that helped stop my death was terrifying.  After a pause and a deep breath, I threw every bottle into the trash, except for the zofran.  After nine years, I’m still not ready to throw away an expired bottle of anti-nausea medication that I no longer take.  That’s how traumatized I am by suffering through a year-and-a-half of nausea and vomiting.

Ironically, I had the time to perform this mini purge because I was listening to a continuing education course taught by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (see below for a link to his website), a prominent psychotherapist who wrote the book The Body Keeps the Score (see below for a link to purchase the book), which is about how our internal nervous systems hold trauma, and the importance of physically working it out instead of trying to think it away.  The difficulty I had with throwing away bottles of expired and unused medications is an excellent example of my body holding the trauma of my illness, and the act of throwing those bottles in the trash is one of many physical ways that I’ve moved tiny bits of trauma out of my system.

Just at the end of my illness, as the nausea was passing, I scheduled a massage. I thought that it would be nice to receive some caring touch after such a terrible experience.  I’d never met the massage therapist before that massage, and I never went to see her again, but that massage was the first time I experienced how body work can move trauma.  When the massage therapist touched the place on my lower back where I’d had a lumbar puncture, I began to cry.  The tears intensified, and flowed down my cheeks freely, as she touched other places on my body, such as the inside of my left elbow where I’d once had so many IVs that I had track marks.

As I continued to move through my house, throwing out remnants of my past, Dr. van der Kolk said something that gave me pause, and I stopped working so that I could listen more closely.  He said that there are two experiences that lead to the formation of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  The first piece is the traumatic experience that happened, and the second piece is not being seen and supported by your community.  

He gave the example of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  According to Dr. van der Kolk, very few people who witnessed this terrible event developed PTSD because they were supported openly by their communities.  There was no shame in what they had experienced, so they could speak authentically about it with each other, and receive open support from others who understood.

However, in many more personal traumas, the experience of being supported and witnessed is missing.  For rape victims, there is a wall of disbelief and victim blaming.  For incest survivors, there is shame, and years of fear that if they tell, things will only get worse.  Silence breeds shame.  The more unable the victim is to share openly about what happened, the more the shame grows, leading to the perfect breeding ground for PTSD.

As I stood frozen, listening to Dr. van der Kolk explain how it isn’t just the traumatic experience that leads to PTSD, it’s also the quality of support from the community, I began to realize exactly why my illness was so intensely traumatic.  The medical community did not see me.  Instead of believing what I told them about my neck injury and subsequent illness and helping me to find a treatment, they told me that the neck injury couldn’t have been the cause, and that it was really only anxiety.  Then, they prescribed anti-anxiety pills and sent me home.  Here are a few of the things that medical providers said to me during my search for help:

“Your symptoms don’t make sense.” (Said by the first neurologist that I saw).

“Oh, you again?” (Said by an ER nurse who must have attended me on a previous emergency room visit).

“You seem pretty anxious.  Maybe you should admit to yourself the possibility that this is all just caused by anxiety, and perhaps some mild depression.” (Said by an emergency room doctor).

“I think this is something that is going to get better with time.” (Said by yet another neurologist).

You get the idea.

They didn’t see me at all.  They invalidated my experience and minimized the fear that I was feeling as a result of severe physical symptoms; not as the cause of those symptoms.  Perhaps even worse, because trained nurses and physicians, without any evidence, blamed what I was experiencing on anxiety, so did some of the people in my life that I desperately needed to validate and support me.  As a result, except for a couple of incredible people who truly stepped up to the plate, I went through a year-and-a-half long illness alone.

It’s been my conviction since the time of my illness, that the callous treatment I received from medical practitioners made me sicker, but I’ve had trouble articulating exactly why.  Suddenly it’s clear to me that each time a doctor told me that it was probably just anxiety, or a nurse greeted me with “Oh, it’s you again,” when I went to the emergency room, my nervous system was becoming more and more traumatized by not being seen and helped.

Unfortunately, this treatment is deeply rooted in the medical system due to the medical history of hysteria (see link below for additional articles), which says that people (most often women) often have medical symptoms that don’t have a medical cause.  These symptoms are caused instead by the repressed emotions of the patient.  While this idea is now called other names, like somatoform disorder, the idea is still alive and well, and doctors are encouraged to root out the “hysterics” from the “truly sick” people so that they can focus their efforts on people who are treatable.  Even when the patient denies being anxious or depressed, the doctors don’t trust them because the very foundation of the idea of hysteria is that the patient is repressing the emotion.  Medical syndromes that used to be dismissed as hysteria include: asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and endometriosis, and epilepsy, just to name a few.

As a result, patients who don’t readily fit into a diagnostic box are often dismissed without any testing or treatment.  In a medical system where patients often don’t get to see the same doctor again, or they choose to change doctors after not being heard, that original doctor never learns the true diagnosis, if anyone ever does.  Diagnosis and treatment are delayed (if they ever happen as many people give up), often leading to disastrous medical outcomes for the patient.  I’ve read stories of cancer patients who died, but could have been saved if the doctor had done a simple test instead of sending them home with a “You’re fine.  It’s just anxiety.”

I would like to submit that the damage caused by the idea that repressed emotion is the cause of outside-of-the-box symptoms is even worse than missed diagnoses and delayed treatment. It is also the cause of medically-induced trauma.  Patients whose terrifying medical experiences are dismissed out of hand without testing, are experiencing both of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s criteria for PTSD; a traumatizing event (the illness) and an unsupportive community (the dismissive medical professionals).

It is my hope that by sharing this realization with you, I’m taking a step towards changing the way that the medical community interacts with patients.  It doesn’t cost anything to listen to someone, and the cost of not listening is great–in traumatized patients and lives lost.

If you have experienced, or are experiencing, a wall of disbelief from the medical system, you are not alone.  Please continue to advocate for yourself.  Keep asking to see another physician for a second opinion until you get someone that will help you.  You are the authority on your own body.  You live in it every day, and know what you are experiencing better than someone who met you 5 minutes ago and came into the room with the historical bias of hysteria.

In my own case, I went through several neurologists, until I got to Dr. Ian Purcell (see link below for his website), who is a super-specialist.  He and his staff listened to me.  They never once blamed my symptoms on anxiety, and through a combination of medication, physical therapy and yoga, I got well.  Keep trying until you get to your Dr. Purcell.

Photo credit: TraumaAndDissociation on Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND


Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s website

Buy The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk on

Dr. Ian Purcell’s Senta Clinic for neurology patients.

A very scholarly article on the history of the hysteria diagnosis.

A more accessible article on hysteria diagnosis.