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.

It’s Not “Just” Depression

Something that I hear a lot, and often from people that should know better, is “well, it’s just depression.” I hear this in many different contexts, for example, a woman who has been having GI issues goes to see her doctor, who tells her that there really isn’t anything wrong with her digestive track, “it’s just depression.”

According to http://www.dictionary.com, the word “just” has several meanings, but in the above context it means, “only or merely.” That doctor could have easily substituted the word “merely” for “just,” as in “there isn’t anything wrong with your digestive track, it’s merely depression.” Then, said doctor refers the woman to see a therapist, and thinks that the problem is resolved.

Only, it’s probably not resolved. In these cases, people often continue to have health problems. If they do seek help from a therapist, they get suggestions about handling stressors, but therapists can’t treat physical symptoms directly. It’s possible that with time and work the symptoms will resolve, but it’s also quite likely that the patient will continue to struggle with health problems.

Unfortunately, after having their symptoms dismissed as “just” depression, people are unlikely to seek medical attention again because it’s too embarrassing to be dismissed like that. If they do seek medical treatment, they’ll likely see a different doctor, and the first one never learns that the referral to a therapist was unhelpful in resolving the symptoms.

It’s true that emotional symptoms can manifest as physical health symptoms, but the unfortunate fact is that doctors jump to this conclusion much too rapidly, without testing, and make a diagnosis based on opinion instead of on evidence.

If the physical symptoms are truly caused by mental health issues, there are often things that doctors can do to alleviate symptoms while the patient works on underlying mental health issues. However, due to their own inherent bias that it’s “just” mental health problems, they choose not to treat. In my own case, it truly was a physical problem, but since the doctors couldn’t easily fit my symptoms into a tidy box, they told me that the symptoms weren’t medical, and were “just” anxiety, and told me to see a therapist. It took me months and multiple doctor’s appointments with different doctors to get the anti-emetics that I needed so that I could keep food down. That’s months of illness that could have been avoided if doctors had simply taken me seriously enough to even treat my symptoms.

While all of this is bad enough, the medical system’s dismissal of mental health symptoms as not being worth treating bleeds out into the public attitude that mental health symptoms are made up and imaginary, leading to advice from well-meaning loved ones such as, “Well, you just need to get over it,” or “just focus on the positive more. You’ll be fine.”

That’s not how it works. People with mental health symptoms aren’t stupid. They’ve tried taking walks, thinking positive, remembering that the weather is nice, and all of the other too-easy fixes that people suggest to them.

Depression is complex. It takes work and time to overcome, and acting like it’s not serious or is easily conquered makes people with mental health problems feel even more alone than the depression tells them that they are already.

The truth is that depression is a serious disease with a death count. People die of depression in alarming numbers. According to the World Health Organization, more that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds.”

This idea that it’s “just depression” is a serious barrier to sick people getting the care that they need. An alarming number of patients with depression refuse medication saying that they “don’t want to be dependent on a drug to feel happy.” They wouldn’t refuse other life-saving medications for physical health problems, but they refuse medication for depression because of the idea that depression is something that they “should be able to overcome on their own,” and isn’t really serious.

It is extremely serious.

When people suicide, the big question that as themselves is, “but why would they do that?” People point to the fact that they had everything to live for, and seemed happy.

The answer to this question is that people suicide because they are depressed. It really is that simple. Depressed people can fake happiness quite well in order to get by in the world, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t depressed.

Conventional wisdom says that depression means that the person is “just sad.” People think, “well, I’ve had the blues before too, and it went away.” Depression doesn’t work that way. Often people that are depressed don’t feel sad at all. Depression often presents with anxiety or irritability, but there is one underlying truth with depression–it tells you that you’re terrible and people don’t care about you. In severe cases, depression says that the people in your life would be better off without you, and might even be relieved that you’re gone.

It doesn’t matter how much external proof there is that these thoughts aren’t true. When someone is depressed, these thoughts feel like truth, and anything that contradicts them feels like lies. This is why people die of suicide. It’s not that they’re selfish or weak. It’s that they truly believe that the people in their lives will be better off when they’re gone because depression says they are terrible people, and it feels like truth.

Another ironic truth about depression is that one of the main symptoms is a lack of motivation. A person suffering from depression might not feel sad, but will likely have a difficult time getting motivated to do things. If they are able to accomplish things, depressed people get very little enjoyment out of what they do.

This makes treating depression complicated. It may be that the sick person has seen a therapist and gained knowledge of skills and behaviors that would help, but can’t seem to get enough motivation to perform those behaviors. They are not being lazy. Lack of motivation is one of the most common symptoms of depression.

When motivation is an issue, the best approach is often to start the patient taking antidepressants in order to get the small amount of motivation needed to start applying the skills they are learning in therapy. Antidepressants are important in the treatment of depression in order to increase motivation to do the work to get well, which is why it’s so important to remove the stigma associated with taking them. Antidepressants truly do save lives, and a combination of medication and therapy is often the most effective approach.

If there is a depressed person in your life, the best thing that you can do is reserve judgment and refrain from advice giving. Simply sit with the person if that is all that they are able to muster the motivation for. If the depressed person speaks, just listen. Don’t tell them that they aren’t thinking correctly, and please don’t tell them to get over it or just get outside or be more social. A little-known truth about depression is that hearing unhelpful advice makes the depressed person more depressed. It confirms their depressed thoughts that they are alone, nobody understands them, and people would be better off without them.

So what can you say? Express your willingness to be with them even thought they aren’t happy right now. Tell them that they are loved and important. Encourage them to seek professional help, but stop there with advice giving.

Here is a list of great things to say to depressed people:

  • What you’re going through right now is really hard.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I love you.
  • What can I do to help?
  • What do you need right now?

If they don’t know what they need, that’s OK. The fact that you asked is what’s important. It shows them that you care about them and that you’re willing to listen. Being present with a depressed person is probably the best help that you can give.

Remember, it’s impossible to talk someone out of being depressed, and trying to do so makes the depressed person feel alone and misunderstood, so don’t try.

If you are a depressed person, I urge you to seek professional help. I know that it feels like you shouldn’t have to, but that’s the depression speaking. When your therapist gives you skills to learn and homework to work on, give it your best shot. It may feel silly or like a lot of work, but there is a good reason for it. Your therapist is helping you to create new pathways in your brain that are healthy and move you away from the pathways of depression that are so well worn and easy to walk down. Remember that small movements forward are progress, and give yourself credit for every baby step.

If you are feeling suicidal, know that what depression is telling you about yourself and the people around you is a lie. The people in your life do love you and care about you and will be devastated if you are gone. You are worthy of love and belonging simply because you’re human. You don’t have to do anything to deserve it. Immediately take yourself to your nearest emergency room, or call a suicide helpline. If you can’t muster the motivation, call 911 and professionals will come to you.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255, and it is available 24 hours a day. Call.

Let’s all start treating depression as the serious and life-threatening illness that it is. It’s not “just” feeling sad. It’s not fake, selfish or weak, and changing the public attitude towards mental health problems will save lives.

Here are some resources for more information:

Doing Harm Website

Compassionomics TED Talk

TED Talks on Depression

World Health Organization’s Depression Page

Youth Doesn’t Equal Health

I was 34 years old when I went through my serious illness, and I’ve always looked young for my age. As the illness progressed, I became extremely thin, which made me look even younger. People expected me to be healthy and happy because that’s how I looked to them. One day, while sitting in the lobby waiting to see a neurosurgeon, because an MRI scan had shown a brain abnormality that the neurologist thought was a tumor, an elderly man looked at me and said, “You don’t look sick enough to be here. You look too young and healthy.”

His words struck a painful chord in my heart. By the time that I got to that neurosurgeon’s lobby, I’d been accused of lying about my illness so many times that I’d actually begun to question my own veracity. Not because I wasn’t being honest about my illness, but because everyone around me seemed to believe that I couldn’t be as sick as I was. Multiple doctors told me that the problem was really anxiety or depression. If I’d had the energy to appreciate irony, I would have smiled at their desire to diagnose me with a mental health problem instead of a physical one because, as a psychotherapist, I was just as qualified to diagnose anxiety and depression as they were. I was afraid, yes, but it was as a result of the illness, not the cause of it.

After being disbelieved and turned away, my desire to be heard and to be helped with what I was going through became somewhat desperate. This didn’t help my situation at all. The doctors felt my desperation, and it further convinced them that I was simply an anxious person, not a sick one. A cycle developed.

As a psychotherapist, I was taught that I am not the expert on what the client is going through. Clients are the experts on their own experience, and it is my job to explore and respect that experience. It’s my belief that if medical professionals would adopt this stance, people would get the help they need to get better much more quickly and easily. Patients would feel heard and understood, and there is evidence that experiencing compassionate understanding is medicinal in itself.

Injuries, like the one that led to my illness, can happen to anyone at any age. Illness is the same. In fact, there are illnesses that primary affect the young. Just because people look OK on the outside, doesn’t mean that they are OK on the inside. I would like to ask the world to stop telling other people what they feel, what they are experiencing, or who they are. If you think about it, it makes no sense for me to tell you what you are experiencing. How on earth could I know? Ask questions. Reserve judgment. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about someone if you do. And you never know; the knowledge you gain might just save a life.