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

An Interview with Heather Fenwick, Acupuncturist

In addition to this blog, I’ve been working on an “I’m Sick, Not Crazy” podcast, and I did my first podcast interview via Skype on this past Thursday with Heather Fenwick, who specializes in acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.  The interview was fascinating, and I thought that I would transcribe it so that I could share it in writing as well as video format.  After about 5 hours and 16 pages of transcription, I realized that was a mistake, and I decided to just share a few highlights here with you.  To view the entire interview, please check out my podcast, which is available on iTunes, YouTube or my website http://www.jenniferjames-author.com.

First, I asked Heather to give an overview of how acupuncture works to facilitate healing in the body.  Here’s some of her answer:

Heather: Basically, the needles are inserted in a spot that has a little more conductivity to the brain.  There’s nothing in the needles.  So, it’s just a little signal that says to the brain, ‘Hey!  We need a little more help over here.’  There are certain times where there is too much stagnation we call it in Chinese Medicine.  A stuckness, or a tightness of a muscle is a stagnation, for example.  Often times a needle in that point will just say, ‘Hey, release the stagnation.  Things need to flow through here.’ Heather:

In other cases, we would call a deficiency, where there is not enough energy, not enough chi, not enough blood flow in Western Medical Terms.  A needle in that point would say, ‘Hey.  We need a little more neuron firing.  We need a little bit more circulation to this area.

And the brain figures it out.  The body is healing itself.  It’s crazy to wrap your head around everything that your brain can do.  The needles are just there to sort of tap the brain on the shoulder, and say, ‘Excuse me, Brain, we’re here.  We just need a little bit of help over here,’ and then the brain has infinite organizing power to just figure it out and fix it.  Your body fixes itself.

I love that Heather’s answer fits in with the purpose of my work, which is to help you learn how to take control of your own health and healing.  Using acupuncture, you can get your body’s energy flowing properly, so that you can heal yourself.  How marvelous!

When I asked her about cases that she’s worked on that illustrate how acupuncture can effect healing, she gave this example:

Heather: I’ve had a lot of people with physical pain in the body.  Low back pain that is debilitating, and now they can totally function.  I had one patient who had a pretty severe case of scoliosis, and she’d say ‘I ate ibuprofen.  I ate, like, nine ibuprofen yesterday.’  And then she just can’t even stand up.  So, she could just barely drive herself to the clinic. And I’gave her a treatment.  She left and she said, ‘I feel a little bit better, and then two days later she’s like, ‘I feel amazing.  I don’t know what you did, but I’m back to 100%.’

Every now and then I’ll have somebody who comes in and I’ll say, OK.  It’s going to take 4 to 6 treatments and then we’ll re-assess.  And every now and again, somebody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, the insomnia’s totally gone after one treatment.  I’m fine.  My anxiety level is perfect. I don’t wake up feeling foggy headed.’  So, every now and again, I’m surprised at how well and how quickly the medicine works, but it totally depends on the person and a case by case basis, but, yeah, those are the good moments, for sure.

Although it is the exception to the rule, it’s amazing to think that one treatment could make such a huge shift in someone’s health in some cases.  Even the more normal 4 to 6 sessions to reduce low back pain, which is extremely common and difficult to treat using Western Medicine, is a gift.

Then, I asked her a question I’ve always wondered as an acupuncture patient.  What is it that the acupuncturist learns from looking at my tongue?  The answer is fascinating.

Heather: So we look at the color of the tongue.  If it’s more purpley, that’s a stagnation.  Like a bruise, right?  A bruise is considered blood stagnation.  So purple will point toward blood stagnation.  Red is heat.  The tongue can be divided into anterior, middle and posterior, like front, middle and back thirds.  So, the front third is the upper part of the torso, heart and lung.  If it’s red, that points toward heart heat or lung heat.  The middle of the tongue is the stomach, the digestive organs.  While the sides of the tongue point towards liver and gallbladder.  The very back of the tongue points towards kidney and urinary bladder.  We look at the different parts of the tongue to show us these different organ systems.

The tongue is really cool because if you want to know what’s going on inside of the body, look at what’s coming out of the body.  And the tongue is both an internal and an external organ.

It had never occurred to me before, but she’s right.  The tongue is both internal and external at the same time.

For my next question, I asked her how she sees acupuncture fitting into a well-rounded healthcare regimen, and with Western Medicine.

Heather: Western Medicine can be very good for things that Chinese Medicine is just not good for.  If you break your arm and have a compound fracture where your bone is sticking out of your arm, then don’t come see me.

If you have stage 4 cancer, I can help with the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, but at that point, I think it’s best to go to the Western Medical model.  Obviously, I see some limitation in the Western Medicine model, in that they basically wait until it’s too late to try to treat something.  So, it’s always a band-aid kind of a treatment.

For the preventative side of it, obviously, the acupuncture is best.  If we’re doing preventative medicine at the onset, at the beginning of your low back pain, you start seeing an acupuncturist, and you start doing yoga, getting the corrective exercises, then 10 years down the road you’re not that candidate for low back pain.

I very much see them as integrated medicines.  Integrated, as in, they braid together.  The hospitals in China have acupuncture in the hospitals.  People who get chemotherapy get the chemotherapy in one arm, and Chinese herbs on the other arm. So, they can reduce their nausea and their low energy, and it’s very, very effective.  I would love to see Chinese herbs administered intravenously in the hospitals here, and we are gaining some traction for studies that they do and things that they can treat.

But there are certain things, like IBS, that a lot of people suffer from . . . Western Medicine is pretty clueless about what causes that. And, in Chinese Medicine, we have a theory for what causes it.  It’s liver overacting on spleen, and we know how to treat it very, very effectively.

This image of a chemotherapy patient receiving simultaneous infusions of chemo and Chinese herbs is so wonderful.  It gives me hope to think that these two very different types of treatment can be wedded together to create a more holistic and more effective approach to healing.  The knowledge that acupuncture is effective for IBS is extremely helpful as well.  I get a lot of IBS patients referred to psychotherapy because doctors feel that it is a psychological illness.  Unfortunately, treating IBS with psychotherapy hasn’t proven very effective, in my experience.  In the future, I’ll refer these patients to acupuncture.

After this, Heather and I discussed the importance of self-care, self-love, and seeing oneself as inherently worthy.  She told this wonderful story about the Dalai Lama:

Heather: There’s a story about the Dalai Lama. He had been coming to this science of mind meeting, with like, neuroscientists, or neurologists.  I don’t know.  Brains.  Really smart people, at like MIT.  They started to talk about self-esteem and how that leads to different issues, and he was, like, ‘Hey, can we time out for a second?’  And he went back and forth with a translator for a while about the concept of self-esteem because in the Tibetan language, and the Tibetan way of thinking, they don’t have a concept of self-esteem because every single life is a precious human life.  Every single one.

And so, you could see he was really confused, and he was like, ‘Well, how many—do lots of people suffer from low self-esteem?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.  This is a thing.’  And he was like, ‘Well, how many people in this room suffer from low self-esteem?’ And, like, everybody raised their hand, and he was shocked.  The idea of having low self-esteem was shocking to him.  And he’s not conceited at all.  He’s the most humble human being on the planet.

It’s nice to take a step back and see the things that are just ingrained [like the concept of low self-esteem].  It’s like we’re swimming in this water, and then, hold on a second. What about this water?

If you would like more information about acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, Heather recommends the book The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuck.  She also, quite generously, offers herself as a resource.  She says that you can feel free to contact her at her website, http://www.recoveringgypsy.com, and send her a message through the link to request an appointment.