I was diagnosed with Lupus at 37 years old. I had been ridiculously healthy all my life, but during my 37th year of life, I experienced more and more stress. I was a part time Nurse Practitioner, full time Mom, and about as Type A as they come. My professional life was exceptionally busy, we were building a house, raising two tween daughters, and trying to keep it all together. And this is where my story of Lupus began.
I felt like I had the flu, but this odd “flu” lasted for weeks. I had symptoms of painful, achy, swollen joints in my hands and feet, a fluctuating fever, profound fatigue, a rash on my hands and face, and basically felt like I’d been run over by a train. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune illness (the body attacks itself). Much like RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis), the inflammation of SLE can affect not only the joints but also almost every other bodily system, including the skin, heart, lungs, and kidneys. SLE affects women more than men (10:1), and it is commonly diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50. Lupus is considered a progressive illness, meaning it gradually worsens over time, and it alternates between periods of remission and flare-ups. Traditionally, it is treated with medications, including steroids and anti-malarial drugs. Less traditional treatments can include acupuncture and dietary supplements (such as Turmeric). Well, I’ve tried it all. During the first 2 years of my diagnosis with Lupus, I was on high dose steroids for months. I experienced lovely side effects, such as weight gain, night sweats, ridiculous salt cravings, major mood swings, and massive frustration. But the one “treatment” that helped and had zero side effects or risks was yoga.
The first time I tried yoga was when I was in college. I hated it. I’ll never forget the teacher referring to the root chakra, and thinking how absolutely weird that was. I swore I’d never take another yoga class again.
After college, my passion was running: I ran half marathons, participated in sprint triathlons and every 5 K in the area. Fast forward to the Lupus diagnosis. Running was painful and felt impossible in my body. A friend gave me a free pass to a local yoga studio and encouraged me to join her. Within minutes, I was hooked. The mind- body connection was something I never experienced with running. After a few months of classes, I decided I wanted to do yoga teacher training. My goal was “to deepen my practice”, and I was convinced I would never teach. But after the first weekend of YTT and doing the self-inquiry work, I made a ton of discoveries. One of which was that my career was a major source of my stress and that I needed to step away. The other discovery was that I actually loved the connection to fellow yogis and wanted to bring what yoga had given me to others- a sense of release and relief. I wanted to teach and make a difference in student’s lives.
When I am not having a flare, nothing feels better than a heated vinyasa or Power yoga class for my tense, tight muscles and stiff joints. The moment I walk into an 85-90 degree room, my tight, tender, sore muscles and joints seem to melt away. It is literally the equivalent of a sauna to me. I have found that a one-hour yoga practice will decrease the pain in my joints and muscles significantly, and improve my mobility and flexibility by the time I leave the studio. It’s my magical, instant cure (cue the unicorns and rainbows). Likewise, my mood seems to lift almost immediately once I start to move, breath, connect to my body, connect to the room, and flow. With SLE, I often find I have low energy, but I feel revitalized and energized after a practice, and feel the asana practice rejuvenates me and combats my fatigue.
One form of yoga I have found to be helpful during an acute flare is Yin yoga. Yin yoga stretches connective tissue, which responds well to slow, steady holds, stressing the tissue and gradually strengthening it. Allowing gravity to pull my body more deeply into a Yin pose form allows ease within my joints, especially with the use of props such as bolsters and blocks. The gentle holds of Yin comfort my body as the aches lessen during the practice. Add to that the calming music and voice of the teacher, and for that hour, I have escaped my disease. I walk away feeling lighter, looser, and mentally clear.
Lupus not only had physical effects on my body, it created mental challenges as well. Lupus disrupted my cherished sleep. I used to be a solid, deep, peaceful sleeper, but the joint stiffness and discomfort would often make it difficult for me to fall asleep at night, and often times I would awaken out of my sleep with stiff joints and the need to constantly change positions. Once I started regularly practicing yoga, I noticed a significant improvement in my sleep habits and was able to slumber with more ease most nights. Studies have found that yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming influence), which reduces the body’s stress response.
There are multiple studies that have researched the relationship between arthritis and cardiovascular exercise, and they have found that moderate exercise can be beneficial. Likewise, yoga postures promote mobility, flexibility and strength, and they keep bones, joints and muscles in the best working condition possible. As if that isn’t convincing enough, new studies show that moderate exercise can quell inflammation in the body, which is common with autoimmune disease. One study found that women with Rheumatoid Arthritis who participated in a consistent yoga practice for 10 weeks reported improved balance, less pain, and less depressive symptoms than those who did not.
Since I started regularly practicing yoga, I have had a significant reduction in my lupus flares, sleep more soundly, manage my stress better, and have rarely required steroids for treatment. “Yoga is not for him who gorges too much, nor for him who starves himself. It is not for him who sleeps too much, nor for him who stays awake. By moderation in eating and in resting, by regulation in working and by concordance in sleeping and waking, Yoga destroys all pain and sorrow.’
Excerpt from Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga
Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar
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