Yoga For Chronic Illness
Jnani Chapman, RN

Waz Thomas was teaching yoga to people with cancer at Commonweal's week long residential retreat program along the northern California coast when he tested HIV Positive. Now, 13 years later, he is still teaching yoga adapted to the special needs of people with cancer, many of whom are living with complicated disease and treatment scenarios. In those years, Waz, himself, has had one hospitalization for bacterial pneumonia and an occasional chronic sinus or ear infection, but overall he continues to look and feel great.

While yoga has been observed and experienced for more than 3,000 years to help maintain and restore health, it has only been recently introduced in the West. Most people associate yoga with exercise and most yoga classes focus the entire time on physical movement. But yoga is in many ways opposite of exercise and some of the non- movement oriented practices of yoga can have a profound effect on the physical body.

In exercise, we engage in a rhythmic repetitive muscular movement. The brain responds by telling the muscle fibers to shorten and tighten. Muscle fatigue with exercise may bring us a satisfying feeling and tell us we got a good workout. In contrast, fatigue in the body in yoga is an indication that we may be doing something wrong. Sore muscles are a sign that we over did it in stretching or holding a pose. The goal in hatha yoga is to keep the muscles relaxed in movement so that the muscles actually elongate. The resulting increase in range-of-motion and flexibility is accompanied by improved sense of well being.

The yoga practitioner engages the body in a stretch extending and elongating as much as is comfortable into a pose, not as much as possible. This distinction is important because nowadays many yoga studios are teaching a more aerobic, almost aggressive style that is actually more like exercise than yoga. These classes are popular and provide a good workout, but they may better be thought of as a combination of yoga and exercise, rather than a classical yoga session. Such a class can substitute as exercise for people who want to cross train or expand their exercise options. One can expect the class to improve strength, muscle tone, cardiovascular tone, and provide some increase in flexibility. For people who are trying to restore and maintain health, however, this modified form of yoga exercise may actually perpetuate a depletion syndrome.

How is this so? Exercise stresses muscles, and, while this can be useful and helpful, if one over-does it in exercise, it can initiate a stress response in the body. Muscle fibers stay tight and active during rest (consuming oxygen that the body is not producing for them as it is when we exercise.) Our skeletal muscles are well endowed with capillary beds -- a rich, intricate network of blood vessels which provide the oxygen needed for the muscles to work. Overdoing exercise may induce a competition for oxygen as the stress response increases metabolism, increasing the body's need for oxygen. The engaged muscles will continue to receive the oxygen they need, while other parts of the body, like internal organs, the endocrine and immune systems, may suffer.

The physical Postures and movements of yoga are collectively known as hatha yoga. Hatha Yoga focuses at its core on flexibility of the spine: forward bends balance backward-bending poses, left twists balance twists to the right. There are even inverted positions to counter-balance gravity. In the Sanskrit language of ancient India, Tha means moon and ha means sun. The two together are indicating the balance of opposites (night and day, Yin and Yang). The spine is integral for physical balance. Self-awareness is integral for emotional balance. The attitude one brings to hatha practices is as important as the practice itself. One could say if exercise is Yang, that yoga is Yin Exercise is physical effort, but in yoga the effort is primarily Mental. On a treadmill I the mind can be a million miles away, yet the person still achieves a physical benefit. But in yoga the mind must be present, attentive in the moment, noticing what is happening and aware of how it feels.

The best definition of yoga I have ever heard comes from TKV Desikachar, considered by many to be the father of yoga therapy, who said, "Awareness, breath and movement - that is yoga!" It is often said that awareness is the first step in change. If we have things we want to change physically, mentally, emotionally and even in the amount of available daily energy and stamina - our willingness to see and accept those things as they are may be a key to enabling change, movement, and growth. Hatha yoga practice gives us time to look at ourselves, and that time spent will be fruitful to the extent that we are genuinely willing to explore, discover, and honor our limits.

As you stretch and breathe, be aware of any competitive thoughts or judgments. Don't let them guide your actions. Let yourself relax into each stretch and stay relaxed as you move and breathe.

When Waz Thomas teaches yoga at Commonweal he is adapting the hatha to meet the needs of each student. Each class usually includes hatha postures and stretches, breathing practices, a guided deep relaxation and a period of silent meditation. He says that these practices are integrated into his- daily life informing his actions moment by moment. In fact, Waz says, "I feel that my health is better than most of my friends who are not dealing with AIDS," and he credits yoga for its part in keeping him relatively symptom free. May the practices of yoga continue to serve the needs of persons with HIV/Aids, cancer and other life threatening conditions, helping people to sustain and regain functional status, quality of life and feelings of well being during difficult times.


Copyright © 2000 Jnani Chapman, RN
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updated June 12, 2006