Beginning with Chronic Illness

Reposted from my blog:

I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to begin. In my young life, there were smaller obstacles: a lack of confidence and encouraging remarks, as well as the feeling of being different and sensitive in a noisy, overwhelming world. In my twenties, there came other challenges like physical and mental illness. Sometimes, just being alive felt like a challenge. I’ve been waiting to begin this post for months, as if waiting for the correct alignment of the stars that will make it ‘right’.

The problem is, life never feels quite right – not for a perfectionist in recovery – much less one who never knows on any day whether I’ll be able to get up and shine, or if I’ll be lying in bed feeling unfulfilled and miserable that I’m not beginning what I’m sure I’m meant to begin.

The problem, especially when you’re ill, is finding the time to begin – knowing that within an hour you might have to lie down, and your life work will be interrupted for the millionth time (In fact, I had to lie down and rest in the process of writing this post). So, you get used to not beginning, as you figure that whatever you start will surely be interrupted. So you don’t begin.

Sometimes, however, you have to set aside the feeling of anxiety raised by doing things half-assed in life. You have to accept that there will be interruptions (as there have been for the last 24 years in my life), and that it’s okay to be interrupted. Interruptions are actually our native state. If we sat down with all the time in the world to write that great modern novel, we’d probably be so terrified of the blank page stretching on for eternity that we’d never begin!

I’ve talked about my most recent breakdown and how I’ve struggled to be okay and love my depression, but I don’t think I really understood that depression and the obstacles we face in life aren’t the real problems. Sometimes that’s what life and living is – the things that happen in all the spaces when we don’t get time to sit around dreaming of beginning that great modern novel.

In truth, I think I was afraid to begin anything, having become more proficient in recent months at ending things: employment, a tenuous grip on stable finances, and even the stake on a place to live. But I discovered that things do go on, and that I was really one of the lucky ones. Mrs Blackbird and I have been able to rent a beautiful little home that seemed tailor made for people managing health challenges, and we have enough to keep the bills ticking over. What’s more, for the first time in years, we actually have time to sit and breathe and watch the birds. Don’t ever discount the contentment that’s to be found watching different types of birds coming to a garden feeder!

What’s more, the opportunity opened up to receive a yoga teacher training program. I use the words ‘opened up’ deliberately because at the time I was so terrified, it felt like the ground would literally open beneath my feet! I use the word ‘receive’ deliberately too because I am beginning to realize it was a gift placed into my life during the very months when I had, by most modern standards, lost everything.

My dream to enter training emerged at a time when I was again weary with doctors and wanted the tools not only to help myself, but to help all my beloved friends with chronic invisible illnesses who were largely constrained to their beds or their rooms. Some don’t even have the luxury of ‘a room of their own.’ They have to beg and borrow shelter with loved ones who wait patiently for them to ‘snap out’ of their apparent self-inflicted torpor! Pardon the sarcastic haze over that sentence.

I was also sick of walking out of gentle yoga classes, injured, and being in more pain during the days that followed. There had to be a better way. I had embraced yoga in my youth, in the early stages of my illnesses, but had given it up as I gave my energy to the priorities of raising our precious daughters.

I didn’t want to think about beginning yoga training as I was terrified by the thought of being exposed for all the things I couldn’t do. So I had to stop thinking about it and just do it. It wasn’t easy. It was, and is, exhausting. Some days I’d come home from an intensive weekend and sleep for several days. In fact, in the beginning, I slept most of the 2 or 3 days following each class, it just wore me out so completely. How we moved house successfully at that time bemuses me, but I later came to learn that it was the practice of yoga that held me together.

On the first weekend, I realized how inadequate my experience of yoga was compared to the other budding yogis. I immediately crashed into my ego, which despite 24 years of practice with chronic illness could not stand being shamed. I quickly waged an inner battle as I knelt on the mat, helpless for how to continue with a relatively complicated sun salutation that was totally beyond my foggy comprehension. I wanted to walk out before I gave in to tears, but some part of my mind told me to be brave and stay. Somehow that part won out, even as I sobbed over my near failure to begin after the class.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, although it was a time of revelation amidst exhaustion. After a particularly strenuous weekend of yoga (and gardening – what was I thinking?) I woke with a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t move my left arm at all! The first few days were filled with intense pain, and again I wondered what I was trying to do to myself. I didn’t practice or even read or think about yoga. It was too depressing. I felt let down by my body yet again. I read and believed the dire predictions that I’d be stuck with a frozen shoulder for a year, and how could I be a yoga teacher without being able to move my arm?

Then, I began to experience the crawling feeling of anxiety – anxiety that had been eased and soothed by my practice of the last two months – as it returned full force. I didn’t realize that I even suffered from anxiety, even though I had suffered fears of the ‘shifting ground’ since early in my childhood. It was only as I pushed myself to begin again – to mindfully and gently exercise that arm, that I realized the importance of pushing through fear to begin. It was only then that I realized significant freedom from anxiety and depression was yoga’s gift to me. As it might be to others who are suffering as well.

So here I am, near the end of the 3-month intensive. Well, I’ll probably be going another month or two to get the rest of my needed practice hours, but thanks to beginning, despite the fear, I won out. I’ll qualify soon to be a registered yoga teacher, and I’ll have the keys to helping others as well as myself.

The yogi, T.K.V. Desikachar, says that one of the meanings of the word ‘yoga’ is “to attain what was previously unattainable.” He goes on to say that if “there is something that we are today unable to do; when we find the means for bringing that desire into action, that step is yoga. In fact, every change is yoga.”

Many of us with chronic illness may be rightly fed up with change. What we forget is that sometimes change is the agent to restore hope to our lives. All we have to do is put our preconceived notions of a goal aside and begin. My teacher belongs to a particularly intense form of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. I never thought I could say, “I practise Ashtanga.” However, what I learned about the most challenging aspect of the training – the asanas or postures – is that the most complex pose begins somewhere. For the chronically ill, it might begin with learning to breathe, with the subtle rotation of a joint, with raising and engaging a muscle 5% more than we did before.

When we take action and begin – when we embrace the wisdom of that starting place – we achieve goals we believe were lost to us forever. All we have to do is begin.



Thank you, Hopewell! :)

This reminds me of something from 'The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui way of Knowledge', when Juan tells Carlos about the knock of the spirit. When a great revelation is attained, and your life changes forever, for the better!

Very well done, my friend!

Thank you so much, SK! I'll have to look up that reference and read it! *Hugs* <3

Thank you. I totally relate. Before my more recent diagnosis, I suffered from fibro. I had recently returned to yoga, after a long hiatus, during which I did a lot of hiking, biking. And all of a sudden, I could do none of that. I felt like I crawled back to yoga, that had so transformed me during college and early marriage. It always hurt, no matter how careful I was. One day I received a letter in the mail. It was from my yoga teacher inviting me to be a part of her yoga training. As I handed it to my husband, I sobbed…I am fifty, fat and fibromyalgia and she wants me to be a yoga teacher! I did it. I taught for 12 years…wonderful!..wonderful! Then my osteo crapped my back, and at 68 I retired. Now I work one on one, work very gently. I do not go to classes. Yoga is still my passion

Dear Yogtose,

Thank you so much for writing and sharing your inspiring story with me - it so closely mirrors my present experience and it's my hope to also teach and do one-on-one for people with chronic pain and illness. It is indeed "wonderful!" It was a "dream" that made me embark on this and my incredible yoga teacher that made it even possible.

Now I'm at the other side of the training and still battling the usual exhaustion, pain, etc, I find myself questioning myself a little, "Who do you think you are?" Your story tells me that part of me can be a yoga teacher and make a big difference. Thank you so much. *big hugs*

Blessings, Jane

I taught “regular” classes at a community college, and the chronic pain/sufferers were there. Funny how that happens. I also taught at hospitals which attracted people with chronic pain and/or recovery issues. I taught MS patients for 10 yrs at a rehab hospital. I had to dig deep within me to even begin to understand what they needed. I was doing chair yoga before it was in. When my RA was still undiagnosed, but limiting me severely, my son, who teaches the class now, helped me. They accepted me, gimpy & uncoordinated, until diagnosis. They were incredibly there for me. My experience has been that the students found me. Such a wonderful time in my life. Namaste

Such a wonderful experience, Yogatose - I can see that it will certainly stretch me in many ways - I understand my disability so well, but I will have much to learn about other people's disabilities. I just started reading a book about yoga for people with MS - I guess I'm lucky there are even such books now. I hope I am able to get all this knowledge into my now leaky brain. :)