The Creaky Yogi & Living with pain

I would like to share my experience of living with a chronic pain condition in the hope it might give some assistance and insight to others in a similar situation.

I am a yoga teacher and as such you might expect me to be flexible and strong, and in reality I don’t do too badly. I say this with a sense of achievement as I also have Rheumatoid Arthritis, an auto immune disease of the joints and connective tissue.  

5 years ago I was a corporate career woman. I had fantastic jobs in the city and the swagger to match. I was always busy rushing from meeting to meeting being super important and I played as hard as I worked.

Like many people, I fully expected my lifestyle to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, and like many people I was mistaken.

In 2012, I developed RA and to be honest I was knocked sideways with the impact of being in continuous pain. It was inescapable. It was the first thing I felt in the morning and (assuming sleep didn’t allude me altogether) it was my last waking thought. It filled my head all day and every day and it had started to redefine me as a person.

I was afraid of the future and incredibly sad over the past I had lost.

I was eventually prescribed drugs to manage my condition and in some respects the side effects of them were as bad as the RA itself. Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug, made me sick,  tired and initially didn’t even reduce the pain. Aside from all this I found myself in a maze of well-meaning advice and I really didn’t know which way to turn.

It was 2013 when I decided to train to be a yoga teacher and at this point my pain was around an 8/10 most days. I had listened to health professionals who advised that increasing the amount of exercise I did daily would help. I researched the advice, and yes it made perfect sense. The more you flex and compress a joint the more the connective tissue is stimulated, stiffness is reduced and the joint degradation slows down.

The issue I had was that the pain I felt whilst moving increased my anxiety and bought my reality into sharp focus; and aside from anything else it hurt a lot. I found myself surrounded by people that were stronger and more able than myself and as a result I would leave classes feeling awful.

My yoga teacher training taught me to move and breathe daily in a way that supported both my mind and my body.

This is where you might expect me to say that yoga cured my RA? Unfortunately not, but yoga and meditation have been significant in providing me with a toolkit to cope with my condition and I am pleased to say that, today, my RA is largely under control.

What did I learn?

  • Pain is not constant and unchanging – When you feel pain continually your brain tricks you into thinking that you feel the same type and level of pain all the time. This isn’t true, If you use meditation techniques to really feel the body and the breath you will notice that it is constantly changing and you are not feeling 100% pain 100% of the time. Tuning into the pain and almost making friends with it allows you to reduce the associated anxiety. You can use the breath to breathe through the pain and in doing so the body relaxes and it subsides a little.
  • If you are in agony focus on it rather than away from it and be confident that the moment will pass. You don’t have to cope with a lifetime of pain but just one moment at a time.
  • Don’t jump out of bed onto sore joints – Spend a few moments in bed gently moving the joints in the morning before you launch into your daily schedule.  Five minutes is all it takes to soften the start of your day and as result you will have a more positive perspective.
  • Own your own body – If you don’t feel comfortable doing something – Don’t do it. Whether that is staying in that yoga pose or walking an additional few metres.
  • Move as much and as fully as you can but rest when you need to. You know your body far better than anyone else.
  • Don’t suffer your suffering (as the Buddhists say) – In the moments you feel okay give yourself permission to feel okay – enjoy each and every enjoyable moment.
  • Eat as healthily as you can but don’t be a slave to it. As great as they are, you will not cure any condition with green smoothies.

How has this shaped my teaching?

Firstly let me say how grateful I am to have the opportunity to teach yoga. It is truly an honour, but not only that, my teaching schedule ensures that I move my body everyday and as a result I really reap the benefit.

My objective, as a teacher , is that everyone who comes to my class feels relaxed and does what they can. After all, just leaning into our objectives yields great results and in my experience the most impressive yogi in the room is very often the one who turns up despite life’s challenges.

I really want to support everyone in developing their own yoga practise but I am especially keen to assist those that feel they can’t do yoga because …  and this is because you can, you don’t need to be strong, bendy or beautiful in lycra in order to benefit from yoga. So if you can’t come to my classes find a teacher or a class somewhere that suits your learning style.

In summary RA is a pain, literally. However, with the benefit of hindsight, RA has given me far more than it has taken. The mental strength I have developed easily outstrips the physical strength I have lost. In addition to this I feel that my perspective on life is softer and more empathetic.

Overall I am a happier, more content person than I was back in 2011 so I guess it was actually a gift.

Please get in touch if you would like any further information relating to how you can use yoga and meditation to help you cope with pain or chronic illness.

Until next time.

Gaynor

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10 Comments on “The Creaky Yogi & Living with pain

  1. Thank you – as you were I’m still at the angry stage of RA -I AM 62 almost 63 now – RA got me last August – through breakup of a very emotionally damaging 22 year relationship – I took up running in May if 2014 and completed my first 10k in the Edinburgh Marathon Festival the following year – and although my conquest at running till that date was running a bath – I loved each min I was out on the road running
    RA has to this time taken this away from me – but I’m so determined that I will run again -I walk as much as I can daily -but never ran -you have now given me the courage to overlook the “pain “and go for it -so thank you .

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    • Hi Sheena,
      Thanks for your comment and I am happy that my story has helped a little. I also used to run before my RA and whilst I have tried since, I find it’s too hard on my joints. Why not try cycling? It is much more joint friendly & its fun. No matter what you do, please tune in and listen to your body. Good luck x

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      • I’ll let you know -trying Tai Chi next week -try anything (within reason ) to read dress the issues going on within my body x

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  2. That’s fantastic encouragement Gaynor. So well written and describes RA so well. I do like the stretching before getting out of bed. I set my alarm early to do this and it really helps.
    You are amazing x

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  3. Great read and really inspiring! I’ve been practising yoga for over 40 years and mid my own yoga teacher training 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with ‘an autoimmune, inflammatory disease’. I decided not to continue with my training but yoga and an Ayurvedic lifestyle keeps everything functioning. Being able to let go of expectations when I’m feeling sore, and be kind to myself has been an important lesson. Thanks again for sharing your journey.

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    • Thankyou Debbie, and sorry to hear about your auto immune disease. Like you, find yoga and meditation a great place to escape to when my body is misbehaving. 😉😘

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  4. You have encouraged me in your post 😉 I am 29 and was diagnosed with RA and Lupus at 24. No signs or symptoms until I gave birth to my 2nd child. It was 2 weeks of misery and then I was diagnosed. I am so angry and feel stripped of the life I loved. I am learning to cope and and trying all sorts. Thank you for giving insight to me.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this helpful post. I could identify with much that you shared. I have found Pilates and yoga very helpful until my shoulder froze and stretching was agony. I have taken time out until I can move better. I have found swimming very helpful. Your attitude to the disease is refreshing x

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  6. Prior to being diagnosed with RA I used to go to the pool into deep water running. I would tear that pool up and be in my own zone I was diagnosed officially three weeks ago but I have been dealing with this for three months not knowing what was wrong. I tried going to the pool to loosen my shoulder last week and could not make it halfway down the pool to the deep end much less run. I came home depressed and feeling defeated. My flares continue and I’ve tried to deal with it one day at a time. I will get back to the pool to the deep end and run again. You’re story was very inspiring to me. Thank you

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