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Yoga: How it can benefit ME/CFS sufferers

In this article, I will introduce the ancient Indian discipline of Yoga to CFS sufferers, and look at how practising Yoga techniques can help us to regain a better quality of life.

Firstly, a little about myself. I was a Yoga teacher and practitioner for about 20 years.  Our family (husband, young son and I) lived in Malaysia for some time, and during our stay I was taught Yoga by an Indian guru from Benares.  In his lessons, he divulged many secrets pertaining to natural healthy living.  He was in his seventies, but had the smooth clear skin and sparkling eyes of a man very much younger.  In fact, he looked no more than about 40 years old.

Back in Australia, during a particularly busy and stressful time I contracted the Epstein-Barr Virus, which led to CFS.  The first remission - after an illness so devastating that I all but lost my life - was brought about through the knowledge and practice of Yoga (plus a very supportive naturopath).  At first I could only manage some Pranayama (control of breath), Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) and a little meditation.  I also included positive affirmations.  After a few months I began to attend a Yoga class. The teacher was very understanding and supportive and I was able to take my time.  I practised regularly at home, and after six months I was able to keep up in a two hour advanced class.

Eventually I reached about 98% fitness and began teaching Yoga again.  I taught for about two and a half years before I suffered a relapse of CFS with the onset of menopause and its symptoms.  Using the same Yoga techniques, plus a strong faith, I am now on my way to wellness again.

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What is Yoga?

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions, misunderstandings and 'so much rubbish' concerning this very ancient science.  Yoga originated in India.  Men of learning (Rishis) went up into the Himalayan mountains to discover the secret to healthy wholesome living.  They did this through the practice of meditation and observance of nature. They devised the Yoga system, which aids physical, mental and spiritual well-being.  It never was, and isn't a religion, but rather it is a healthy way of living; promoting fitness of the body and the mind through gentle exercise, by regulating diet, and by calming the mind and thought processes with meditation and relaxation.  Anyone, from the very young to the elderly, can benefit from the practice of Yoga.

Yoga brings a greater faith and a greater clarity into life. Its diet is simple and nourishing, its ways are the ways of peace, compassion and a positive attitude to life.  There are many branches of Yoga including: Raja, Hatha, Manthra and Kundalini Yogas.  Most Australian teachers are Hatha Yoga practitioners.

Yoga practices include:

1. Asanas or postures

These are not gymnastics or body building exercises.  They are 'states of being' in which you remain steady, calm, quiet and comfortable with your physical body and mind. Asanas can be used for curative or health reasons.  By gently exercising the muscles, massaging the internal organs and toning the tissues throughout the whole body, health is wonderfully improved.


2. Pranayama or breath control

This technique can be defined as a series of breathing exercises aimed at stimulating and increasing the vital energy in the body and directing it to a particular area for various purposes.  Extra oxygen is introduced and toxins removed.  Few people breathe correctly, and consequently under-utilise their lung capacity.


3. Dhyana or meditation

With regular practice, meditation calms the mind, relieves stress and leads to one-pointedness and equanimity.  It brings peace and harmony, which may be enjoyed throughout the day.


4. Yoga Nidra or deep relaxation

Probably the most beneficial practice for sufferers of CFS.  The importance of total relaxation cannot be stressed enough.  The whole body, the mind and respiration are brought into a state of complete relaxation.  When practiced properly, one session of Yoga Nidra is equivalent to four hours sleep.

Yogasanas and Pranayama


Hatha Yoga is not the ultimate goal.  Hatha Yoga makes us aware that the body with its inestimable qualities is everything that we have in life; for we enter this world naked and leave this world naked.  For that reason we must get the best out of our body.  The more we strive to unfold the perfection's of the body, the more quickly our mental capacities unfold: power of concentration, memory, will-power and resolution.  The blessing of Hatha Yoga is threefold; health, well-being and long life.

Selvarajan Yesudian.


Yogasanas

In contrast to other exercise techniques (gymnastics, aerobics, jogging etc.), Yoga asanas are performed very slowly and with complete awareness on the parts being exercised.  They are held as long as is comfortable, with accompanied breath control.  The nervous system, endocrine glands, and internal organs as well as muscles are encouraged to function properly.  There are varying degrees of difficulty, but there are asanas for the very young through to the very old, and also for people suffering from physical and psychological illness.  Toxin levels are reduced and the circulation improved.



Effects of Illness

Illness causes many different problems within the body:

  • Muscle Deterioration.  Wasting of muscle tissue during illness has a direct relationship to bodily strength.  The effects of gravitational pull on organs is increased as the spinal column and internal organs are not properly supported.

  • Circulation.  Cold extremities, varicose veins, poor nourishment to body cells, malfunction of the endocrine system and inadequate elimination of bodily toxins result from poor circulation.

  • Digestion. Poor digestion is always connected with poor elimination.  The inner cleanliness of the body is lost.  Constipation, the primary cause of haemorrhoids, causes sluggishness and headache.  People generally eat far more than they require, thus putting a strain on the digestive process and the heart.

  • Faulty Metabolism.  Conversion of food into energy by the body (metabolism) is adversely affected.

  • Recuperative Powers.  The body's recuperative powers may be affected, both physically and mentally.



General Benefits of Yogasanas

  1. The Endocrine System.  Yoga asanas regulate and control the secretion of hormones from all glands in the body.  Even if one gland is malfunctioning, a noticeable loss of health can be experienced.

  2. The Muscles, Bones, Nervous System, Respiratory, Circulatory and Digestive Systems.  All are co-ordinated with each other.  The body becomes more flexible, and more able to adjust to environmental changes.  The sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems are brought into a state of balance.

  3. Mental.  Asanas make the mind strong and able to endure pain and unhappiness. Determination, concentration and memory are enhanced.

  4. Spiritual.  For those interested in the spiritual path, they are a stepping stone (third) in the quest for liberation or self-realisation.


Dynamic and Static Asanas

Dynamic asanas are designed to loosen up the body, and to remove stagnant blood. They tighten the skin and muscles, strengthen the lungs and encourage movement in the digestive and excretory systems.  They are particularly useful for beginners.  Static asanas are performed with little or no movement to the body, often remaining in the one position for quite a few minutes.  They gently massage the internal organs, glands and muscles, as well as relax the nerves throughout the body.  They are specifically concerned with bringing tranquillity to the mind and preparing the student for higher practices such as meditation (Dhyana).  Some of them induce a state of sense withdrawal.  Some make the body steady and firm.  All asanas have Sanskrit names - Sanskrit being the ancient Indian language.  Nearly all bear the names of birds or animals.


Pranayama

Prana is that vital force said to pervade the whole Cosmos.  It is in all things, whether animate or inanimate.  It is closely related to the air that we breathe.  Prana is more subtle than air and perhaps can be defined as the energy essence that is in air, and in everything in the universe.


Respiration

Man's lifespan depends much on the mode of respiration.  A person with shallow, short breathing is liable to live a shorter life than someone who breathes slowly and deeply.  The ancient Yogis noticed the difference in longevity between animals with short rapid respiration and those who breathed more slowly.  Birds, dogs, rabbits etc. live only a few years. Snakes, elephants, tortoise etc. have a long lifespan.  People today, because of stress and lifestyle do not normally breathe correctly.  Breathing patterns change according to the circumstances surrounding the person.  Anger and emotional disturbances increase the breath flow and make it shallow.  A contented person breathes slowly and steadily.  We are taught in Yoga that one outburst of anger uses up three months supply of energy.

Most people breathe superficially, using only a part of their existing lung capacity.  The result is that the body and brain are sadly deprived of vital nourishment.  Thinking is slow and we are inclined to be lethargic.  Stagnant air builds up in the lower lobes of the lungs for long periods of time (yawning is a sign of oxygen deprivation).  Tight restrictive clothing further interferes with the breathing process.  Fatigue results as lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream.

The first lesson in Pranayama is the practice of correct respiration, using each part of the breathing mechanism: beginning with abdominal breathing, then middle or rib-cage breathing, followed by upper chest breathing.  All three stages are then combined, forming the complete, full Yoga breath.  The result is increased vitality and alertness, followed by other benefits such as clearer skin, better quality of sleep and resistance to disease.


Breath Control and Tranquillity

Remember, every time the rhythm of the breath is slowed down, breath becomes a powerful tranquilliser.  The simplest and most effective way to keep the mind in perfect balance is breath control.  The mind is like a monkey, jumping from branch to branch, fretting over the past and fearful of the future.  The peaceful person is one who consciously watches the breath, thus bringing the mind into a balanced, stable condition. Yogis use the slow, deep steady breathing technique to control fear, anxiety, anger and depression.  There are many Yoga books around, but it is wiser and safer to attend a good Yoga class.

Yoga Nidra & Meditation
(Valuable aids to a better quality of life)


Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) aims toward total deep relaxation of both the physical body and the mind. When we are in a state of deep relaxation, the body can begin to heal itself by bringing about harmony and balance.  Yoga teaches that peace and tranquillity can only be attained from within, and not from anything external.  There are three types of tension: muscular or physical, mental or psychic, and emotional.

These threefold tensions cause disease, inhibitions, complexes and anxieties of various types which can bring about much suffering.  The majority of people are tense most of the time, even though they may not be aware of it.  Observation will confirm this by such signs as nail-biting, smoking, excessive talking, constant irritability and other indications. Total relaxation does not mean having a drink, going to the movies, reading or watching TV.  These may give some temporary relief from stress: but, what is the mind doing?  It is turning over the same thoughts and worries day after day.  Many lie awake at night worrying and arise exhausted the next day.

Yoga Nidra is the Yogic tranquilliser.  It establishes harmony and well-being throughout the entire system.  It greatly reduces the physical and mental tensions brought about by modern life.  According to Dr William Collinge in his book, Recovering from M.E., research in the USA (plus yogic research) suggests that deep relaxation "may be the most fundamental healing state of which you are capable".  Yoga Nidra induces physical, emotional and mental relaxation, in that order.

  • Physical relaxation is achieved by rotation of consciousness around the various parts of the body.  Next, attention is drawn to the breathing process.  The slower and deeper the respiration, the more relaxed one becomes.

  • Emotional relaxation is achieved by developing a state of mind where various feelings are brought to the surface voluntarily, and then thrown off. At this stage the mind ceases to process information from the outside world or the body.

  • Mental relaxation is psychic sleep in the realm of the mind.  One appears to be asleep to the outside world, but is fully awake and aware on an internal level.  All awareness of physical body disappears, and at this stage, calming tranquil images are evoked by a process of visualisation.  Healing images and suggestions are brought in at this stage.  Here the mind is very sensitive to positive affirmations or resolves.  Remember, the mind is like a naughty child. It does the opposite of what you want it to do.  Yoga Nidra silences the mind; it's useless chatter being slowly but surely controlled.


Meditation -  An exact science, developed in India about 5000 years ago, meditation is the method of bringing a scattered, disorganised mind into a state of peace, quiet and tranquillity.  It involves, as in Yoga Nidra, internalising the mind, controlling the respiration and relaxing the body.  A focus is used, such as a candle flame, a Manthra or the rhythm of the natural breath.  The mind will go out again and again, but the meditator gently brings it back to the subject of concentration.  Meditation should always be practised sitting, and not lying down.  The mind always remains aware and alert.  The spine must be straight and the head centred.  There are many misconceptions concerning meditation, and few except serious yoga practitioners ever reach a state of true meditation.  Meditation has three stages: one, Concentration, two, Contemplation, and three, Meditation (the state reached when the meditator is no longer aware of meditating).  For health purposes, it is enough to reach a state where the mind is quiet and steady, the respiration calm and balanced, and the feeling is that of deep peace. With regular practice, this may be achieved, greatly benefiting the overall mental and emotional state.

Healing Affirmations and Resolves -  Together with Yoga Nidra and Meditation we may include positive healing affirmations or resolves.  These have been practised by Yogis to bring about a reversal of negative situations such as ill health, and are mentioned as far back as Vedanta, the ancient Indian Scriptures.

When the body and mind are stilled, suggestions of a positive nature are made to the sub-conscious.  These suggestions are very effective, and over a period of time, are said to come true in one's life.  Negative emotions such as fear, anger, resentment and hate are known to have an adverse effect on our physical, mental and emotional well-being.  When one practises Meditation and Yoga Nidra seriously and regularly, these emotions are gradually replaced with feelings of peace, harmony and universal love.  Here are some suggestions if you would like to try affirmations.  Remember, practise them regularly when in a relaxed attitude.

  • "By the grace of God, day by day in every way, I am getting better and better."
Swami Sivananda
  • "I manifest perfect health and strength."
  • "The cause of every bodily disorder is vanishing."
  • "Every organ is working better and better from moment to moment."
Selvarajan Yesudian
  • "I am strong in the Lord and the power of His might."
  • "My yoke is easy, my burden is light, I am strong, free and unafraid."
  • "I now willingly let go every thought, condition, or relationship that in any way retards my perfect healing. I am blessed with perfect elimination in mind, body, affairs and relationships now!"
Catherine Ponder
Healing Secrets of the Ages
  • "I am created in the image of God.I am imbued with the mighty power of God.The power of God is all that I am.I am happy, I am healthy, I am at peace with all life.I am, I am, I am."
Sri Sathya Sai Baba



(Ed: Nola is understandably not teaching at present due to her CFS.  She is therefore in no position to benefit financially from this article, and instead hopes to simply share her knowledge and experience of Yoga.).

By Society member, Nola Szczecinski


Reprinted from Emerge, June 1996.

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