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Yoga: Stretching Away Your Stress
In the search for new ways to relieve stress and regain lost
energy, some people with CFIDS (PWCs) are
turning to one of the world’s oldest therapies: yoga.
Yoga’s breathing, meditation and gentle stretching techniques
are attractive to people whose fatigue levels limit them from doing more
strenuous exercise. Yoga also can change in intensity and duration to match the
ebb and flow of a PWC’s energy envelope.
Laura Cornell, a yoga instructor in
Calif., knows firsthand how chronic fatigue
can devastate a person’s life. While never formally diagnosed with
CFIDS, she developed many of the telltale
symptoms — from constant fatigue to swollen lymph nodes — after receiving a
series of vaccinations in her early 20s.
After finding limited success with standard medical care,
Cornell decided to take an alternative route that included acupuncture, dietary
changes and chiropractic treatments. But yoga was a revelation; the day after
taking her first class, Cornell says she woke with more energy than she’d felt
“It was amazing,” she says. “Two years later I became a yoga
teacher to share what I had found. I’ve been teaching for eight years now, and I
have never felt better.”
The theory behind yoga and fatigue is simple. Stretching
muscles and joints increases blood flow through the body, improving oxygenation
and increasing energy. The meditative side of yoga decreases mental and physical
stress. And lifestyle improvements, from diet to sleep habits, help complete the
Alice Christensen, author of The American Yoga Association
Wellness Book, says that yoga exercises tend to leave people refreshed, not
exhausted, after completion. Developing a yoga routine provides a “daily support
system” that promotes a normal, productive lifestyle, she says.
There’s still not a great deal of scientific research into
yoga and CFIDS. But a recent, two-year study at
the University of
Iowa showed that yoga helped
substantially improve fatigue symptoms in nearly one-fourth of subjects who had
fatigue lasting more than six months. Of all the therapies tested in the study —
including acupuncture, herbal remedies and dietary supplements — yoga was the
only one to show a statistically significant result. The study has not yet been
“The people who did yoga felt better than the people who tried
other things,” lead researcher Arthur Hartz, MD, PhD, said in a recent
interview. Dr. Hartz said he found the results surprising. “I know almost
nothing about yoga. This finding just sort of came out of the blue. We weren’t
looking for it.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also lists
yoga as a potential form of exercise therapy for PWCs — although it warns that
some people may find it too strenuous.
Yoga is more than a series of
postures. It’s an ancient system that combines spiritual and physical practices
— in fact, the word yoga literally translates to “union.”
Westerners are most familiar with Hatha yoga, which emphasizes
breathing and physical postures (also known as poses or asanas). There are a
number of subgroups under Hatha, some of which are more physically demanding
Cornell suggests that PWCs should seek one of the gentler
forms, at least at the beginning. These include Kripalu and Integral yoga, or
any others labeled “restorative” or “gentle.” These versions place importance on
improved flexibility, movement and breathing — and allow people to progress at
their own pace.
Kripalu, which Cornell teaches, begins with a series of
warm-up exercises before moving on to the asanas. This can be useful for
newcomers and for PWCs who have not been able to exercise or even stretch during
Although there are a number of how-to yoga books on the
market, the best way to get started is with a teacher and a group class. Books,
while helpful, cannot correct flaws people develop in their breathing and
posture techniques — and they can’t make individualized suggestions for
It’s very important to feel comfortable with your yoga
instructor, Cornell says. Student and teacher must form a bond that allows for
mutual trust and friendship. Don’t be afraid to interview a teacher before
signing up for classes. And make sure that you can leave a class without penalty
if you don’t feel that the instructor is able to address your specific
If you’re interested in seeing what
yoga feels like, Cornell offers several suggestions for beginners:
Breathing. We breathe constantly, but rarely do we pay
it any attention. Cornell suggests finding a “beautiful place” for some mindful
breathing. This can be a park, your garden or even a candlelit, quiet corner of
your favorite room in the house.
“It’s very simple. Close your eyes and just ‘watch’ your
breath,” Cornell says. “Breathe in and out, and check into how you’re feeling.”
You can sit or lie down in any comfortable position.
Practice this type of reflection daily, even if you can only
devote a few minutes. It’s an instant stress reliever — and a good way to get
back in touch with your body.
Legs up. This posture can be done on the floor or even
in bed. Lie on your back and scoot your backside close to a wall. Then raise
your legs, resting your heels on the wall. This position eases strain on the
back. It also changes blood flow patterns in the body, which Cornell says can
improve circulation of fresh blood to vital organs.
Hold this position for several minutes, or less if you begin
to feel uncomfortable. People with orthostatic intolerance should be careful
about performing this posture, since it can affect blood flow to the brain.
Twist pose. Next, lie on your back and relax for a
couple of minutes, concentrating on your breathing. Then slowly bend your knees
and draw them toward your chest. If you can lift your legs off the ground and
pull your knees into your torso, fine — if not, keep your feet on the floor
instead. Then slowly twist at the waist and allow your knees to touch the floor
to your left (if you can’t make them touch the floor, that’s fine, too). Hold
this position and breathe eight to 10 times slowly. You can hold it longer if
you are able. Then switch your knees to the right side and repeat.
This position relieves back stress, Cornell says, and helps
“massage” your organs by bringing fresh blood to them.
When you’re practicing yoga, it’s very important to eliminate
distractions like televisions, radios and telephones. Yoga is about paying
attention to your body. “You need to attune to the body’s internal wisdom,”
Cornell says. “Play some music if you like to help relax. Or simply enjoy the
feeling of being one with yourself.”
- The American Yoga Association Wellness Book. By Alice Christensen.
Kensington Books, 1996.
- Relax & Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. By Judith
Laster. Rodmell Press, 1995.
- Yoga Research and Education
Center, 2400A County
Center Drive, Santa Rosa, CA
USA. Phone: 707-566-9000.