The journey starts…
I didn’t know it at the time, but my journey as a yogi with arthritis began at twelve when my family took up skiing. We went several winters, and while it was a blast, it became a family joke that I needed extra gloves and clothes because I’d swell up and turn red from the cold. I grew up on the coast in California, so it rarely got cold or snowed. It wasn’t until I was around 18 that it became apparent there was a real pattern. I decided perhaps some medical advice would be helpful.
The doctor suggested a RA test, which was negative, and so it just became a quirk that I was ‘allergic’ to the cold.
I become a yogi…
After college, I became a farrier. That’s not a job that’s good for your back, but I’d heard somewhere that yoga was. I started attending an Iyengar yoga class with the attitude that it was preventative medicine.
After several years I found I really enjoyed yoga and how it made me feel. I developed a home practice that would get me warmed up for my days of cold barns and horse wrestling. Those were my first steps on my yoga journey.
I become a yogi with arthritis…
I continued to have random, minor health oddities that were explained away. I practiced yoga in classes and occasionally at home through a career change, graduate school, and a cross country move. After the birth of my second son, my health took a turn for the worse. I’d get sudden disabling migraines, a low-grade fever that would last for days but didn’t turn into a cold or the flu, and horrible fatigue. The fatigue was the worst. I’d always been very high energy and never slept a ton. Yes, I now had two young kids, but that didn’t explain being so tired I was a hazard to drive. I did very little yoga that year, and by the end of the year, I had begun making the rounds of the specialists.
It was determined I didn’t have breast cancer or lymphoma. That was good news, but it wasn’t helping me get healthy again. I had even given up my yoga practice. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed like the only thing that didn’t make it worse was gentle walks and tai chi.
Anything more vigorous, and I risked triggering a migraine. Anyone who’s suffered from migraines can probably sympathize with the ridiculous lengths you’ll go to to avoid bringing one on.
Through the rounds of specialists, my symptoms finally fit under the purview of the Rheumatologist, who never seemed quite comfortable with assigning me a Lupus diagnosis. I made some changes in my life and was able to start exercising again. My kids started sleeping through the night, which was probably all it took to turn things around a bit. When they finally both started school, it seemed like the right time to do yoga teacher training. Yoga had been such a constant in my life for 20 years. I didn’t know if I wanted to teach, but I thought it’d be a great opportunity to deepen my own practice.
The Rheumatologist I started with wasn’t giving me a lot of confidence. She seemed dismissive of the complaints I did have and very concerned with things that didn’t seem to apply to me, so I switched to another. The other wanted to do a much more complete workup, including imaging. I’d had a rough summer a couple months before I saw her and had lost a lot of weight. Not all of it had come back. But, I was still in the historical range for me. You make rationalization for things when you don’t have answers. I thought my more pronounced bony look was just carrying the weight differently than when I was younger. She disagreed, hence the imaging.
When everything came back, my diagnosis was changed to Mixed Connective Tissue Disease. That’s a combination connective tissue disease, and I’d been exhibiting Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis symptoms. The juvenile Raynaud’s phenomenon I’d shown all those years before was a big risk factor. The arthritis had been gnawing on me for a long time, and I had erosions in every bone she imaged. She made it clear that the rest of my bones would look the same.
This was almost halfway through my yoga teacher training. I had been feeling happy I’d been doing a lot more yoga and hadn’t had a Lupus flare-up. Getting that news was a blow. On the one hand, it made more sense with my symptoms over the years. Still, it was tough to conceptually mesh my abilities with my diagnosis and imaging. If you’ve got holes in all the bones in your wrists, shouldn’t it hurt to do a handstand? How had I wrestled horses, pounded iron, and bucked hay for years while my body was destroying itself?
I embrace being a yogi with arthritis
Working out those discrepancies for myself made me decide to teach yoga at the end of the training. Years ago, I had stumbled on one of the best self-management tools I could have, and it had stuck. If I had benefited so much, I could help others stay pain-free. After the basic training, I went on to do the Yoga for Arthritis and Aqua Yoga trainings, with the goal of making yoga accessible to people with chronic illness.
Professionally, it’s an obvious fit, but personally, it comes with a unique set of difficulties. Just as outside of yoga, I get incredulous and doubting comments from yoga teachers. Yoga teachers are human and have baggage like everyone else. I struggled with maintaining an Iyengar yoga practice. I got tremendous insight into my own practice and better teaching skills through that yoga style. Still, I couldn’t find a teacher who respected my limitations.
Yoga or no yoga, I still have to manage the doubt and incredulity from people who ask innocent questions. An autoimmune diagnosis does not brand you with a scarlet A for all to see. After explaining all or a part of my health story, I almost always hear, “Well, you look great.” Do I say “Thank you” to that? Do I explain all the work and energy I put out externally to counteract the destructive work and energy happening internally? I still haven’t figured out how to handle that with grace. I usually mumble, “Well, yeah.”
I haven’t ever worked up enough snark to ask what someone with health problems is supposed to look like. The yoga world judges those with weight issues and seniors harshly. If I were overweight or elderly and said I can’t do full wheel, no one would bat an eye. I would see judgment in their expression, I’m sure, but it would be the smug confirmation of their assumptions. Looking healthy and hale and being a yoga teacher no less, you should be able to do full wheel.
Our asana practice is supposed to prepare us for the more advanced stages of yoga. A spiritually advanced yogi might describe how their pranayama practice moved them to a higher plane. As a rheumatic yogi, I can speak to how a pranayama practice can keep you in the dentist’s chair, despite every fiber of your being screaming at you to jump up and run away because it’s miserable to get your teeth rebuilt after a Sjogren’s diagnosis.
Moving forward, the most important thing is yoga provides me with an outlet. I appreciate that yoga is something that connects me with my past in a positive way. Many people with chronic diseases have to change their lifestyle and/or habits due to their disease. Rather than giving up yoga and carrying that regret around with me, I’ve adjusted my practice to reflect my current needs. There’s no regret because it doesn’t have to be the same to still be enjoyable. After so long, I’ve actually improved in almost every area of my practice. I can look back fondly on what I used to do, be proud of the progress I’ve made, and shrug off what isn’t working for me anymore. I’ve always hated shoulder stand anyway. Now I’ve got an official excuse not to practice it.
Yoga also allows me to give back to those who support me as well as my community. When a friend’s back hurts, I get to be the go-to person for the perfect exercise to help them work the kinks out. I live in the city now, and we don’t need another person selling widgets. Instead, I get the privilege of helping people better themselves and be the person they want to be. I feel so honored and excited when a yoga newbie shows up for a class because I get to be that person who introduced them to yoga. Finally and most importantly, yoga provides me an avenue for growth.
Instead of focusing on being diminished by my disease, being a yogi with arthritis provides an expansive place to focus on the future and where I’d like to be when that future becomes now.
For more information about managing your own arthritis with yoga, read: