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By Cazzaw

The purpose of hatha yoga is to balance the mind, body and breath, the word yoga meaning balance, harmony and unity. Yoga originated in the East and has been used for many years throughout the world to help protect against illness, to help improve chronic illnesses and to maintain and improve the quality of life. It is a system that can be adapted to suit a particular need or ability. The health benefits and physiological effects of yoga have been well researched with over 1300 papers published in periodicals by 1989.

Which Magazine (December 2001) conducted a survey of its members to find out which complementary therapies they used and whether they were helpful. Yoga came out on top. Those practising yoga were more satisfied with their therapy and greater numbers had improvement in health when compared to other therapies such as accupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy, massage, herbal medicine and reflexology.

Sheffield Yoga for ME/CFS conducted a survey of its members in Autumn 2004. Of 16 people surveyed, all said that they had gained social benefits from attending the classes. 14 People reported that the yoga helped them to manage their illness better and 13 felt that their health had improved as a result. For more information please see the reports available on the information page by clicking here.

ME/CFS is a neurological illness which causes many symptoms including extreme debilitating fatigue, exhaustion and malaise (the onset of which is sometimes delayed) following overexertion. Some of the known problems of ME/CFS include:

  • malfunctioning of the central nervous system (CNS), particularly the hypothalamic/pituitary axis and the autonomic nervous system. This may give rise to hormone imbalances and many symptoms such as sleep disturbances, digestive disorders, circulation problems, fatigue, poor temperature control, neurally mediated hypotension, orthostatic intolerance, coordination problems.
  • lack of blood flow to the brain, particularly the brain stem
  • a build up of lactic acid in the muscles
  • irregular breathing, overbreathing or hyperventilation
  • poor detoxification, oxidative stress and impaired lymphatic function
  • malfunctioning immune function

It is thought that yoga may benefit ME/CFS by targetting some of the above factors.

It is well established that yoga may help to

  • oxygenate the tissues, thus giving more energy
  • calm the central nervous system and induce a state of deep relaxation
  • improve mental clarity and 'brain fog'
  • reduce the effects of stress and tension
  • improve the circulation to the brain and other parts of the body
  • strengthen the lungs and other organs
  • regulate irregular breathing such as hyperventilation and help to correct the problems this causes
  • improve sinus function
  • regulate irregular breathing such as hyperventilation and help to correct the problems this causes and improve sinus function
  • detoxify, for example by stimulating the lymphatic drainage
  • make spine and joints stronger and more flexible
  • tone and strengthen the muscles
  • reduce lactic acid levels
  • improve digestion and gut function
  • improve hormonal function
  • strengthen the immune system
  • energize and work on the energy centres known as chakras
  • create a sense of well being and inner peace by balancing mind, body, emotion and spirit
  • make one become more self aware and learn to listen to and respect the body

Many people with ME/CFS find ordinary yoga classes unsuitable as they may be too strenuous and so they may need to adapt yoga to suit their individual needs and activity levels. For example, in therapeutic yoga classes run by Sheffield Yoga for ME/CFS, standing yoga postures are adapted so they are done lying down, as orthostatic intolerance (the inability to stand for long) is a common problem. Some of the other more traditional postures are modified too. There is also a much greater emphasis on relaxation and breathing than in a normal yoga class and participants are advised to stay well within their own limits and not overdo it. Those who are more severely affected may find they want to start by only doing relaxation, breathing and meditation and nothing else involving movement.

Just doing yoga relaxation, visualisation, breathing and meditation with no actual physical movement at all can have many benefits and should not be underestimated Studies on yoga students with MS showed improvements after simply visualising postures.

Fionar Agombar, who is the author of 'Beat Fatigue with Yoga' and has ME/CFS herself, describes in her book how she had her central nervous system (CNS) tested on a 'heart rate variable' monitor and it was shown to be dysfunctional. She repeated the test after a period of deep relaxation and meditation and it showed a much more normal reading, indicating that yoga helped to calm her CNS.

One deep relaxation technique, yoga nidra, is a favourite amongst members of my local yoga for ME group, whether mildly, moderate or severely affected. An article on yoga nidra for those with ME/CFS can be found by clicking  here. Some articles about the effects of yoga nidra, meditation and relaxation can be found in Issue 11 of "Bindu", the magazine of the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School on the website www.yogameditation.com/articles/issues_of_bindu/bindu_11. This issue also refers to studies carried out on the beneficial effects of relaxation techniques on various illnesses including HIV infection, diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain, irregular blood pressure and asthma.

For more information on the benefits of yoga for people with ME/CFS please refer to the book 'Beat Fatigue with Yoga' by Fiona Agombar (Thorsons) or Angela Stevens' website www.angela-stevens.co.uk

Sheffield Yoga for ME/CFS
January 2005
updated January 2010

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