I will be ever grateful to the Rheumatologist who first diagnosed me with Sjogren’s in 2002. He finally put a name to the symptoms I’d been suffering from for at least a decade, and validated my concerns. However, I did not realize at the time, he was not very knowledgeable about the potential severity of Sjogren’s, or its treatment. In fact, he told me nothing of potential organ involvement, increased lymphoma risk, and other more serious consequences that could occur in years to come.
Upon diagnosis he explained I would require vigilant use of sunscreen and to stay out of the sun as much as possible (due to presence of the SS-A antibodies in my blood causing extreme sun-sensitivity), use over-the counter eye drops for my eyes and dry mouth products for my parched mouth if required. That was all. He did not address the fatigue, or the muscle and joint pain whatsoever.
I told him I had been keeping up with light exercise – a bit of walking, “Curves” gym workouts, and day-to-day housekeeping activities even though they wore me out. I asked if there was something, anything, he could give me to help with the pain, especially muscle pain which was more prevalent at that time, than joint pain. After all, it was those complaints along with the unrelenting fatigue, which brought me to the doctor over and over, not my mouth, eyes, or skin.
I did not expect to hear what he said next: “Actually, I have some patients who have told me that yoga has helped their pain more than anything else.” All I said was “okay”, thinking we had no yoga classes in the small community where I lived, at that time. I could do it on my own, but I thought I would just continue with Curves, and get regular massages which were soothing but had short-lasting results. So that is what I did, continued on with what I had been doing.
Eventually, after a few years I had trouble washing floors, scrubbing bathrooms, etc. without ending up stiff and in pain, leading me to regular physiotherapy visits. We hired a weekly housekeeper, which was cheaper than physiotherapy so I did not feel guilty but I still found my body getting very sore. Soon I was back to physio even though I was no longer doing household chores.
One day when going to the bank, I saw a new sign in the window of the same building: “Yoga for You”. The words of the Rheumatologist seven years earlier were suddenly back in my mind. By this time, yoga (thanks to Lululemon yoga pants! ha ) had gained mainstream popularity even outside of cities. Still, after spotting the sign I continued to walk and drive past it for about a year, thinking I could never do yoga with my tight sore muscles.
Finally one day, I decided to go in to get information about the classes, to just give it a whirl. I don’t recall what was in my mind in that moment, why I decided to try. Perhaps I was in so much pain I was desperate, or maybe it was a relatively “feel good” day and I was optimistic I could do yoga after all. Either would be plausible. The owner / instructor / yoga therapist – Tracy, was welcoming. She recommended “Gentle Restorative Yoga” as being best for me. It was time to test out the Rheumatologist’s advice.
I’d like to say I went to my first class and found it pleasurable, but I did not. The session started out easy enough – on the mat, but then we sat along the wall. Tracy said we could sit with our legs in any position. I saw some people sitting cross-legged so I did the same as we began to stretch our neck, with our head and back supported against the wall. Within 15 seconds of sitting cross-legged my hips were screaming. Tracy had said to “listen to your body” at the outset. My hips were definitely hollering “get out of this position”, so I stretched out my legs. Relief. When my body was not launching a protest during the first class, my mind was racing with thoughts. I had true “monkey mind”, as yogis call it. There were however enough positions, including Child’s Pose, Heart-Opening, and others in which my body was supported enough by a bolster, blocks etc. so I could actually relax and release into the pose. Again, I felt relief.
Though my first class was not as gentle on my body as I hoped, ever the optimist, I decided I would sign up for one session of several weeks to see how my body would respond. That one session of one hour per week, has now turned into two, hour and half classes, per week. I have been attending classes regularly for over six years now.
Additionally at home, every morning before I even get out of bed, I do 20-60 minutes of gentle restorative yoga poses to alleviate some of my morning joint stiffness, and muscles aches. Though I enjoy doing the poses at home, the yoga studio is where my body and mind respond best. It has become a sanctuary for me. Just entering the studio I sigh to let go of the rest of my day, breathe deeper, and relax. Instead of 15 seconds sitting cross-legged, on a good day, I can now do 15 minutes. Some days my “monkey mind” is busy for more than half a class, but sometimes I can let the thoughts come and go easily until they disappear completely, allowing me to focus only on my breath. My breathing is deeper, slower, and from my “belly”. An echocardiogram tech recently said during my echo, “wow, you are a good breather”; I knew why and couldn’t suppress a grin.
The Rheumatologist’s advice (well actually it was his patients’ advice – love and light to you all) was right – yoga is helping me with my Sjogren’s symptoms more than anything else. Though I still have pain, it is so much less if I keep up with my yoga practice (when Tracy takes vacation break I do feel the difference). And on the days the soreness is less tolerable, yoga has also given me the mental coping skills to let go, and just focus on breathing from my “belly” to relax. Yoga has been life-changing for me. I cannot imagine my life without it.
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” B.K.S. Lyengar
Note: As with searching for a doctor who is a good match for your needs, so it is the same with finding a yoga class with “goodness of fit”. Don’t go to what I call regular, basic class – “pretzel yoga” – if you need props and gentle poses at least to start off with. If you think yoga may be helpful for you, do not be discouraged if the first instructor, class, or studio environment is not meeting your needs – try another and another. Listen to your body, it will tell you when you have found the right one.