Yoga and Chronic Illnesses: Dealing with IBD

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This blog post was written by Claire Balmas. You can visit Claire’s blog here: 8petallotus.wordpress.com

My mother asked me to help out some dear souls, that are very close to my heart. When I was younger I had a chronic illness, and below is an article to help people with IBD. However these steps will help any one with a chronic illness and especially any one with digestion issues. The article is in three parts, one being an introduction to the practice of yoga and chronic illness including my story, the second is a sequence of asanas designed to help with digestion and flairs, and finally a guided meditation to help with the emotional and energetic bodies, and healing. Enjoy sweet friends! Please do let me know what you think below!

Yoga is a practice, yoga is a balance, and yoga is a great way to deal with the symptoms of any chronic illness, such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease)-Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (UC). With a combination of asana, breath and meditation; yoga often opens doors to a healthier lifestyle that will work for you, calm your symptoms and help you heal from the pain chronic condition can cause.

I myself suffered from UC ending in a J-pouch at the ripe old age of ten, then there was the constant struggle of dealing with aftereffects. At around the age of nine, I started down the great path of yoga, and by age 13 was a full fledge vegetarian. Eventually I became a vegan and was able to go off all of my medications, and stopped having flares, from my surgery, for about ten years now.

Granted everyone has their own way of dealing with IBD and the off shoots. I myself found that the ways towards the traditional Indian healing methods, including yoga, diet and Spirit, not only calmed my condition, but also helped me to heal from the emotional pain that it caused as well. My love grew so much two years ago I became certified yoga instructor, and plan on going to India the first chance I get.

If you are suffering from IBD and want to get into yoga fear not! At the end of the article I will post a few poses that are special to digestion problems and how to do them in a sequence that will help. I warn that for any first time yogi, the best thing to do is seek out a good studio that you feel comfortable in and like.
Talk to your instructors and tell them your conditions and concerns. With the outlines by the Yoga Alliance on instructors, many of us are open and aware of our students. The goal for any instructor is create a safe environment for their students to explore themselves threw yoga.

Asana, or the physical practice of yoga poses, has great effects on the body. Each pose is placed together in a sequence that will help balance the body and heal it with a gentle opening. Here is the place on the mat where students ease into themselves and the open tight spots within their own bodies. Even attempting poses, doing modifications, or preparation for a pose, will give you many of the benefits of the full expression of a pose. Just concentrate on what is right for you, and eventually you and your body will be ready to move on to the full expression.

My general rule for students is, if it HURTS do NOT do it. Yoga is about exploring you for yourself, so do not worry about if the student next to you can do a headstand or touch their head to their knee in a forward fold and you can not. This practice is about your own exploration and gentle opening of your body, if you strain you can actually make yourself worse. Listen to the messages your body gives you.

Breathing is the next big step in yoga. While practicing asana, it is recommended-heavily-to practice the breathing technique of ujjayi, or victorious breath. Generally it is described as being a nostril breathing, that reaches deep into the diaphragm, constricts the throat and causes an ocean like sound.

Breathing during asana is as important as an aquarium is to a fish, it opens up the body and can be used to heal. Breath is the way that our body gets oxygen to our organs. Thus when in a pose, focusing on the tight parts of the body and ‘sending’ the breath there, will help your body open. Further the breath is used as a focal point in asana, while listening to the breath one can stay in the moment and separate the ego-mind stuff-from the body. Otherwise, while breathing you can tell when it is your mind keeping you from a pose, or your body that is hurting.

There are other wonderful breathing techniques in yoga that help open up the mind and the body. Anything that is to work with breath, or energy/prana is called pranayama. Though ujjayi is the only one used in asana practice, incorporating other forms of pranayama is very beneficial to any yoga practice.
I feel the most beneficial part to any healing yoga practice is meditation. During my Teacher Training, I began working with a group called Higher Ground, teaching yoga to HIV and AIDS patients. While teaching them I found that meditation was the best way to help people open up and heal from a condition.

I like working with the charkas, the seven energy points in the body. These points ‘rule’ over different organs in the body and different emotions. There is much work on charkas out there, and I find them to be a great tool for healing. I use a guided meditation in Savasana–the last pose of an asana practice used for rest. Savasana is one of the most important poses in asana, because it allows the body to soak in the wonderful asana practice that just happened.
Having opened up the body with asana, at the end of practice is a great time to begin to open up the energetic and emotional aspects of a person. Chakras are said to hold in the emotions that were too intense for us to deal with at the time. The more you work with them, the more you open up to reasons behind actions, and can heal.
For example, say have low self-esteem. You begin to work with Manipura Charka, third charka that rules ego and self-esteem, and you find a repressed memory from childhood of some kids picking on you in middle school because of your IBD. These emotions may have been too hurtful for you to be able to cope with them at the time, so you suppressed them, and to help you pick up your self-esteem, you have to heal from this first. Often times these excess energies cause cause express reaction, like maybe the kids that made fun of you were blond, so now for some reason you have an aversion to blonds causing you to miss many wonderful people in life. As you heal, you will find many of these aversions drop away on their own, feel lighter, and usually the part of the body ‘ruled’ by that charka will inevitably feel lighter and less stressed. (Hence the idea of stress causing physical harm)

The meditation that I use will be given below after the asana flow. If you plan on practicing this alone or without a studio, just think the meditation in your own head while laying in Savasana. However I again recommend if you are new to yoga looking into a good studio. Studios are valuable to beginning, and all, yogis. Studios are often times their own community of people with ideas that can help in the journey. Further being in a class with a instructor is always safer than a video or at home practice. An instructor is a third party that can see if you are going too far in a pose, not far enough, or holding a pose in a harmful way to your body. Until you know your own body, when to go deeper and when to back off, please try and practice with someone who can help you learn to avoid any possible harm.
Yoga as a practice helps open up and heal the body, mind and Spirit. When practiced, for many it reduces stress thus reducing flairs and helping heal the body. It is not a permeant solution for everyone, but it worked for me. Yoga led me to a vegan diet which led me to be medicine and symptom free.
Much love my sweets, AUM Namah Shivaya!

Twenty Minuet flow designed for digestive health and IBD

Centering before you begin:
Sit on the ground, pillow or block, in a position that is comfortable for you. Pull the flesh back and away from your sit bones, close your eyes and breath. Clear your mind and feel your body, your breath, and see how the two interact with each other. Feel supported by the earth underneath you, begin to breath threw your nose. Inhale feeling your lungs fill up from the bottom, the middle and finally the top. Exhale in the same slow way. Slightly contract the muscles on the back of your throat causing an ocean like sound to accompany your breath. Begin a slight contraction in your lower abs, slightly curving your tail bone under and straightening your spine. (Always remember to try and keep the spine straight thew out an asana practice, and keep these lower abs contracted to protect the lower back)

Set an intention for your practice, one for yourself and one for something outside yourself. Think of a person, place or event that could use some extra healing, and on your next exhale feel that energy going there and helping.

Warmups, gently waking up the spine with the six movements:
Now begin moving when your body tells you removing any props you may be sitting on, when you feel ready. Inhale and slowly lift your arms over you head, exhale and slightly tip your hands to the right, stay here for three breaths. Inhale back to center and repeat on the left. Feel your side body slowly opening up, breath into any tightness you may feel.

Next, as you exhale, fold forward, stopping when it hurts. Keep in mind our first forward fold of the day is often very tight, especially if you practice first thing in the morning. Let go of any expectations that you may have for yourself in any asana, every moment is new. Breath in your forward fold, and stay here for three breaths, on your next inhale come back up.

Inhale your hands overhead, then as you exhale swing your back behind you. Inhale one more time and as you exhale slowly ease into a back bend. Only go as far as you feel comfortable, and stay for three breaths. Inhale and slowly come back up.

Come back to center, take a free inhale and exhale. Moving into twists, keep in mind that if you begin by twisting to the right you will help constipation, to the left will help diarrhea. Move according to your symptoms. Keep this in mind for the practice and start on the left. Whichever side you need to start with, inhale that arm up over head, and exhale it behind you close to your spine almost like a kickstand for support with your back. Place your other arm on the knee of the side you will twist to, inhale lengthen the spin, exhale twist from the abdomen as far as you feel comfortable. Stay here for three breaths. Inhale come back to center, and repeat on the other side.

The practice (if you do not feel warmed up yet, keep working on the six movements)
A few notes on asana with IBD or digestion poses: keep the twisting light, be weary of deep forward folding, knees to the chest, and doing a lot of seated postures. These things tend to sped things up digestion, and there for should be explored slowly, and with lots of causation. That being said I have found that too many standing poses tend to leave me feeling too energized and ‘flaky’, so I get bursts of energy and run around from thing to thing without really accomplishing anything. If your finding that seated poses are causing you lots of problems, try longer centering before and after practice, or lay in Savasana for a longer period of time to calm the energy down a bit.

(Tadasana, mountain pose) Start standing, with the outside edges of your feet parallel, hands in prayer at your heart center. Close your eyes and breath. Lift up your toes and feel the support of the earth under your feet. Tip slightly front, back and side to side, notice that you will not fall. Put your toes back on the earth, breath and reconnect with your intention.

Inhale, lifting your arms over head. Exhale, folding forward and bending at the hips. Inhale lengthening the spine, exhale returning to the full forward fold and grounding your hands on the earth. Step back with your right foot then your left to an expression of downward facing dog. Hands shoulder distance apart, arms outstretched, shoulders melting away from the ears. Feet hip distance apart, with a slight bed in the knees, and the heals inching towards the ground. Spine straight and the lower abdomen slightly contracted. Breath here for a few, then when you are ready exhale, and step the right foot forward between the hands, then the left. Inhale lengthen the spine, exhale release then inhale coming all the way back up. Exhale your hands back the prayer at your heart. Repeat until you feel warm, alternating the right and left foot steeping back.

Virabhadrasana I & II, Warrior poses I & II; Start in Tadasana pose, feel grounded and take in a large inhale. Exhale stepping your right foot back, about the length of your torso, slightly to the side of your left foot. Turn your right foot out, so it is perpendicular to your left, and point your left in front of you. Exhale bending your left knee to a close 90 degree angle, without your knee going beyond your toes. Inhale your hands over head, maybe binding them in a prayer pose maybe not, and slightly turn your hips to square to the front of the room. Check your self and make sure your contracting, your spine is straight and lengthened, feel your feet grounded supporting you on the ground. Gaze straight in front of you, looking at a single point. After five breaths,, inhale bringing yourself back to center. Turn your left foot out, and turn your right foot to be pointed behind you and repeat on the other side.

Inhale come back to center, and come back into Virbhadrasana I on with your left foot. Exhale your hands to your heart, inhale open them up (so that one is in front of you and one behind you. Square your hips to the right side of the room, and turn your head to the front of the room. Check yourself for your contractions, and your posture. Breath here for five breaths, then switch to the other side.

Exhale and come back to Tadasana.

Trikonasana and Parvritta Trikonasana, triangle and revolved triangle (These may require the use of a block, or prop for you hands have it ready before going into the pose); Exhale, and set up your stance as if you were going to do Virabhadrasana. Turn your left foot to point to the front of the room, and your right foot out. Square your hips to the right side of the room, inhale lengthening your spine. As you exhale reach to the front of the room with your left hand as far as you can, then begin to come down. Rest your left hand on a block, your shin, ankle, foot, or ground, what ever feels best. Inhale your right arm up so that there is a straight line from the tips of your right hand to the tips of your left, and if it feels good, turn your head to look at the ceiling. Check your self, your contractions, your spine and your breath. Make sure to breath! Stay here for five breaths, then switch sides.

Come back into Trikonasan on your left side. Exhale your right hand down and ground it on a prop, your shin, ankle, foot, or the ground. Inhale your left hand up, and if it would feel good, turn your gaze skyward. This slight twisting will help regulate digestion, because it is not too intense. Check yourself, your breath, contractions and your spine. After five breaths, exhale and look towards the ground, then inhale and windmill yourself back up. Switch sides.

Ustrasana, camel pose; Come back to Tadasana. Exhale and come down on your knees with them hip distance apart (if your knees do not agree with the hard floor, use a pillow underneath them without compromising the line of energy from the top of your head to your knees), with your thighs perpendicular to the earth. Place your hands on your lower back with your fingers pointed to the earth. Inhale lengthen your spine, then as you exhale slowly bend backwards, as far as feels good. Make sure that your shoulders are staying down and back, your contracting your lower abdomen, and you are breathing. Stay here for five to eight breaths, then inhale and come back up. Repeat three times, breathing into the tight spots. This pose helps stretch the abdomen and strengthens the muscles.

Sarvangasana, shoulder stand; Inversions are great for releasing tension on the digestion track that gravity causes, however if you do not feel right about doing an inversion there will be a modification at the end which promotes the same benefits. When you are done with Ustrasana, lay down on your back with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent, and arms parallel to your sides and hands flat and open on with palms on the earth. As you exhale contract your lower abdomen, flattening your back to the earth, inhale and bring your legs up to form a 90 degree angle with your torso. You can stop here, if this feels right. (Staying here for a few breaths will help you build up the strength for the full expression) Exhale your feet behind your head keeping your legs straight and curving your back slightly. Inhale your feet up over head, and creating a base with your shoulders supporting the rest of your body. Stay here as long as you want, but never turn the neck to the side, keep it straight and your gaze on your feet. When you are ready to come out, exhale your feet back behind your head, then slowly, vertebra by vertebra roll back down to laying position.

Alternatively, come to a wall and place your right hip as close as you can get, swing your legs up the wall, it should feel as if you are sitting on the wall with your back flat on the floor. Start with your hands parallel to your body, inhale your lower back up off the earth, and slide a block, or solid prop underneath, avoiding setting it on the lower curve of the spine. This slight inversion, legs up the wall, will give you the full benefits of Sarvangasana, if this is where your are, this is a beautiful place to be.

Matsyasana, fish pose; to balance Sarvangasana, there is Matsyasana, which if you practice one it is imperative to finish the flow, and balance out the body. While you are laying on your back, snuggle your arms into your body parallel. Inhale pressing down with your forearms, and lift your chest, exhale tip your head back and rest your crown on the earth. Stay here five breaths, then inhale lifting your chest, then exhale release back down to laying down.
Twist; finally to bring the body into full balance and be ready for Savasana we have to twist and ‘reset’ the spine. Exhale bringing your knees into your chest and opening your arms to each side. Depending on your symptoms, exhale your knees to either the right or the left. Then if possible, turn your head in the opposite direction. Stay here for five breaths, inhale back to center then switch sides.

Savasana, resting pose; Inhale back to center, and release your feet to each corner of your mat, or hip distance apart. Bring your arms along your body with space between them and your torso, with palms up and shoulders rolled slightly back. Here you want to be comfortable, use a pillow under the knees, or your head, lay a blanket on top of you, do whatever would feel nice. Take in a big inhale threw your mouth, then exhale letting out a little sigh. Close your eyes and return to your normal breathing. Let go.

The meditation (use in Savasana before final rest)

Once you are comfortable laying on your back with palms up, shoulders rolled back, and eyes closed. Breath and relax, come out of ujjayi breath and return to your regular breathing pattern. Clear your mind

Begin to see a beautiful bright red orb forming between your legs just below your gentiles. This is the first charka, Muladhara chakra. This chakra rules connection, support, money and community. Focus on this red orb, just observe it, do not try and change it. Then as you inhale feel this beautiful red energy flow up your spine and threw your body, feel connected and supported as you do this.

Next move up the the space just above the gentiles between the hips. See a beautiful bright orange orb there. This is the second charka, Svadhistana charka. This chakra rules the sex organs, the bladder, lower intestines and everything fluid in the body. It deals with sexual energy, creativity and fluidity. Watch this beautiful orange orb, see its size, if it moves, what is its shape? Then as you inhale, watch this beautiful orange energy move up your spine and threw your body, move with the flow, and feel creative.

Now move just slightly above the hips to the solar plexus, just below the bellybutton. See the beautiful yellow orb there. This is the third charka, Manipura chakra. This chakra rules self-esteem, ego, confidence, and the balance between them. Notice the color and size of this chakra. How large? How small? As you inhale feel this beautiful yellow energy flow up your spine and threw your body, feel confident and humble with this.

Bring your attention to the heart. The heart is either green or pink in color, use whatever one comes to you first. The heart is the fourth charka, Anahata charka. Anahata rules the chest, breasts, arms, circulatory system and lungs. Anahata also holds all of the deeds that we have never forgiven ourselves for, love and kindness. As you breath this beautiful heart energy up your spine and threw your body, forgive yourself for the past, feel love fill you.

Focus on your throat, see a beautiful turquoise orb of energy there. This is the fifth chakra, Vishuddha chakra. Vishuddha rules the modes of communication, speaking and hearing. It allows to hear the truth in other’s words, and to speak truthfully and clearly. Notice this orb, how fast or slow is it moving? Inhale and bring that beautiful energy up, and threw your body, feel understanding and clarity with this.

Notice the place between your eyebrows on your forehead. See a beautiful dark midnight blue orb there. This is the sixth chakra, Ajna chakra. This the the space of the true Self, the Spirit, and rules the aspect of sight, both inner and outer. Ajna gives us wisdom and insight. As you inhale this beautiful energy up to your crown and threw your body, feel wise and true.

Finally notice at the crown of your head a beautiful royal purple orb of color. This is the seventh charka, Sahasrara charka. It connects us the whatever power we believe is above and/or greater than us. It could be God/dess, the Universe, or just Karma. Whatever you believe to be above you, connect with it threw this charka. Notice the orb and ask yourself how you can be more like this power above you. Exhale and feel this beautiful connection as a blanket of pure white light wraps your body. Feel open, fluid, free and safe.

Now rest sweet ones!

When you are ready to come out of your rest (and please take at least five minuets or so) slowly bring awareness back into your body. Deepen your breath, then wiggle your fingers and toes. Start making circles with your wrists, ankles and finally your neck. Curl up into the fetal position and lay to either your left or your right, whatever feels best. Feel refreshed and rebirthed threw your practice. Each moment has never been lived before, it is always new and fresh. Slowly come back up to a seated position. Bring your hands to a prayer position at your heart bow and say “Namast”

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