The Healing Power of Yoga: How Practicing Helped Me Cope with Pain
For one woman struggling with a deadly genetic disease, a daily practice provides so much more than stress relief—it's truly changed her life
Many of us have dealt with a painful injury or illness at some point in our lives-some more serious than others. But for Christine Spencer, a 30-year-old from Collingswood, NJ, dealing with severe pain is an ever-present fact of life.
Spencer was diagnosed at 13 with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a debilitating connective tissue disorder related to fibromyalgia. It causes hyper-mobility, muscle tension, constant pain, and in some cases, death.
When her symptoms worsened and caused her to withdraw from college, doctors wrote her a prescription for a cocktail of medications, including painkillers. "This was the only way western medicine knows how to deal with disease," Spencer says. "I did some physical therapy, but no one gave me a long-term plan to help me heal." For months, she was completely bedridden, and unable to carry on with any semblance of a normal life.
At 20, Spencer was encouraged to try yoga by the person who knows best: her mom. She picked up a DVD, bought a yoga mat, and started practicing at home. While it seemed to help, she didn't practice consistently. In fact, after some of her doctors discouraged it, she gave up her fledgling practice. "The problem with EDS is that people believe that nothing will help-that's what I believed for about eight years," Spencer says.
But in January 2012, she began to think differently. "I woke up one day and realized that being on painkillers all the time was numbing me, shutting me off from life," she recalls. "That's when I decided to try yoga again-but this time, I knew I had to do things differently. I needed to do it every day." So she started practicing with videos on YouTube, and eventually found Grokker, a subscription video site that features many different types of yoga flows and offers access to personal trainers who provide guidance.
After about four months of doing same gentle practice, Spencer suddenly felt a shift in consciousness. "Everything changed from that moment on," she says. "Yoga completely transformed the way I think and feel about my pain. Now, I'm more able to simply witness my pain, rather than be attached to it."
"When I pull myself out of bed to do yoga, it really changes my mindset for the day," she says. Whereas before, she'd focus on negative thoughts about not feeling well, now, through certain mindfulness and breathing techniques, Spencer is able to carry positive vibes from her morning practice throughout the day. (You can do this too. Learn more about the benefits of yogic breathing here.)
While she still experiences EDS symptoms, yoga has helped alleviate her pain, circulation problems, and muscle tension. Even on days when she can only squeeze in 15 minutes, she never misses practice.
And yoga hasn't just changed the way Spencer physically moves-it's also changed the way she eats. "I'm more aware of the way food affects me," she says. "I started avoiding gluten and dairy, both of which have been associated with connective tissue disorders like EDS, which has greatly helped in limiting my pain." She feels so passionately about this way of eating that Spencer blogs about her gluten-free diet at The Gluten Free Yogi. (If you're considering the gluten-free switch, check out these 6 common gluten-free myths.)
She's also pursuing ways to help other people with the disease. Currently, she is in teacher training-hoping to bring the healing power of yoga to others. "I'm not sure if I'll teach in a studio or maybe help people with EDS through Skype, but I'm very open to how I can best serve others." She also founded a Facebook page that serves as a support group for others with EDS, fibromyalgia, and related diseases. "People who come to my page say it helps them cope just to have a community, even if they're not there for the yoga," she explains.
The main message Spencer wants to spread: "Just wake up and do it. You'll thank yourself later." Like any goal in fitness or in life, getting out of bed and over that initial hurdle is the first step to success.