Chronic Illness and…Yoga Nidra, and the Boner Killers


This is the second blog in a series which I am writing on my experiences with different types of meditation and mindfulness. I will weigh up my experienced pros and cons of each, and explore the potential benefits of them for a person living with serious, chronic, or terminal illness. You can read the first piece in the series, on mindfulness, here

With love and light xxx 

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gumby

I have a disorder which means, among other things, that I am the human Gumby. I am a near 6 foot vision of elastic limbs and a chronic lack of co-ordination that borders on being classed as a pathology in its own right. I can partially dislocate my sacroiliac joint from sneezing. I once partially dislocated my hip so loudly during sex that the guy lost his boner.

But I digress.

I am too bendy. This means that I cannot practice yoga. Yes, I know. It is an oxymoron to profess to be a blogger, and not practice yoga. More importantly, it is inconceivable that I can have a blog and instagram account, and not blog photos of me contorting myself at days break.  Reality is, if I do practice yoga/sneeze/pour a glass of orange juice, a whole lot of people are going to lose their boners. But there is one thing I am really good at (kinda).

Sleep.

My condition causes, amongst other thing (and boner killing properties), excessive and chronic fatigue. During one particularly unwell period of my life, I successfully slept for 22 hours, and I didn’t so much as wet the bed. My family however did think that I had died. I will note that they did not panic or send a rescue party to save me.

Yoga Nidra is defined by the incredibly reliable source that is Wikipedia as “a sleep like state which yogis report to experience during their meditations. Yoga nidra is among the deepest possible states of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness”. In short? It is a way of meditating in which if you get it right, you fall asleep and have a great sleep. And if you get it right in another way, you feel intense and profound relaxation. Ergo; you cannot fuck it up.

yogi bear

Admittedly, I had to google what a ‘Yogi’ was. Perhaps it is a sign of my age that I thought it was Yogi Bear stretched out on a yoga mat in the smiling bear position. However you wish to label yourself, yoga nidra is something which is possible for anyone of any physical ability. Whether you are an athlete, paralysed, or somewhere in the middle like me, you are able to practice yoga nidra. This means that it is one of the more accessible forms of relaxation, particularly for the disability and illness community.

Yoga Nidra stems from an Indian yoga tradition, and is simply whole body focused relaxation. The underlying theories of Yoga Nidra is that it permits you to become aware of your inner energy forces, or “prana”. This is a little too Yogi Bear for me, and instead I prefer to focus on the scientific properties of the practice.

To practice yoga nidra, you do need to have the ability to hear. This does mean that it is not accessible for people with hearing impairment or deafness. In future pieces I will explore more accessible relaxation practices for people who are hearing impaired. To prepare for Yoga Nidra, you are encouraged to turn your phone off or on silent, and be in a space which is quiet, and where you will not be interrupted. You are instructed to take care of anything which has the potential to be distracting; remembering that you have not set an alarm, or have not closed the window. You will require an audio recording of Yoga Nidra. I will post some of my preferred resources at the end of this post.

There is a specific physical position which is encouraged for Yoga Nidra. If you wish to, and are able to, you are instructed to lie on your back, with your arms away from your body, palms facing upwards. Feet are encouraged to be in line with your hips or shoulders, and your toes falling outwards. Whilst this is the encouraged position for Yoga Nidra, with a physical condition it is not always possible. In my personal circumstances, I am often not able to maintain this position. In my experience, not being able to do so does not reduce the effects of the practice. The overwhelming message of the practice is to be comfortable, whatever that may mean for you.

heart yoga

You are encouraged to close your eyes and listen to the recording. Initially you will focus on your breath, being instructed on taking deep, deliberate breaths. Again, this is not always possible if you have a chronic condition. I have restrictive lung disease and reduced contractility of my heart, so this is again something which I struggle with. But it is more important to be aware of your breath than to control it.

You are then typically guided through a ‘rotation of awareness’. A typical script will go something like ‘Left thumb. Left pointer. Left middle finger. Left ring finger. Left little finger. Left wrist’ and so forth. Your rotation will continue throughout the body, focusing on the hands more often than other parts of the body. You may be encouraged to experience the sensation of lightness, then heaviness, length and then width.

Ultimately, the experience of Yoga Nidra is to be aware of your experience, and to have the ability to feel more pleasurable parts of your body, as opposed to your mind being focused on your pain or discomfort.

More importantly to the science student in me (despite my brother saying that Psychology isn’t a real science), research is demonstrating the positive effects of Yoga Nidra on physiological and mental health. Research into the benefits of mindfulness upon health is an emerging area of focus for science, however early results are highly encouraging.

A 2012 review of Yoga Nidra and it’s therapeutic benefits published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation found that Yoga Nidra benefited many physiological and psychological conditions (Yogitha, 2012). Through systematic review of studies which have investigated the effects of Yoga Nidra, this particular journal article has been able to summarise the benefits found in various conditions. The list and some key points can be found at the end of this piece, as well as the reference.

nude yoga

As always, it is incredibly important to note that Yoga Nidra is not a cure. I practice Yoga Nidra up to four times a week. But no matter how often I practice, I will not cure myself of Marfan Syndrome. It has not significantly improved my quality of life, and it has not meant that I can stop my traditional treatments. I have however been able to reduce how much analgesia I require at night time.

Yoga Nidra does however mean that for an hour a night, a few times a week, I get to experience my body in a way that is impossible for the other 23 hours of the day. I can feel light when my body has left me in chains all day. I can feel the creases in my finger tips rather than the aching deep within my bones. I can feel grounded when all I want to do is faint, my head light and stuffed with cotton wool. For sixty minutes, I get to experience my body in a way which is exciting, pleasurable, confronting, and deeply peaceful.

Yoga Nidra has its faults. It is sadly not accessible for people who are hearing impaired, it can be boring at times, and it can be frightening to try and control your breath if you have lung or heart disease (I have experienced this panic). I now understand that I need to do what works for me and my body. That means no Yoga Nidra pose. It means breathing in a way that my heart and lungs deem fit.

And most of all? I don’t kill any boners.

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At all times, consult with your treating healthcare professional about any alternative practices you intend to try. These are only proven correlations, or links, between yoga nidra and benefits to your health. Mostly, yoga nidra is used in conjunction with traditional treatment. There is no proof of causation. You may see your benefits, you may not. But there is no proof to say that yoga nidra will be the reason you saw benefits; just that it could be. I cannot stress this enough. We have seen the danger of enough health bloggers recently. Be safe, always x

Source: Yogitha, 2012. 

  • Psychiatric Diseases- particularly neurotic and anxiety disorders, in conjunction with traditional treatment
  • Psychosomatic Diseases- physical diseases in which mental health plays a significant role
  • Problems of children- Maladaptive conditions and hyperactivity
  • Drug Addiction- Used in Psychiatric units to reduce tranquilliser dependency. Additionally, suicide preventive technique under strict monitoring.
  • Insomnia-Definite results witnessed
  • Tobacco, Alcohol Addiction- Reducing tension to reduce reliance on tobacco and alcohol to cope with stressors
  • Degenerative Diseases- A very accessible technique for people with severe disabilities
  • Pain- Reduces migraine pain through stimulation of the pituitary gland. 81% of participants found pain relief through use of Yoga Nidra.
  • Arthritis- Management of chronic arthritis pain
  • Pregnancy and Menstrual Problems- To assist ‘natural’ childbirth. Also found to be a successful alternative to drug treatment for chronic period pain.
  • Geriatrics- Succesfully used in increasing confidence in elderly people, and assisting their transition to old age psychologically.
  • Asthma- Reduction in severity and frequency of attacks, and dependency on medications. Absolutely crucial you continue with your biomedical management of the disease. Yoga Nidra cannot stop an asthma attack. Witnessed improvement in spirometry results.
  • Colon Diseases- Some participants cured of Ulcerative Colitis following traditional treatment and yoga nidra. This is a correlation, NOT causation. What does this mean? There is a link. There is no proof it’s the reason for improvement.
  • Cancer- Improvement in survival rates of patients using Yoga Nidra in conjunction with Radiotherapy. The relaxation is linked to white blood cells attacking cancer cells. Again, this is a LINK and NOT a proven CAUSE.
  • Cardiovascular Disease- Preventetive and management technique in degenerative and ischaemic heart disease. Appears to reduce cardiac strain. Excellent preventative technique for Cardiac Disease in conjunction with other means, by promoting a relaxed lifestyle.
  • Hypertension- Numerous clinical trials demonstrating that Yoga Nidra alone, or in addition to traditional treatment, can successfully treat mild to moderate hypertension. Systolic readings reduced by 15-20mmHg and 10mmHG diastolic readings after just three weeks of practice.
  • Stress- Symptomatic reduction in first three stages of stress related illness (Alarm stage, Resistance Stage, Exhaustion Stage).

Audio Yoga Nidra I recommend; It can take time to find the style which works for you. I prefer to listen to women, as I find it more calming. You may prefer a male voice, or a different approach. Youtube and Spotify are a gold mine of Yoga Nidra guided audio clips. Have fun, explore, and always, be safe. 

Yoga Nidra with Elena Mirinov 

Yoga Nidra with Jennifer Reis

Yoga Nidra with The John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre 

Reference: Yogitha, B. (2012). Yoga Nidra and its Therapeutic Applications. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation, 1(4), 21-25. Retrieved from: jpisonline.com/admin/php/uploads/111_pdf.pdf