I’ve talked about my struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) here before, and in the past year, I’ve also developed a mild case of fibromyalgia. The two conditions unfortunately often go hand in hand, for reasons that are still somewhat of a mystery. Because of these two illnesses, it can be a challenge to exercise in ways that will not aggravate my symptoms, not to mention the fact that I’ve never been much of a “Yay! Exercise!” person. I’d had some luck with modified yoga moves designed to help the lymphatic, nerve and digestive systems, but I wondered if there were moves I could do that felt a little less intense. I knew that what I was trying could not be maintained all that well over time without starting with something more gentle first.
A woman I know through an online chronic illness support group told me about Beat Fatigue with Yoga, and mentioned that the author, Fiona Agombar, also has CFS. Since she is currently in “remission” — if that’s the right word — I figured she must be on to something. I ordered the second edition of the book, published in 2002, because it had special revised chapters for people who have CFS. The rest of the book is not primarily aimed at that condition, but at anyone who is having trouble with fatigue.
Agombar breaks down her methods for combating fatigue as such:
- Practice the yoga postures given later — every day if possible
- Take enough rest and relaxation.
- Eat a very nutritious diet and drink plenty of water.
- Practice the yoga breathing techniques given in Chapter 4. Check your own breathing rate.
- Sit outside in the sunshine when you can — we take in prana or energy from the food we eat, the air we breathe and from sunshine.
- Meditate for 20 minutes a day — see Chapter 11
- Try and develop a positive attitude, set yourself goals in life so that you know in which direction you are going.
Each chapter goes more in depth with these topics, and the bulk of the book depicts and describes specific yoga postures and what they can do for you.
Some of the advice does come off a bit hippie-dippy, what with tips like “Don’t spend too much time in metal buildings” because they “block the Earth’s natural prana,” or “Try to wear only natural fibers.” I mean, I wear a lot of cotton, but you will take my nicely stretchy cotton/spandex-blend yoga pants from my cold, dead hands.
And while I really don’t care so much what color different chakras are, I didn’t mind reading about them because there’s a historical and Buddhist aspect to learning about them. I’m a rather lazy Buddhist, and a recently self-identified one, so that’s not the sort of information I instinctively know.
In Sanskrit, chakra means a wheel or vortex — and that is what a chakra is, a spinning vortex which takes in energy to feed all areas of the human system: your physical and your subtle body (‘subtle’ is the yogic term for our energy field). Chakras work on a physical, emotional and spiritual level and, as we shall see, each one relates to a particular area of the body.
Fair enough. I do know that when one part of me is not feeling so well, it can throw everything else out of whack, so to speak. Think about how a migraine can make one sick to their stomach, or how worsening depression can make one’s body ache.
I could have done without the food-related guilt, but I know that’s just me wishing that I naturally wanted to make a better effort to eat healthy, when the reality is, I don’t do too badly. Yeah, I order pizza a lot, and I still eat meat (though not every day, and no pork at all), but I also eat a lot of beans, vegetables and whole grains. Because I have lactose intolerance (which predates my CFS by a decade), I already have to limit what I eat somewhat — I take lactase supplements for the pizza, if you wondered — so having anyone tell me what I “should” eat tends to make me cranky. I can’t even eat real butter or good desserts, so lay off, you know? Also, telling me that I should eat organic as much as possible, leads me to get all, “Oh, tell that to my bank account.”
Really, the food portion of the book is not all that heavy-handed and it is blessedly brief. My attitude is perhaps over-sensitive, but I do appreciate that Agombar says, “Do not embark on a calorie-controlled diet as this will seriously curtail your nutritional and energy intake. If you are eating proper nutritious food, you don’t need to diet.” Truth.
Agombar’s instructions on deep breathing and meditation techniques are quite helpful, however, though I am still trying to make them a regular habit. There are also visualization exercises for those who find that more helpful than a general “stilling of the mind.” It honestly depends on the day, what method I find more personally useful. If I am really stressed out, I need to concentrate on something else, which is when something like visualizations or thinking about a specific theme are better. If I am just trying to relax and settle, following my chain of thoughts without getting too involved with them works all right. The thing about meditation is that it’s a practice. I have to remind myself that it takes awhile to feel like you know what you’re doing, and that even a successful handful of minutes is better than nothing.
As far as the yoga poses themselves go, it was nice to see that I was on the right track. Many of the stretches and twists I’d tried before were featured in this book, and I like how Agombar suggests moves specific to the severity of CFS a person has. My CFS is moderate with occasional (wonderful) edges into mild territory — I can cook dinner, do a bit of laundry, and leave the house, but I sleep poorly, my mobility is rather creaky and achy, and my energy levels vary depending on the time of day. I couldn’t keep my part-time coffee bar job because it was making me worse, but I’m still able to read and write at pre-CFS levels on a good day, and nearly able on a not-so-good day.
Photos accompany every pose, and there are modified methods for many of them to accommodate people with illness-related physical challenges. Even if someone has mild CFS, she recommends first trying the poses for someone who has it more moderately, just so you know how your body will react.
You need to learn to tune yourself in — to be aware of the difference between a ‘healthy’ tiredness and the ‘unhealthy,’ poisoned feeling you get after too much activity, or if you have pushed yourself too far. Listen to your body. Remember that a relapse from overdoing things can occur up to three days after activity.
That pesky “three day” thing can also make it hard to remember what exactly you did to make yourself feel awful, so I imagine that having a regular yoga schedule would help me keep a ‘baseline’ of how I feel, not to mention serve to jog my memory when it comes to additional activity. Sometimes I have moments of “But I didn’t do anything!” when my body is throwing a fit, until I remember, “Oh yeah, three days ago, I went grocery shopping and also saw a friend and also took the kids to [wherever.]” Pacing is something that I’ve become better at, but it’s still a process.
I admit that I haven’t fully incorporated the poses from Beat Fatigue with Yoga into my everyday life, so I can’t speak to how much they really will increase energy levels when carried on for an extended period of time. However, the small strides I’ve made have helped, and it’s just a matter of making the effort on my part. Like anything self-help or exercise related, your results may vary. Still, if depleted energy levels are an issue for you, I don’t think it would hurt to investigate this book. I’m guessing that over time, I will use it as a guide, but not a bible. My body and my attitude will decide the rest.