CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can be debilitating. It causes all kinds of non-specific symptoms including weakness, impaired memory, and fatigue for no reason, loss of concentration, varied muscle pains, headaches, sore throat, insomnia and apathy. The list of ailments is also sometimes called Fibromyalgia, or ‘yuppie flu.’ Although the symptoms of CFS have not been conclusively agreed upon by physicians for diagnosis, the illness can last for years. To the added distress of the physician trying to diagnosis the illness, and the patient suffering from it, many of the symptoms are often indicative of other problems, and must be ruled out first, so the process of diagnosis can be slow in allopathic medicine. Many sufferers of CFS report having lowered physical and mental activity when symptoms are bad, and often lose hope of feeling better. Yogic medicine may succeed where allopathic medicine falls short, and be able to offer a cure for this troubling set of symptoms.
Some allopathic doctors might prescribe exercise to sufferers of CFS thinking that the patient needs to move away from a sedentary lifestyle. Some doctors sometimes even think their patients are lazy or have some form of hypochondria, but the feelings of pain and tiredness are very real symptoms of system low on energy. Yoga addressed the root of the problem, because instead of exhausting the body further, as traditional exercise might, it re-stores energy in the body for use in healing itself. Yoga does this primarily through pranayama (breathing exercise), relaxation, meditation and in this case, gentle, restorative asana.
Breathing: Breathing is essential for regulating the life force, or Prana. Pranayama is a way to control this life force. But breath control is not only discussed in yogic traditions. It is studied in many of the world’s spiritual traditions. In yogic science, Prana travels through our bodies in what are known as ‘nadis’ or channels. There are over 72,000 nadis in the body. Through slow, deep breathing we allow the life force to travel freely through the nadis, bringing life to all our body, both the physical aspect and the subtle. When all energy has been drained from the physical body, then we must start to rebuild it from even smaller building blocks than cells and even DNA. Prana is thought to be even finer than this. There are several dozen different exercises one can practice to redirect life force into the cells, but a simple yogic breath is a great way to begin. To practice this breath, sit tall with the knees folded underneath oneself either in Padmasana or Sukkhasana. Make sure you sit as tall as you can, and if this is uncomfortable due to symptoms of CFS, then you can prop yourself up with pillows, or lie supine with the knees bent. Allow the lower abdomen to expand as you breath in. The shoulders should move very little. Really fill up with breath but without straining. When you exhale, try to empty the lungs completely, so that the subsequent inhale is very big without much effort. Continue this pattern for as long as you can, at lest ten minutes every day. You will notice that just from practicing deep yogic breathing, that your symptoms will often find immediate relief.
Relaxation: Another wonderful tool for CFS sufferers is deep relaxation. Dean Ornish reminds us that, “almost all stress relieving techniques derive from yoga.” When we are relaxed, we change our biochemistry. We change how our brainwave patterns are formed. We change even the hormonal cocktail controlling our moods. Yoga nidra is one great way to access a more relaxed consciousness if you are in pain or have a hard time calming the mind otherwise. Yoga Nidra is similar to self-hypnosis, but involves more than this. During Yoga Nidra, one concentrates on relaxing the entire body. It is from here that your conscious awareness hovers between two different brain states: as you depart from the waking state, go past the dreaming state, and go into a meditative or deep sleep state. The line between these states is very thin, and that is why many people have a tendency to fall asleep during Yoga Nidra practice, but if one is able to stay awake, the consciousness stays very alert, though relaxed completely. There are Yogis who use this state of consciousness to purify their Samskaras, or deep psychological and emotional impressions that are thought to be the driving force behind karma. One actually bypasses the regular functions of the brain during a 15-20 minute trance-like state that is induced via the practice of Yoga Nidra. When you first begin you will just try not to fall asleep. To practice, you can find many examples of Yoga Nidra on the Internet and then make your own tape with your own voice to direct you through the exercise, even mentioning pain relief as your Sankalpa, a Sanskrit word translating to mean a ‘positive resolve’ or goal. In a deep, relaxed state, the mind is thought to be more ripe for new thoughts, so you can replace thoughts of pain and tiredness with thoughts of energy and zest for living.
Meditation: Once you have accomplished relaxation, you can move on to meditation. This can be as simple as sitting and observing the breath, but in its most advanced state there is a dissolution of a ‘you’ into the vastness of the Universe. In this state, there is no pain, but only feelings of bliss.
Gentle Asana: For some dealing with CFS the thought of any movement at all seems excruciating, but gentle, restorative asana can help direct energy into parts of the body that are lacking life force, just as pranayama practice does. Begin with supine asana or very simple postures that allow self-reflection and a subtle stretch, using bolsters and pillows, yoga blocks and a seasoned instructor to guide you through poses that will feel more like a nurturing day at the spa than abrupt movement associated to ‘exercise’ that will drain the body of its lagging life force. Balasana, Shavasana, and Viparit Karani are wonderful poses to start with when you don’t feel like moving at all. Over time, as you start to feel better, you can slowly add more challenging poses, but always doing them in small doses so as not to overly fatigue an already tired body and mind.
With yogic science, practice, and self-love CFS can turn from an unpleasant daily experience to a thing of the past.