Intentional (or mindful) movement, or exercise, whichever term you prefer, is absolutely crucial for not only our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. But what if you are dealing with a chronic illness and have low strength and low stamina? How can you gently and safely incorporate more movement into your daily routine when you have limitations?
Of course every body is different, but I'm going to share details of my personal story (with links to some past blog posts that go into more details) plus tell you the tools I used to go from bedridden after a complete burnout to being back doing yoga headstands today.
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My Burnout And Health Crash
In 2015 I went through a major burnout and suffered a health crash after a sudden long distance move to leave a bad, extremely stressful situation. The specific details don't matter, but it was traumatic and left me completely depleted. After arriving in Memphis, I spent more time in bed than out of it and struggled just to walk for 30 minutes at a time.
It was a terrible low point for me - emotionally, physically, spiritually.
It took me over a year to recover and start feeling like a normal person again. I had to be extremely careful with myself, allowing plenty of rest and recovery time, but I also knew I needed to get in some kind of movement. Before the burnout, I was a rather advanced yogini. It was disheartening and painful to realize I could barely do very basic asanas. But, I knew I had to exercise as part of my recovery.
Getting My Strength Back With Chinese Medicine
I've been under the care of an excellent Chinese medicine doctor the whole time I've been here in Memphis, and I know that the acupuncture 2-3x/week and custom blended Chinese herbs I've taken have played a critical role in improving my health issues and helping me to regain my strength and vitality.
In Western terms, who knows what exactly happened to me with the burnout and crash. It could have been some type of autoimmune flare for an undiagnosed condition. I do have the skin condition hidradenitis suppurativa which is considered by some experts to be a secondary autoimmune disease - meaning, that some other primary disease (like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, etc.) will always be present alongside it.
One new condition I was diagnosed with about a year after arriving in Memphis, but which was surely present for likely a few years prior, is uterine fibroids (read that full story here). Fibroids explain some of the extreme fatigue I experienced.
In some ways it doesn't matter what Western medicine would have diagnosed me with, since I chose to go all in with Chinese medicine for my healing.
As I got to be stronger, able to sustain a normal work schedule, and started the process of working on my print cookbook (which releases NEXT MONTH! Make sure to pre-order ASAP), my doctor encouraged me to work more movement into my life.
Bringing Exercise Back Into My Life
I realized I needed quite a lot of help starting up exercise again. I needed guidance to help me choose which exercises to do, and motivation to help me keep a positive attitude.
I won't sugar coat it: I had a horribly difficult time being kind to myself when I was already at such a low point. I was so critical of myself, telling myself I was a failure for regressing so much, and feeling so ashamed at my current state.
I needed help in setting reasonable expectations and cultivating self-compassion. I needed encouragement. I needed to be lifted up. I also needed something I could do at home, since I lacked the self-esteem, confidence, and vulnerability to do any exercise in front of other people.
I found the help I needed in 2 different online programs. I think both are invaluable tools for others who are looking for the same kind of help and who don't have resources locally or can't afford a membership at a yoga studio or gym, or need to work up to joining a local place.
I am deeply grateful for both of these programs and how they have helped me along in my journey. Tonight, literally, I did a headstand in yoga class for a full minute. The journey back to that point began with these 2 online courses and the gentle encouragement they provided me.
MuTu System: Closing Diastasis Recti With Exercise
Around the time I got to Memphis I realized that I had a diastasis recti (DR), or separation of the abdominal muscles along the midline. This is usually caused by pregnancy, but in my case obesity was the culprit. I had had it for years and never realized it! Men can get it too, and it is likely that chronic poor posture and a weakened core and pelvic floor can cause one to develop (and will certainly make an existing one worse).
You can read a lot more about diastasis recti and MuTu in this blog post. But I'll give you a recap here.
The easy way to check for a DR is to lay on your back, lift your head (NOT shoulders) off the ground, and press your fingers into the center of your belly, working down from your sternum to just above the pubic bone. If your fingers sink into a depression, you've got a DR. DR is measured in finger widths. See a demo of that here: how to check for a diastasis recti.
When I started MuTu, I had a 3 finger-width diastasis recti. I am currently down to just 1 finger-width!!! This program really WORKS.
Here are some of the top signs and symptoms of a diastasis recti:
- low back pain
- pain in the sacroiliac joint
- pelvic organ prolapse
- herniation of the abdominal organs through the midline
- discomfort or pain when lifting objects, rolling over, sitting up, etc.
- gastrointestinal problems such as bloating or constipation
- incontinence, especially when sneezing, coughing, running, jumping, or exercising
The tricky thing about diastasis recti is that there is some really bad advice out there for what you should do when you have one. In some cases, the suggested exercises will actually make you worse, not better.
The MuTu system is designed to be extremely gentle and uses language geared to brand new moms, however you don't have to be a mom (or even a woman) to benefit. I found Wendy's gentle voice and calm encouragement to be just what I needed when I was in such a fragile state.
The basic core exercises in week 1 and the alignment teachings in week 2 carried me for....an embarrassingly long time. Many months. But that's the beauty of the course: you can work through it as written and complete it in 12 weeks, or you can be like me and take your sweet time over the course of a year (or more). You WILL benefit from practicing good posture and alignment and with even semi-regular safe core exercises.
What I've learned about alignment and intra-abdominal pressure I've also been able to translate into my yoga practice, and of course, every day life. That's the point: that you retrain yourself to use good posture and proper alignment when doing everyday activities, not just during exercise.
There are 2 program options: the complete 12 week program (which features the main core rehabilitation program, Paleo-friendly food guide, plus "intense" exercises if you want to focus on weight loss) or the Focus Program which does not include the food guide or the "intense" exercises and will just rehabilitate your core and pelvic floor.
They are both fantastic resources! I have primarily only used the core exercises and not the "intensive" exercises, even though I have the full program. I am so grateful for the added core strength and closure of my diastasis recti!
Yoga For Healing - easy, gentle, restorative yoga for all levels
Before the burnout, I had always been able to design my own yoga routines. I was not really a fan of going to classes and preferred to use my collection of books to craft routines that felt right for me. I've always enjoyed good flexibility and rarely had to use modifications to make poses easier.
I can remember getting so utterly frustrated with myself and my lack of stamina, and also lack of knowledge for how to make poses easier on my body. Right around that time my friend Tera launched her online yoga course called Yoga For Healing, and it was such a perfect fit for my needs that it seemed as though she designed it just for me! You can read more about my experience using her program here.
In short, it gave me permission to be vulnerable and accepting of myself, even though I had regressed significantly. I had some major breakthroughs during her classes with regards to how I talk to myself. She really helped me to cultivate self-love and self-compassion. She also provides modifications for MANY levels of ability, even if you have to sit in a chair at first. So I was able to participate and not feel ashamed.
Using the Yoga For Healing e-course for a year and a half gave me the courage and strength to move on to getting a membership at a local yoga studio. Hatha yoga has always been my passion, but I was scared to go to a class after doing restorative and yin yoga for so long. I am really pleased to say that I have recovered quite a bit of my skill and strength rather quickly! Just a few days ago I was able to do a headstand again and it felt amazing. I wanted to cry with gratitude for having reached that place again. I credit the baby steps I took in Yoga For Healing for helping me reach this level.
And just an FYI....the price of Yoga For Healing is the same as a one month membership at my current studio, so the e-course is a truly excellent value! I seriously used it for a year and a half. It's also great if you are anxious or embarrassed about doing yoga in front of other people (BELIEVE ME I have been there). You can treat it as training wheels until you get to a place of confidence to take classes.
Walking 30 Minutes Per Day
So this is actually one of the requirements of the MuTu course, but if you do nothing else for yourself, this is an excellent goal. Last year when Pokemon Go released it actually made it soooo much easier for me to get out and walk. Thanks to that game I have walked over 200 miles I may not have otherwise walked!
As I mentioned earlier in the article, just 2 years ago I was at such a low point that walking for 30 mins per day was a difficult goal to achieve. But I started with 5 minutes and worked my way up. Baby steps lead to big progress! And when you set an intention to be able to do something, that has power.