One of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to life with Sjogren’s Syndrome has been making peace with my body’s new limitations, which on a bad day feel like the deepest betrayal. I’ve been active and fit for all of my adult life. A second-degree blackbelt in Aikido, I’ve trained in and taught this martial art religiously for two decades. While I wouldn’t say I took my strength and stamina for granted, I certainly grew accustomed to the physical ease that comes with a consistently high level of fitness. Now, there are days when lifting a bag of groceries can cause my arm to tremble with pain and exertion. Cardio wipes me out — just ten minutes of easy-paced cycling can trigger an attack of fatigue that leaves me feeling like I am fighting my way uphill even when the road is perfectly flat. These physical hurdles are nothing compared to the psychological effort of facing life with an incurable, progressive illness: I am mourning my former self.
My rheumatologist recommended yoga for the “fascia discomfort” that is part and parcel of my Sjogren’s symptoms. Practice with an experienced instructor who can give me sound guidance about alignment is paramount, since some days my body just doesn’t behave the way I expect or want it to, making me more prone to injury. While I practice to strengthen and stretch my body, yoga’s benefits are more than physical. Yoga’s focus on mind-body connection gives me a defined space to work with my body as it is, to accept where I am right now, even as I push my body to its strange new limits. As in Aikido, yoga forges strength of spirit, encouraging me to breathe through and endure both physical and emotional challenges. Yoga provides me with a much-needed conduit for positive energy and positive forward momentum.
Happily, Ignite Yoga opened its doors in Ames last year, so I have been exploring “hot yoga” for the first time. I’m not a fan of hot weather, so I expected to dislike practicing yoga in a 105-degree room. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The heat feels amazing on my achey joints and tired muscles. I try to get to class early, so I have time to lie down on my mat, focus on my breath, and let the heat penetrate my limbs. By the time class starts, my body temperature has adjusted, and the heat allows me to enter my practice more deeply than I could have imagined. I’ve taken classes with four different instructors so far. Each instructor has a unique, yet equally engaging, teaching style, which presents me with the dilemma (woe is me!) of having to choose among too many equally-inspiring classes. As my stamina improves, I hope to be able to work up to daily practice, but I’m more realistically contenting myself with a few classes a week right now. My full-time job can also be physically strenuous, so I have to balance where I use my energy.
Hydration before, during, and after hot yoga means strong practice, effective flushing of toxins, and no nasty dehydration headache or cramps afterwards. Since sugary electrolyte drinks are now permanently on my “Don’t” list, I’ve started experimenting (thanks for the suggestion, Kori!) with different herbs and fruit. A few slices of citrus or cucumber, a few berries, some grated fresh ginger, or crushed mint leaves add a refreshing boost to my post-workout water. A handful of salty almonds helps restore my sodium and calcium balance, while a few dried apricots, figs, or a banana combine healthy carbs with potassium.
A challenging hot yoga session followed by sensible nutrition leaves my body feeling balanced, both inside and out. So far, hot yoga is proving to be one of the most promising paths on my journey to manage Sjogren’s Syndrome, a journey which, like every other, must be approached one slow step at a time.