vhl alliance

Yoga and Stress

by Lisa J.

Living with VHL can be like a roller coaster with peaks and valleys of stress. I am 47 and was diagnosed with VHL almost 30 years ago. I have developed a variety of coping mechanisms to deal with the stress that comes and goes.  One of the most useful and versatile strategies or techniques I have is yoga. For me, it is one of the most flexible and useful tools I have that can be applied to almost any situation, VHL-related or otherwise.

For example, today I was at an end-of-year breakfast for my son. We were sitting in the cafeteria and it was pretty much total chaos. My husband needed to leave to go to work, and my friend, who was driving me home, was not yet available to leave. I found myself sitting and waiting, with no one to talk to and, oh yeah, I am blind. So I realized that I was focusing on my breathing and keeping myself calm and centered with the chaos of all of the 200+ children and families swirling around me. It might have been a very stressful and anxiety-inducing situation. Finding my center and focusing on my breathing helps me keep calm. I find I use yoga all the time. Especially before procedures like eye injections or when trapped in the MRI machine. I once heard a yoga instructor describe that one of the benefits of doing yoga is learning to feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. And it’s true.

I recently started a new yoga class in which the teacher focuses a great deal on each posture and proper alignment. The movements can be so subtle, and really affects the posture as a whole.

In fact, in making these very slight minor movements, it’s almost an intimate experience in your own body. I think people with VHL become very attuned to their bodies and the small changes that happen.

Some of the things I like best about yoga is you can do it anywhere without any props. It’s true you can have a yoga mat, a bolster, blocks, straps, etc. But you don’t need to have them. Really you only need yourself.

There are so many different kinds of yoga. Some focus on holding postures for a longer period of time, some have more of a flow to them. Some focus on specific breathing patterns or detail posture and alignment. You can find yoga that you do in the extreme heat, on the beach, or while sitting in a chair. There is even yoga in the pool.  Basically, there is something for everyone! I have found that as long as the ability level matches you, it is often the teacher that makes the experience. So if you try a class and it is not for you, don’t give up. Try a different type, or a different teacher, and see if that helps.

I would like to say that I practice yoga daily. In truth, I have always wanted to, but have not managed to put it into practice. A while ago I realized it was not very “yoga-like” to beat myself up while I lay in bed instead of getting up and doing my yoga routine. So I stopped. Now I do yoga when I am in class, and when the mood strikes me. However, I use the breath patterns and the mindfulness and the observation of what my body is doing many times during every day. Yoga has taught me to try and stay in the present and that the only thing I have any control over is my reaction to things. Yoga has helped me learn how to free up my mind and detach from a situation in order to have a better perspective and observation of the situation before I react. I am still working on that one!

My favorite kind of yoga has a spiritual connection with it. It also utilizes chanting and breath work to help the mind stay focused on the class and away from the grocery shopping list! I have used the music and chanting from class before surgeries to help my mind stay focused and calm. It’s funny because I was pretty sure I was going to hate the class and I really do not like to sing in public. But there is something about the chanting with other people that builds energy and connection that is quite powerful. And when I am stressed, the music and the chanting is very familiar and comforting. I know some of my friends get similar comfort from reciting prayers. The sound becomes a meditation.

You should always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine, but there really is a yoga class for everyone, no matter what your ability level. You can find yoga in gyms, community centers, church basements, private homes, yoga studios, and many other locations. I hope you consider adding this fun, relaxing, stress-beating technique to your toolbox.  I think there is a misconception that yoga classes involve people twisting themselves into pretzels.

Yoga should never ever hurt. It may feel uncomfortable and it may stretch your comfort level, but it should never hurt.It is not a competition. Even when I could see, I often did my yoga classes with my eyes closed. It is really about you and where you are today.

I often feel taller, longer and leaner after yoga class. Yoga stretches you and allows for room inside you. Room for new ideas, room for calm thoughts, room for new perspectives.

And at the end of the yoga class, you get to reap the benefits of your hard work.  My favorite posture is shavasana, which is all about relaxation and absorbing all the energy and feeling your muscles tingle and knowing that you showed up. For yourself.


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