How Yoga Helped Me Overcome My Chronic Thyroid Disorder

Photo: Fern Olivia

Fern Olivia is the founder of Thyroid.Yoga and an L.A.-based wellness expert renowned for her artful approach to self-healing. This week, we’re sharing her expertise on yoga, meditation, breathwork, and plant-based alchemy and her own journey recovering from Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism. To learn more, check out her new mindbodygreen course, Thyroid Yoga: Holistic Health Practices, Postures, & Self-Care Rituals To Restore Vibrant Health.

My journey with thyroid disease began when I was 16 years old. I had red bumps on my arms and legs and battled with a sluggishness that never went away—a feeling that only worsened when I came down with mono. During my senior year of high school, I was constantly exhausted and had to miss out on things a healthy teenager would attend without a second thought, like homecoming. Doctors diagnosed me with hypothyroidism and said a dose of Synthroid each morning would relieve all my symptoms. I was put on the birth control pill at the ripe age of 18 to balance my hormones, help me lose weight, and clear my skin.

Fast-forward to college, when I was constantly dealing with sinus infections and sore throats. The health center had a prescription Z-pack for me waiting whenever I visited—a quick fix for the congestion, puffiness, brain fog, and body aches. Wherever I went, I had a steady supply of meds like Lactase, Ex-lax, and Pepto, to ease the bloating, constipation, and post-meal nausea I experienced daily.

I graduated with honors in biomedical engineering and landed a swanky desk job at a prestigious investment bank in New York City. I often experienced vertigo when staring at my computer and starting getting daily migraines, for which I took Excedrin. I’d also pop a Zyrtec with my Synthroid before my cereal and milk each morning to clear my stuffy, runny nose. Even with all of that, I still felt awful. I went to some of the best endocrinologists in New York and was told over and over that the symptoms I was feeling were “normal” for those with hypothyroidism.

Finally, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s hypothyroiditis, the autoimmune form of hypothyroidism. My own immune system was destroying my thyroid cells. This “attack and destroy” can cause wild symptom swings from hypothyroid to hyperthyroid and back. If this continued, it would lead to a lifelong dependence on thyroid hormone medication.

I’d had enough. I thought to myself, I studied biomedical engineering. Why can’t I figure this out? Turns out, I could...but in an unexpected place.

Discovering the healing power of yoga

On a particularly stressful day at the office, I slipped out on my lunch break to a yoga studio I passed every day. For some reason on this day, I felt called to check it out. I was used to taking intense (and very draining) Spinning and bootcamp classes to numb my pain and lose weight, so I thought this would be a nice break. Little did I know it’d be so much more.

As I moved my body mindfully while moving through asana (postures), the mental cloudiness I’d always felt magically lifted. I became introspective. I’d stand in tree pose and think, why am I always nauseous and dizzy after eating? In twists, why do I experience sharp stomach pains after certain meals and have to unbutton my pants at my desk? I’d move into downward dog and think, why are my migraines worse on certain days? Why do I feel puffy and foggy on some days, while other days light and graceful in yoga class?

Each time I returned to my yoga mat, I not only felt a new sense of clarity and balance but also felt safe, comforted, and loved — feelings I had been lacking in my life—and I realized that this practice allowed me to connect with myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to elsewhere.

The journey to self-healing starts with a single step—which often is outside our comfort zone—and a commitment to feeling radiant and healthy.

One of my teachers at the studio, Donnalynn Civello, was especially inspirational. I joined Donnalynn’s cooking and nutritional classes, as well, and began seeing patterns between my symptoms and food choices: I would often get headaches after eating prepared, microwaveable meals or bagels and pizza. Paralyzing stomach pains flared up if I ate anything with dairy, gluten, or soy.

At home, I began experimenting with blending soups and smoothies. I started spiraling vegetables and creating creamy sauces with nuts and seeds. I knew I was on a path to healing because I felt entirely different: I felt alive and free in my body and mind.

I’ve continued to study yoga and clean up my microbiome, now understanding how important both are for sustained well-being. I've learned how to manage my symptoms—not only through yoga but through meditation, breathwork, and holistic lifestyle rituals including energy work, essential oils, and herbal tonics.

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Healing myself, then healing others

In the last few years, I have recently discovered the power of Kundalini yoga practice and have since incorporated a daily Kundalini sadhana—or daily morning practice—into my life. It has become a life-changing component of my signature Thyroid.Yoga™ program. I’ve witnessed hundreds of clients notice a new, powerful ability to magnetize opportunities into their lives and heal their bodies on a mitochondrial level.

We are all in some way asleep and need to awaken to our true selves. Often, we are called to awaken suddenly. An awakening call can come as a form of disease/dis-ease, accident, or heartbreak. Such a call often comes as pain. However, the touch that brings awakening, the touch from our soul speaking to us, is one that often brings us to a deep spiritual practice.

The journey to self-healing is not easy. In order to truly heal, we must engage in deep introspection on the emotional and energetics behind why our immune systems were weakened in the first place or why we held on to the stagnation in our glandular systems. This is the true yoga—so much more than doing bendy photos on your yoga mat!

When I think about it, I still can’t believe my healing started because I took a chance on a yoga class nearly seven years ago.

I never would have guessed that this yoga class would have inspired me to become my own inner healer and later to become a teacher to empower others to find this intuitive wisdom as well. The truth is, we have to start with a first step—which often is outside our comfort zone—and a commitment to feel radiant and healthy by integrating these practices into our lives every day with devotion to show up for ourselves.

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