Why I Don't Let My Disease Stop My Yoga Practice

Written by Katie Murray

For the longest time, there were things about yoga that I thought I would never be able to do.

I live with a condition called Meniere’s Disease, which causes spells of severe vertigo and migraine-esque disability (all I can do is lie in the dark on the bed and hope for sleep). On a day-to-day basis, it also causes permanent loss of hearing and balance challenges. The condition changes daily — sometimes I barely think about it, some days I go about my day with a LOUD ringing inside of my right ear and struggle to balance just walking down the hall. Sometimes I can't even move out of my bed unless it's to stumble to the bathroom and back again.

I figured that my day-to-day balance issues meant that I’d just never be any good at tree pose, let alone dancer’s or that whole extended hand to big toe thing. Pair balance issues with a foot injury from climbing a mountain a few years ago, and I assumed anything involving standing on one foot was a no-go. I didn’t imagine that practice would make me better at these things — surely even the best yoga practice can't change a damaged balance nerve.

Well, it can’t. BUT, with patience and practice, I have become better at my balance poses than I ever imagined possible. It took some time, but learning to trust myself, and not automatically discounting my own ability to find stillness while balancing, has led me to longer, stronger balance poses — even toe stands!

I've learned to be kind with myself, and understand that there will be days that I can stand still and strong, and days when I will fall out of even the gentlest tree pose. When I fall, my first response now is to smile at myself — maybe even laugh a little. Then I calmly gather back to center and reenter whatever pose I left.

May this lesson extend to you both in your own balance poses, and in your life off of the mat; a fall doesn't mean failure. It means a chance to smile at ourselves, make sure that we’re not taking things too seriously, and to find a way back into whatever we may have fallen out of.

Two other nemeses of mine have been backbends and deep twists. When I was a teenager, low back pain during sports led to tests and X-rays that showed I have an extra lumbar vertebra, which is fused to my sacrum at the base of my spine. I was told that while this should not have a major effect on me, it would limit my range of spinal motion and potentially cause pain if over-rotated. When I started practicing yoga only a year or so after this diagnosis, I automatically assumed that backbends were out of the question (my spine just doesn’t bend that way!), and that twists would be a no-no.

Twists came naturally to me, whether seated, lying or otherwise; they've always felt natural and lovely. Backbends, on the other hand, never seemed natural. I was scared of causing myself pain, nervous about untreatable injury, and frightened of failure. Fear stopped me from really trying a back bend.

If we think we can't do something, well, then we can't. Finally, one day during a hot class, I found the courage to take one hand off of my lower back and gently reach for my heels in camel pose. As my palm made contact with my raised heel, I felt almost euphoric. Opening forward while finding that connection with my feet was truly amazing — something I never thought I could do. Through practice I've gently coaxed my back into proper bends without any discomfort. Take that, fused vertebra!

My take-away message from these experiences is that the only thing that truly limits us is our own minds. When we are told we cannot do something, and we adopt that constraint as truth, we limit ourselves. With confidence, courage, and a sense of humor, anything is possible. Be gentle with yourself, for while something may not be possible for you today, it just might be reachable tomorrow. What "limits" have YOU overcome?

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