How Yoga Helped Me Manage My Autoimmune Disease
Growing up and all through college I always felt unwell. Even though I've always loved sports, I struggled to push myself and seemed to stay excessively sore after activity.
After years of being told to toughen up and learning that doctors were dismissive of common symptoms such as dry skin, constipation, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain, I started to believe that I was just weak. The truth was I was suffering from an autoimmune disease which wasn't diagnosed until 2005 when I was 25 years old.
My own body was attacking my thyroid gland and the tissue was so badly damaged that it could not produce adequate levels of thyroid hormone to sustain normal endocrine function. The human endocrine system is a complex system of glands that produce hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol, adrenaline and many others which regulate everything from mood, to sleep to metabolism. The thyroid is the driving force of this system and if it is off balance for any reason a person can have uncomfortable symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autoimmune diseases affect approximately 8% of the population, 78% of whom are women. This is a serious statistic; as many as 22 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn’s and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Western medicine has very little information as to what can cause, treat and prevent autoimmunity. Alternative theories however believe, as do I, that diet, environment and lifestyle can be triggers. We must take better care of ourselves, be mindful of what we eat and how we live and use our bodies.
I am lucky that my condition, Hashimoto's, does not present any significant health risk other than disruption to quality of life but since I want to be strong and to live the most vibrant, active and full life I can, I have spent countless hours educating myself on alternative therapies, nutrition and overall wellness.
I am dedicated to being the strongest and healthiest version of myself. Because of this I have tried various medications, supplements and diets and am happy to say that today my health has tremendously improved.
Not everything has worked and sometimes I have frustrating setbacks, but today I am no longer on medication and consider myself to be healthy. Looking back I can say that was not the case when I was diagnosed, I was sick, very sick. The catalyst for this improvement in my health was my yoga practice.
It was not immediately obvious but a regular yoga practice was so incredibly beneficial for my circulation, detoxification and stress level that physically my health began to improve. I noticed my strength and stamina growing and a huge improvement in my mood. I needed less and less medication.
At the same time my yoga practice forced me to pay attention to what was going on in my body. If I ate well for example, it showed in my practice. Repeatedly practicing the same asanas every day began to reveal what was working and what wasn’t as I made changes in my diet and supplement plan. Yoga revealed how my body really felt.
On top of it all, in the stillness of my practice, once my mind became quiet, I was able to drop my gaze inward and I began to love myself. I let go of resentment and fear not only for the thyroid disease but for other unhealthy attachments that I once had and from there I found gratitude. I found gratitude for my journey, for the beautiful able body that I have and I discovered that if you stay connected and present, breathe deeply and learn to love yourself you become well.
Finding balance on my mat translated to finding balance in my life off the mat and I was finally able to understand, in the stillness of my practice that I am not my thyroid disease. Yoga didn't cure me, but yoga gave me to the tools to take care of myself and set me on my health journey.
I now happily teach yoga and hope that my students benefit from their practice, as much as I have benefited from mine. Even though I still sometimes have bad days or even setbacks, I enjoy the growth that I have each day, I learn from the journey and I continue to love myself. When it gets hard or as soon as I start to forget, I make myself remember and I return to my mat.
Sheryl Utal is a yoga teacher in Los Angeles who made the leap from an unfulfilling life working in a corporate environment to doing what she loves. Inversions and arm balances which require strength, focus and balance are her favorite poses. Her classes are athletic and powerful but always connect you to your breath and spirit. Living with an autoimmune disease has driven Sheryl to be an advocate for health and wellness and she maintains a strict alcohol, gluten and caffeine free diet. An issue dear to her heart is addiction as she has family members who suffer from the disease. Recently, Sheryl and her mom founded Gates of Light, a non-profit organization seeking to establish a residential addiction treatment center in Los Angeles.