The healing aspects of yoga therapy for Lyme disease
By Elaine Oyang
Brittany* is a cheerful, attractive woman in her late 20s with thoughtfully curled blond hair tinged fairy-tale pink. From the outside, she looks like any other 20-something: radiant, with a full life ahead of her. However, her story has been altered by what became enmeshed in her bloodstream and cells before she received a proper diagnosis.
“I have Lyme disease. Everything hurts. My body feels so weak, and I have trouble sleeping. I want to start some gentle movements so I don’t feel trapped on the couch all day and start building in strength. I don’t have the energy to go to a yoga class, so I thought I’d start here,” she explained to me at our first meeting.
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, caused usually by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, transmitted to humans through a bite of an infected black-legged tick. Symptoms of Lyme can start off flu-like—body pains and aches, fever, fatigue, and headaches—then progress to joint pain that feels arthritic, joint swelling, nerve pain, and sharp, shooting sensations in hands and feet after a few months. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and nervous system.
Brittany had been struggling with symptoms of chronic neck and low back pain, brain fog, and insomnia for a year and half before her blood tested positive for the bacterium. She was bed-bound for most of her days and wanted to include gentle movements to help with the pain and to prevent her muscles from atrophying.
How yoga therapy helped Brittany
Brittany was unable to attend group yoga classes due to her mobility issues and lack of strength—she was sometimes even unable to sit upright. She sought out private yoga therapy sessions to support these problems by having a trained and knowledgeable professional to guide her through mindfulness-based movement practices.
Brittany’s moving, widespread, and unpredictable pain kept her from being comfortable in stillness for extended periods. Lying on her back to link gentle, repetitive movements with her breath was more effective, enabling awareness of one hand, one arm, one shoulder, one leg, and one foot at a time. Combined with a lack of strength, Brittany’s hypermobility meant that she could easily collapse like a ragdoll with little to no control over her limbs and muscles. Sometimes at first I had to physically support her to move one leg or one arm at a time while she focused on her breath.
Beyond just physical asana (postures), a big part of Brittany’s home practice is pranayama (breathing practices) and guided relaxations to help her on sleepless nights and painful days. I additionally taught Brittany how to maneuver her body when changing position (e.g., from sitting to standing, from lying on the side to sitting up) using proper biomechanics so that these transitions are more accessible and easeful.
Over about a year of weekly yoga therapy sessions, she has slowly been able to incorporate more seated and standing asana as her strength and balance improve. Now with increased endurance, she is able to extend her 30-minute sessions to 45 minutes.
An optimistic future
Today, after her own experiences of having to walk around with a boring, utilitarian cane, Brittany is starting a company creating design-focused canes with sleek colors like rose gold and slate gray for individuals with muscle control issues. She is continuing with her weekly yoga therapy sessions to keep building muscle control and manage her stress while she runs this company. She brings her yoga practice everywhere she travels and has even shared some of her asana and breathing practices with her family to help them release tension.
Brittany explains that yoga therapy “has offered so many tools to help me deal with my pain and to relax, both mentally and physically. The tools [helped to] relieve my pain every single day,” she says. “The practices I received from Elaine have given me back some control of my body, which is such a gift.”
Elaine Oyang, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, has a private practice in San Francisco and works with clients with chronic physical or emotional pain using gentle yoga based in deep release. Find her on Instagram and in her Facebook group.
*Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.