Beginning with Chronic Illness

Namaste © 2012 Jane Waterman
Namaste © 2012 Jane Waterman

I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to begin. In my young life, there were smaller obstacles: a lack of confidence and encouraging remarks, as well as the feeling of being different and sensitive in a noisy, overwhelming world. In my twenties, there came other challenges like physical and mental illness. Sometimes, just being alive felt like a challenge. I’ve been waiting to begin this post for months, as if waiting for the correct alignment of the stars that will make it ‘right’.

The problem is, life never feels quite right – not for a perfectionist in recovery – much less one who never knows on any day whether I’ll be able to get up and shine, or if I’ll be lying in bed feeling unfulfilled and miserable that I’m not beginning what I’m sure I’m meant to begin.

The problem, especially when you’re ill, is finding the time to begin – knowing that within an hour you might have to lie down, and your life work will be interrupted for the millionth time (In fact, I had to lie down and rest in the process of writing this post). So, you get used to not beginning, as you figure that whatever you start will surely be interrupted. So you don’t begin.

Sometimes, however, you have to set aside the feeling of anxiety raised by doing things half-assed in life. You have to accept that there will be interruptions (as there have been for the last 24 years in my life), and that it’s okay to be interrupted. Interruptions are actually our native state. If we sat down with all the time in the world to write that great modern novel, we’d probably be so terrified of the blank page stretching on for eternity that we’d never begin!

I’ve talked about my most recent breakdown and how I’ve struggled to be okay and love my depression, but I don’t think I really understood that depression and the obstacles we face in life aren’t the real problems. Sometimes that’s what life and living is – the things that happen in all the spaces when we don’t get time to sit around dreaming of beginning that great modern novel.

In truth, I think I was afraid to begin anything, having become more proficient in recent months at ending things: employment, a tenuous grip on stable finances, and even the stake on a place to live. But I discovered that things do go on, and that I was really one of the lucky ones. Mrs Blackbird and I have been able to rent a beautiful little home that seemed tailor made for people managing health challenges, and we have enough to keep the bills ticking over. What’s more, for the first time in years, we actually have time to sit and breathe and watch the birds. Don’t ever discount the contentment that’s to be found watching different types of birds coming to a garden feeder!

What’s more, the opportunity opened up to receive a yoga teacher training program. I use the words ‘opened up’ deliberately because at the time I was so terrified, it felt like the ground would literally open beneath my feet! I use the word ‘receive’ deliberately too because I am beginning to realize it was a gift placed into my life during the very months when I had, by most modern standards, lost everything.

My dream to enter training emerged at a time when I was again weary with doctors and wanted the tools not only to help myself, but to help all my beloved friends with chronic invisible illnesses who were largely constrained to their beds or their rooms. Some don’t even have the luxury of ‘a room of their own.’ They have to beg and borrow shelter with loved ones who wait patiently for them to ‘snap out’ of their apparent self-inflicted torpor! Pardon the sarcastic haze over that sentence.

I was also sick of walking out of gentle yoga classes, injured, and being in more pain during the days that followed. There had to be a better way. I had embraced yoga in my youth, in the early stages of my illnesses, but had given it up as I gave my energy to the priorities of raising our precious daughters.

I didn’t want to think about beginning yoga training as I was terrified by the thought of being exposed for all the things I couldn’t do. So I had to stop thinking about it and just do it. It wasn’t easy. It was, and is, exhausting. Some days I’d come home from an intensive weekend and sleep for several days. In fact, in the beginning, I slept most of the 2 or 3 days following each class, it just wore me out so completely. How we moved house successfully at that time bemuses me, but I later came to learn that it was the practice of yoga that held me together.

On the first weekend, I realized how inadequate my experience of yoga was compared to the other budding yogis. I immediately crashed into my ego, which despite 24 years of practice with chronic illness could not stand being shamed. I quickly waged an inner battle as I knelt on the mat, helpless for how to continue with a relatively complicated sun salutation that was totally beyond my foggy comprehension. I wanted to walk out before I gave in to tears, but some part of my mind told me to be brave and stay. Somehow that part won out,  even as I sobbed over my near failure to begin after the class.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, although it was a time of revelation amidst exhaustion. After a particularly strenuous weekend of yoga (and gardening – what was I thinking?) I woke with a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t move my left arm at all! The first few days were filled with intense pain, and again I wondered what I was trying to do to myself. I didn’t practice or even read or think about yoga. It was too depressing. I felt let down by my body yet again. I read and believed the dire predictions that I’d be stuck with a frozen shoulder for a year, and how could I be a yoga teacher without being able to move my arm?

Then, I began to experience the crawling feeling of anxiety – anxiety that had been eased and soothed by my practice of the last two months – as it returned full force. I didn’t realize that I even suffered from anxiety, even though I had suffered fears of the ‘shifting ground’ since early in my childhood. It was only as I pushed myself to begin again – to mindfully and gently exercise that arm, that I realized the importance of pushing through fear to begin. It was only then that I realized significant freedom from anxiety and depression was yoga’s gift to me. As it might be to others who are suffering as well.

So here I am, near the end of the 3-month intensive. Well, I’ll probably be going another month or two to get the rest of my needed practice hours, but thanks to beginning, despite the fear, I won out. I’ll qualify soon to be a registered yoga teacher, and I’ll have the keys to helping others as well as myself.

The yogi, T.K.V. Desikachar, says that one of the meanings of the word ‘yoga’ is “to attain what was previously unattainable.” He goes on to say that if “there is something that we are today unable to do; when we find the means for bringing that desire into action, that step is yoga. In fact, every change is yoga.”

Many of us with chronic illness may be rightly fed up with change. What we forget is that sometimes change is the agent to restore hope to our lives. All we have to do is put our preconceived notions of a goal aside and begin. My teacher belongs to a particularly intense form of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. I never thought I could say, “I practise Ashtanga.” However, what I learned about the most challenging aspect of the training – the asanas or postures – is that the most complex pose begins somewhere. For the chronically ill, it might begin with learning to breathe, with the subtle rotation of a joint, with raising and engaging a muscle 5% more than we did before.

When we take action and begin – when we embrace the wisdom of that starting place – we achieve goals we believe were lost to us forever. All we have to do is begin.


Did this post resonate with you or help you in some way? Let me know in the comments below! If you’d like to support my work, you can buy me some writing time! This helps to support my work and keep it accessible and ad-free!

Jane Waterman

Hi, I’m Jane! I create blogs, fiction, art, and adaptive yoga as I seek peace and healing in this strange and sometimes beautiful world. I’ve been chronically ill and probably crazy for 30 years, but I try not to let it stop me!

Please visit the about page to learn more about me and my hopes for this community! If you’d like to support my work, please visit my tip jar at or my ongoing creative projects at



14 Responses

  1. I am so proud of you. I know how hard you have worked to learn and explore the daunting role of teaching yoga. You are amazing, and seeing the glow in your face and eyes when you have finished a session is a testimony of the benefits this practise can bring. Your gentle voice and kind and caring heart is a big part of what will make you a teacher that will make a difference to many. You are right that so often we don’t even venture to begin something because we fear we will never be able to finish it. Self-doubt is a hard task master and the only way to beat it, is to take that deep breath to begin, and when life’s interruptions and illness takes us away for a time, to take that deep breath again and get back at it. You will do this, you will be an amazing teacher and you can do anything you dream of. You are an inspiration and I believe in you.

    1. I found this thread of comments that I meant to reply to long ago. Even with all the time that’s passed, I still wanted to say thank you. Your love and support has always been there for me, and it’s only thanks to you that I am living this dream, and being able to teach twice a week. It’s also thanks to you that I am learning to be gentle with myself and taking baby steps towards my dreams.

      I love you always!

  2. :) Dearest, beautiful, wise Blackbird,
    There is no possible way that I am the only one who benefits from your willingness to begin. How fantastic it is that you’ve learned yoga, to gently teach others how to begin. I’m glad you began that, I’m glad you blog about your struggles and triumphs, and glad to be so blessed to have come to know you.

    I so relate to the fear of beginning…

    Because, you know, I might fail… or heaven help me, I might succeed (‘crazy’ as that sounds). So many things I haven’t begun… so many rationalisations…

    Fear of failure… well that’s obvious… you’re not good enough, you won’t get it right, you’ll never finish… and so it goes.

    Fear of success… that’s a tougher one, but I totally get it now… because what if I AM successful? what if I am capable of accomplishing this? what if I’m not a loser? Well, then what? There’s this whole new scary world to consider… like… then who/what am I? and if they were all wrong, those that would have me believe I’m not all that… well… then what? Then do I have to deal with the feelings about how mean that was and how much it hurt me?

    Anyway, this was just supposed to let you know how much I treasure you and all you are (and aren’t), and how much I hope you continue on, in whatever way you can. It will be enough. You are enough.

    Just look at how much you inspired me to write today. :)

    1. I found this thread of comments that I meant to reply to long ago. Even with all the time that’s passed, I still wanted to say thank you. Right now I still struggle with the fear of beginning, so perhaps it’s no coincidence I’m back in this thread today, reading my post, and reading the comments.

      I don’t think it crazy, or if it is, I’m crazy too, as I’m still struggling with both the fear of failure, and the fear of success and all that entails. Some days I wonder what it is I’m so afraid of, but maybe I’m just afraid of feeling?

      Thank you for always being a support and for validating and mirroring what I think and feel. It’s nice not to be alone here, wherever it is I am!

      Lots of love always. *HUGS* <3

  3. Not only did you take that brave first step, dear one, now you’ll be able to ease and encourage others into that same step/leap because you understand exactly how they feel … probably much better than most yoga teachers.

    I can’t count how many times I’ve been told: “Yoga would help your back problems/arthritis.” I can’t count how many times I’ve thought: “There’s NO way I could possibly get myself into those positions; and if I somehow managed it, I’d be stuck forever!” I think right now, “Yoga with 2 artificial (bright pink) hips would lead to some sort of mini-disaster”. And yes, I’d be totally embarrassed at my lack of flexibility in front of others who pose like elastic bands.

    Now … I wonder. I wonder.

    1. I found this thread of comments that I meant to reply to long ago. Even with all the time that’s passed, I still wanted to say thank you for writing here.

      Now that I’m a “veteran” of teaching chair yoga (definitely LOL here), I have seen that yoga is not the path for everyone. Sometimes we are too caught up in fear to begin, and sometimes we are just too hard on ourselves to realize that just showing up is the biggest thing, never mind what we *do* when we show up. :)

      If I could convince new students that it’s okay to just show up, sit on the chair and breathe mindfully for the entire class, I’d have grown so much as a teacher. However, I think part of my growth is allowing people to show up, decide it’s not their thing and go on their way. And in my heart, I pray that they do find the practice, be it gardening, walking or breathing that fills their soul. That would make me most happy.

      Lots of love,

  4. Jane–I have never come across someone who has so elegantly written about my feelings and emotions on “beginning anything.” Our life feelings and experiences are eerily similar (lack of confidence, sensitivity, feeling different, Sjogren’s, autoimmune arthritis, yoga). Thank you for the encouragement to restart yoga classes.

    1. Dear Charla,

      I don’t know if you’ll find my note after this much time has passed, but I’m sending it out there and hoping you’ve found your “yoga”, whether it’s in a class or doing some other practice that you feel passionate about, and that brings you joy.

      Many blessings,

  5. Yay go Jane! There seriously is a need for yoga teacher for us folk with chronic illness. I used to love yoga but now I’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis it scares the pants off me.

    1. Dear Heda,

      I’ve been teaching a few months now, and one thing I’ve learned from looking around the web and in books is that there’s so much that we can do. I hope Anna’s advice helped you, and that you found your way to a class or to some kind of practice that nourishes you and brings you joy.


  6. Heda, if you can find “senior” or better yet, “gentle” yoga classes you needn’t worry. I have osteoporosis and Sjogren’s and find they work well for me. The classes have both young and old people in them and folks are urged to only do what they can or feel like that day.

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