At the apex of her health crisis, when she became so cripplingly ill that she wound up in a wheelchair, Simone Palmieri journeyed to the Mayo Clinic, seeking answers.
Ultimately she found her own answers through an unexpected source: yoga.
A scientist at heart—she has a degree in psychobiology—Palmieri previously pooh-poohed the idea that something so woo-woo would work, especially for someone so sick. Her chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome and myalgia (muscle pain) had gotten so bad that she was unable to drive or take care of her two daughters. She started fainting a lot, and no one could figure out why. At Mayo, doctors came up with the missing puzzle piece, diagnosing Palmieri with dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system disorder that often accompanies chronic fatigue syndrome.
But when the Mayo docs sent her home with medications she didn’t want to take, the skeptical scientist took a chance on the ancient Eastern discipline of yoga. In just three short months, Palmieri says, she began to see results. It helped to calm her nerves, allowing her autonomic nervous system to start functioning properly. Slowly, she began rebuilding muscle tone and stamina. Her stress level dropped.
Soon Palmieri was able to take care of herself again. She got her life back. That was five years ago. These days, she’s paying it forward, teaching classes at The Yoga Solution in East Sacramento, where she originally took the private lessons that turned her life around. And, following in the footsteps of her then-teacher and now-colleague, Jennifer Sadugor, Palmieri is working toward her certification in yoga therapy, an emerging field she wants everyone to know about.
What’s Yoga Therapy?
On the website of The International Association of Yoga Therapists (iayt.org), yoga therapy is described as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of yoga.” While that definition doesn’t sound much different from “regular” yoga, what distinguishes yoga therapy, according to practitioners interviewed for this article, is that it tailors the regimen of postures, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to suit individual needs, with a particular bent toward addressing specific health issues. It often is practiced one-on-one, either in a studio or doctor’s office, or sometimes in a client’s home. Palmieri puts it like this: “Yoga therapy is the adaptation of yoga to meet the needs of people with specific health problems or conditions in order to help them reach optimum health and vitality. The great thing about having a yoga therapist is that the therapist will adapt the class to meet individual needs.” A therapist working with a Parkinson’s patient, for example, might choose to incorporate vocalizing through sounds or song, as music has been shown to improve motor skills. If a patient with a bad back is unable to perform a certain movement, it is the yoga therapist’s job to modify the pose or suggest a different approach.
Yoga therapy appears to be a growing phenomenon. IAYT reports that its membership has tripled, and the organization recently revised its recommended educational standards for the training of yoga therapists, suggesting an ongoing effort to raise the bar toward increased legitimacy. While there’s no data pertaining to the Sacramento region specifically, a quick Google search reveals a number of local yoga therapists with the word certified next to their name, indicating advanced study, typically 500 hours’ worth. Palmieri, who previously completed 200 hours of training to teach yoga and is now working toward certification by attending classes one weekend a month at Loyola Marymount University, already is incorporating yoga therapy techniques in her classes at The Yoga Solution. “I’ve seen amazing results with my students,” she says. In addition to leading a general beginning/intermediate class, she teaches a class geared for those with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
It helps that she knows firsthand what her students are going through.
Like Palmieri, Yoga Solution owner Jennifer Sadugor, an American Viniyoga Institute-certified yoga therapist, sees great value in yoga therapy’s individualized, adaptable approach. When working with clients whose conditions change 65daily, such as the multiple sclerosis group she’s been teaching for the past year and a half, Sadugor is able to tailor each lesson to their shifting needs. “They are all in various stages of MS, and MS affects each individual differently, especially as the disease progresses,” she says.
“For this particular group, yoga therapy has been so beneficial, if for nothing else to provide them a way to relieve the stress of a chronic disease as well as some symptom relief.”
For 61-year-old Lois Girdlestone, whose MS-related fatigue ultimately led to a disability retirement, Sadugor’s Thursday morning classes have been a “real blessing. It’s highly individualized, very helpful and very uplifting. It’s a very positive, very encouraging place to be. Overall, I think, your well-being is improved. You kind of get in touch with yourself and learn to look within instead of everything being outward.” Yoga also helps to keep her muscles strong, Girdlestone says, and helps with stress relief.
“Stress is a big issue—that’s one of the things yoga has helped with,” she says. “The breathing, the meditative exercises . . . it’s nice to just close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. It’s calming. It makes the world go away.”
Away From Yoga and Back Again
Four years ago, when Stephanie Miller was 50 and suffering from back pain so severe that “I pretty much had to give up everything,” she heard about an adaptive yoga class at the Folsom Senior Center.
“I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to the senior center,’” recalls Miller, now chuckling at the thought. But she was desperate. So off she went.
“At the time, I couldn’t even sit on the floor cross-legged,” says the El Dorado Hills resident, an adult ed teacher. Triggered by a yardwork mishap that exacerbated a pre-existing back issue, Miller’s injury had sidelined her and taken her away from the active lifestyle she loved, including walking, biking and—it just so happens—yoga. “I really loved yoga in particular and had to give it up,” she says. “I wasn’t able to be active at all. It was very hard—a very big loss.” But adaptive yoga helped. Taught by certified yoga therapist Donna Rixmann, who conducts both group and private lessons in a variety of locations, it allowed Miller to do yoga “and not be in pain, and I was able to progress. Donna knows what everybody’s issues are and makes modifications for each of us. Her approach is very unique, very gentle on the body, yet it really builds your strength. I think of her class as medicine, but with no ill side effects.” These days, Miller says, she’s still not as flexible as she’d like to be. But she can ride her bike and walk again—and that’s huge.
Perseverance and patience with the process have been Miller’s keys to success, says Rixmann. “When Stephanie, who is not a senior, showed up in a ‘senior’ chair yoga class a few years ago, her back issues prevented her from being able to do things that older students sitting next to her could do,” she says. But now Miller attends classes twice a week, one at an intermediate level. “She is so schooled in adapting the poses that she does it naturally,” Rixmann says.
Body, Mind and Spirit
There’s plenty of research suggesting that yoga is indeed good for bad backs. In one National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine-funded study, 90 people with chronic lowerback pain who practiced yoga for six months had significantly less disability, pain and depression. Reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure and improvement of overall fitness, strength and flexibility are other possible benefits.
But the real benefit of yoga, proponents say, is its holistic, “whole person” approach, healing and strengthening not only the body, but the mind and spirit as well. Studies show that yoga is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health, providing relief from stress and insomnia, anxiety and depression. Girdlestone says she’s found that to be true. When her mother died earlier this year and she was “knocked for a loop,” she missed yoga class for three weeks. But her spirits were lifted, she says, when she rejoined the group.
“About halfway through the class, I could feel that heaviness lifting,” she says. “Just to be there with the group, do the meditations and the breathing—it’s nice to have that little community that understands what you’re feeling, what you’re going through.”
Palmieri, whose struggle for wellness once seemed so hopeless that she thought of taking her own life, wants others to know that yoga can be a tool for climbing out of a deep depression. At the same time, she cautions that it’s not a cure-all or panacea. “The [health] journey continues,” she says. “It’s never over.”
Yoga is not a replacement for Western medicine, she adds. But it can be an invaluable tool to add to the mix. “It’s a complementary therapy, right along with your physical therapy and meds.” As with any other kind of health practice, be sure to check with your health care provider before starting yoga.