Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How I've Been Treating My Hypothyroidism: Yoga is One Way

(When last we met)

I had my diagnosis and had just gotten zinged with just enough energy to start my own campaign toward health. Since I had some energy, I was going to strike while the iron was hot!

Here's one thing they don't tell you about hypothyroidism. If it's bad enough, it might make the soreness you get from playing professional football look like you've been napping on bales of cotton candy - all day, every day (not dissing athletes, I promise. I'm just trying to make a point). Add to that the utter lack of energy to get your body moving to dispel the soreness and you have a potent combination.

The intense bone-deep aching in pretty much every part of your body just doesn't go away. I had been hurting like this, for years. I figured that was the way things were with me. My mom had (and has) similar issues with pain, and I thought it was my lot in life.

Imagine my surprise when I researched hypothyroidism and determined that the high levels of pain I experienced constantly were a symptom of my sluggish thyroid. I couldn't recall a time when I wasn't in pain. My back, legs, neck, arms, and shoulders, muscles, joints, tendons, pretty much everything hurt, all the time. And again, before I was diagnosed, I had lived with it for so long that I simply never gave thought to the fact that it might be something I could alleviate.

So now, I went into major research mode. I devoured everything I could find out. The symptoms, the signs, the treatments, the therapies - that knowledge became my heart's desire. In one book, after I read the depressing list of symptoms yet again (of which I experienced pretty much all), the author suggested a course of treatment that included a daily yoga practice.

"Yoga, huh." I thought. Sure, I'd heard of yoga. My mother had been a practitioner when we lived in Moldova in the former Soviet Union. I remembered seeing her lie on her belly and then lift her legs and a healthy chunk of her torso off the ground where she balanced seemingly effortlessly. I had thought it beautiful but it did not hold my interest. Instead, I chose aerobics and Tai Chi (more on Tai Chi in a later post). I had studied Tai Chi for a few years but my practice of Tai Chi had lain dormant for some time. Aerobics were my exercise of choice. And, I did aerobics (through VHS tapes made by Kathy Smith) every single day. (It turns out that aerobics were exactly what I *shouldn't* have been doing, but that's for a later post as well.)

So, yoga. YOGA! I did some research and purchased a Yoga VHS tape. You want to talk sore?? I hadn't know from sore. I thought I'd been in pain before I started doing it. Boy did I get a rude awakening. The main difference between aerobics (which I was used to doing) and yoga (which I obviously wasn't) was that in aerobics, I moved quickly but hardly ever consciously. The yoga tape, on the other hand, showed me a very different method. Doing the tape required slow, deliberate, and conscious movement. And the instructor didn't let you get away with *anything*. She constantly gave cues to keep your legs aligned, or your arms straight, or whatever was necessary in the asana (or pose). And you did everything, glacially. So, one asana held, meant resigning myself to straining, shaking muscles that made me want to die.

The first weeks my stiff, sore body begged me to quit, but I persevered. I kept with it and eventually (read about six months), I improved to the point that I was able to get through the tape without breaking down and weeping bitter tears onto my yoga mat. And, my muscles felt better. I wasn't in as much pain! (Here's the kicker, though. You lose any advances you make in yoga, and in feeling better, if you stop doing it for even a few days. So, once you start, you pretty much have to keep it going consistently. I believe there is some research on hypothyroidism and muscle tone [with slow build and easy loss] but I can't find the citations. Anytime, I've stopped for any length of time, I've paid the price, big time. This seems to hold more true for people with hypothyroidism than for others. Here's Mayo Clinic's list of symptoms)

Although I had left aerobics behind and embraced yoga, my numbers failed to improve a whole bunch. I hovered around a 14 TSH even though I was now popping kelp supplements with the zeal of an addict, and I had cut out spinach, broccoli and my beloved cauliflower. I also radically reduced tofu, another thyroid inhibitor (which made me cry because I *love* tofu).

So, I did more research and found out that asana that open your throat and chest are good for stimulating the thyroid. Okay. I bought my first yoga book and looked up any and all asana that worked that area of the body.

I will get much more into the asana I use and how to do them in a later post, but I wanted to give you at least a couple to review. The Yoga Journal has a great visual dictionary about asana and they have broken things down into their anatomical focal points. Here are their recommendations for asana to affect the thyroid. http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/anatomical_focus/thyroid

I am not sure agree with all of them, and certainly a good few them are likely too challenging for a beginner.

(And before we go further, please note: pretty much anything you want to do that opens your throat and allows you to spend some time breathing and allowing the airflow to massage your thyroid is great.  [By the way, I know the airflow isn't actually directly massaging the thyroid. The stretch of the area combined with breathing seems to impact it and that's the best way I can describe it.] Something I do when I need a pick-me-up: I sit back in my chair, I look up, and I breathe deeply. I allow my eyes to softly gaze up at the ceiling as I stretch the area around my throat. Again, don't let the back of your neck pinch. Keep it long and relaxed. Thirty seconds to a minute, or ten long, full breaths ought to do.)

Now, I'm going to list a few asana that have worked beautifully for me, but first, a note. Opening your chest and your throat requires bending your back. However, bending your back does not mean pinching any of the vertebra. When you bend your back in any asana, you want to maintain a feeling of elongation in the entire back (which might mean you don't bend as far but that's okay). So, while you are doing a back bend that looks suspiciously like you have transformed into a pretzel, you still want to protect the back by keeping everything as long and relaxed as possible.

To me, yoga is about proper alignment, balance, strength, flexibility, and doing only what you can on that day. I encourage all my students to progress gently. Some days, you will rock a full pose, but on other days, you might want to go only half way. Reserve judgment about all of it. It's where you are today that matters. If you focus on what you are doing right now, in this moment, whether it's yoga or brain surgery or flying a spaceship, concentrate on that and not on what you could be doing better/faster/more.

So, here are a couple that have helped me a great deal. Remember. Start slowly. Do only what you can. Listen to your body. If it even thinks about hurting, stop. But if you do a little (with comfort and conscious awareness) you will be surprised at how well you do, eventually.

Sphinx Pose: (Yoga Journal Description: http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/2464#)
(Attribution: Creative Commons)
This is one of the first back bend poses you do when you start practicing yoga. The pose allows an opening of the chest and throat without creating much tension. To do the pose, lie on your belly with your legs flat and touching each other. The tops of your feet should be on the floor. (Note: for beginners keeping your legs flat and touching like that can be challenging. Do the best you can, but remember not to do it until it hurts. Start small.) Bend your elbows, set them directly under your shoulders and hug them into your sides. Inhale and left your torso and head off the ground. You will do a mild backbend. Keep the back of your neck elongated and press your hands into the floor as you gently open your throat.

The direction to open your throat might sound strange. It's really about focusing on the throat and imagining that it is bigger than it is. See you if you can become aware of the muscle bands around the area of your throat. They might be tight so try to relax yet engage them. Feel the stretch. Now, gently lift your lower belly off the floor by pulling the muscles of your lower belly toward your spine. Keep your eyes soft and looking forward and little above eye level. Concentrate on the breaths. Make them full and long. And see if you can feel the sort of internal massage your throat/thyroid gets while the air progresses over the area, while the area is being engaged/stretched. After five or ten breaths (whichever works for you when you try it), lower yourself back down on an exhale.

[Note: Here is a terrific book that takes you through yoga in a way that makes real sense. It's a progressive eight-week program that starts small and lets you move on your own terms and in your own time. It's Rodney Yee's "Moving Toward Balance." 
http://www.amazon.com/Moving-Toward-Balance-Weeks-Rodney/dp/0875969216/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340835870&sr=8-1&keywords=moving+toward+balance (I'm giving the amazon.com link for it because there is a great description and comprehensive reviews.)]. I love this book. You don't need to do everything in it. You don't need to complete it in eight weeks. Again, do what works for you.]

Cobra Pose (Yoga Journal Description: http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/471#) is one of the best poses for thyroid stimulation. Fair warning: you might cough after doing it. If you look at the image, you will note that the back is pretty well bent in the full pose. At first, you might not be able to get all the way there. Please, don't hurt yourself trying. It is a challenging pose. To start, lie on your belly, and put your hands directly under your shoulders. With your eyes moving first, look up and allow your head to follow as you curve your neck and elongate your throat. Remember, keep aware of the back of your neck. You want it long and relaxed rather than pinched. Support your torso with your hands by pressing them into the floor. If you can straighten your arms, and move fully into the pose, that is terrific. If you are not there today, then go only as far as you can without hurting yourself. Be sure to keep the eyes looking upward and elongate your throat. Breathe five to ten deep, full breathes. When you are finished, lower yourself slowly back onto the mat on an exhalation. Cobra will leave you buzzing and stimulated and once again, you don't want to do it for too much or too long. Oh, and do Child's Pose after any backbend poses to release the spine and give you a cooling stretch in the opposite direction.

Hypothyroidism is a tricky bugger. Just when you think you've found the panacea, you find out that too much of a good thing really will kick your butt. That's exactly what happened to me. I threw myself into yoga (the physical aspects of it) but I didn't do much about how busy and tense I was. And even the busy-ness of my new mission of getting myself healthy took enough out of me that my thyroid remained sluggish and got a lot worse.

That's another thing they don't tell you. With hypothyroidism, the thing that will kick your butt? Staying (too) busy, active, and stressed.

Next time: Stress: the root of thyroid evil!


1 comment:

  1. It's great that you are finding a yoga practice beneficial for your symptoms. Have you heard any discussions about hot yoga and low thyroid? I was practicing Bikram hot yoga for quite awhile and I found that all the heat and sweating seemed to aggravate my symptom of feeling very cold all the time. Maybe it was because I missed the heat. BUT I have done some other reading and found some anecdotes about how all the sweating can cause stress endocrine systems of people who might might have low thyroid hormone. Have you heard anything about this?


Please Note

Welcome to Natural Thyroid. This blog details my process of treating my hypothyroidism naturally. Please note: I am not telling you *to* do or not to do anything with my posts (remember to work with your medical practitioner, whether it's an allopath or an alternative medicine practitioner).