When you’re diagnosed with chronic illness, is there anything you can do to improve your health and happiness? Can you (fully) recover from persisting health problems, and if so, how? In this interview, Rachel Marie White from Sleepy Santosha shares her story.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Hi, my name is Rachel. I’m a certified yoga instructor and I run an online yoga platform called Sleepy Santosha. I teach yoga exclusively for people living with chronic pain and chronic illness, so every class is accessible and gentle. Because I’ve been living with chronic illness for almost a decade, I know first hand how discouraging it can feel when your body can no longer do the things it used to do. But my motto is: whatever you are capable of doing is worth doing. And that is the spirit behind the work I do.
When did you first get sick?
I was never a wholly healthy person. I was born with a lot of health problems, and throughout my childhood had a lot of digestive issues, fatigue, and let’s just say I was never a very athletically gifted person. I started experiencing symptoms associated with pectus excavatum in 2010 when I was in my first year of college. I felt breathless and couldn’t exercise at all. I was spending a lot of time in bed, and this was what really pushed me to make health changes.
What were the first steps you took to start your ‘health journey’? Have you made any lifestyle changes to support your healing?
In 2011, I had surgery to correct pectus excavatum, and although this was a necessary procedure that helped with a lot of my symptoms. I think the surgery was a huge burden for my body. I started experiencing chronic pain all over my body, which was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Years later, I was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, and POTS.
In the beginning, I exhausted every resource conventional medicine could offer me. Like most Americans, I grew up thinking that if there was a problem, you took a pill for it and it would get better.
Only it didn’t get better.
So I started pursuing alternative medicine. I had started practicing yoga in 2010, but it became an even bigger part of my life. I was practicing every day, even if it was just one pose. I cleaned up my diet and started using herbs and vitamins to support my body. I started meditating. And even though I still have health issues, I maintain a relatively active lifestyle in spite of my illnesses because I am vigilant about my self care, setting boundaries and budgeting my energy.
Have you had any psychological breakthroughs that helped you?
I think the turning point for me was realizing that my body wasn’t my enemy. When we look at the way the human body is designed, it’s primary goal is survival and maintaining equilibrium. Our bodies want to be healthy just as much as we do. So if we’re struggling, it’s not because our bodies are bad. It’s because they’re fighting something. So now, instead of focusing my energy on hating my body, I focus on how I can support and care for my body so that it can do its job more efficiently. My body and I are a team.
Have you noticed any improvements since you started working on your health?
There are always ups and downs, but because of my yoga and meditation practice, I am better able to adjust to these fluctuations. I allow myself time and space for rest. My mindset has become healthier, and I feel like this has had a bigger impact on my wellbeing than anything else.
How do you overcome the obstacles on your way? Where do you find the courage, hope and determination?
I always give myself space to feel whatever I’m feeling in the moment. Trying to be positive when I don’t feel positive can just make it worse. So I let myself cry and rage and grieve. And then I remind myself that nothing is permanent. I’ve made it through some horrible situations in the past, and I am a strong, resilient, resourceful person. It’s all about being kind and gentle toward yourself. Nothing good ever comes from beating yourself up.
How would you define ‘recovery’?
I think that healing and recovery are the natural course for the body. We don’t have to force it to happen. It’s more so about removing the things that are getting in the way of that healing and bringing in supportive strategies that allow the body to do what it was designed to do.
And I love yoga for this because yoga doesn’t just focus on the physical body. It addresses every aspect of the human being so that we can find an integration in mind, body and spirit. It helps to bring us back to our natural state: which is health.
What would you like to tell others who are living with chronic health problems?
Whatever you are capable of doing is worth doing. I think a lot of us get trapped in this “all or nothing” mindset. But whatever you are capable of doing is worth doing. Even if it’s just lying in bed and taking ten conscious deep breaths. There have been multiple points along my journey where I was bedbound. I couldn’t get on my yoga mat. All I could do was lie in bed and breathe into the spaces of my body that hurt. But every little bit counts. I went from doing yoga in bed to now practicing vinyasa yoga three or four times a week and teaching yoga to thousands of people all over the world. Everything adds up over time. So if there’s an easy self-care practice you can integrate in your life right now, do it. Even if it’s small. You are worth the effort it takes.
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