5 Steps to Rebuild your Yoga Practice After Illness or Surgery
People have frequently asked me how I practice yoga now that I have an ileostomy. For me, there was no option but to relearn. In truth, I began practising again (very gently) 4 weeks post op. I was simultaneously learning how to move with a bag attached to my belly, and how to place my body cut, battered and bruised by surgery as a result of a ruthless, flare of Ulcerative Colitis. Sally (my stoma) and I very much went on the adventure together.
Stepping back onto my mat 3 weeks after major abdominal surgery brought both the biggest smile, and a deep sinking feeling, followed quickly by frustration and tears. I had spent the 7 months since my diagnosis & first hospitalisation rebuilding my strength and endurance as well as trying to accept my body. What I was met with post surgery was total muscle wastage, unable to do the simplest of things like step back on my mat, hold my own body weight or practise for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. I was so disappointed. Then, my wonderful friend and teacher pointed out to me that this was the greatest opportunity to learn: to really challenge myself, really listen to and heal my body, and deepen my ability to teach others for whom yoga may not come so easily.
Starting from what felt like square one teaches you a lot, some of which I can hopefully share to help others. I should note, if you are in a similar position, please speak to your health care team before beginning any form of exercise but use this time to really focus on yourself, nourishing your body both physically & mentally. Listen to you body and enjoy!
Let go of any expectations
From the get go, I encourage you to stop comparing yourself now to where you were before your illness or surgery. You have been on a huge journey already and beginning to practise again is a big step. Your body may not be capable of the same things, but use this as a time to learn. Listen to your body, really honour how it feels and know when to step back - let go of your ego! This is one of the the biggest things I have learnt. I would push myself to practise longer than my body was ready for and this rarely ended well. Do things because you want to and they feel good, not because you think you should be able to do them or once could. Things will come in time, when your body is ready. Trust in that process and trust in yourself.
Be kind to yourself
Don’t forget that you have just been through a trauma, whether that be mental, physical or both. Now is the time to be kind and really look after yourself. Practise meditation or stillness, give yourself 30 minutes on the mat, at least 20 of which is taken up on a bolster, in Savasana! Just because you perhaps aren’t as strong or flexible as you were before, doesn’t make you any more or less of a person. Don’t forget that. A lot of how yoga is documented online is very showy - almost acrobatic. For some people this is perfect - for us recovering, the bolsters, reclined poses meditation and childs pose have just as important a place and are just as beautiful.
Love your body for the things it has done, the things it has pulled you through and will continue to. It really is a little miracle!
Listen and honour your edge
Use this time to really invest in your body. As ever with a yoga practice, things come and go, you lose some postures and gain others. See what your body can do and try not to be scared. Trust that you know what you can and can’t do, so play with that edge, give something a shot and have fun. But now is not the time to be pushing yourself. You will know quite quickly if it’s not for you today. I can’t tell you how many times I would be 15 minutes into a practice feeling alright and as I moved into the next posture I immediately stopped. Almost every time I felt my body go ‘no, that’s enough for today’ it was as if a switch had been flicked and I knew to step back and bliss out for the rest of the class (quite a treat really!).
Great yoga teachers are worth their weight in gold and I was lucky to have 2 who knew me and my practice before my health flared. They encouraged me to listen to my body, not minding if I hit my Savasana half way through a class. If you have a regular teacher, I am sure they will be more than happy to be holding a space for you to practise what you can. Enjoy being back on your mat and have patience. Know that if that longer practice, or specific posture doesn’t happen today, there's no problem with that, it might next week or next month!
Release bad habits
When you find yourself rebuilding from the roots up, or even just back a step or two, use this opportunity to explore & learn! Maybe you used to hang back allowing your knees to hyperextend in Downward Facing Dog, or let the elbows splay out when you lowered Chaturanga. As you rebuild your practice and your strength, really focus on these areas, allowing your body to reconnect and iron out bad habits you had picked up before.
Enjoy the space and time to really focus in on each posture as you move through it, seeing how it feels in your body and exploring how you can work on building strength & correct alignment.
Enjoy this time to really engage with your yoga practice. Listen to your body and be open to changing things up a bit. Be playful, try breathing in a different way, incorporating more Yin into your practice. Take note of how that feels. Try something, fall out of it, laugh at yourself, let the frustration go, and know these things will come in time.
Remember that what you have come through has made you stronger, maybe more focused. Embrace the fact that your body has carried you through this challenging time and it will continue to do so. In the meantime, be kind to yourself and enjoy getting your body moving again.
Image by OCTOABI