A letter to yogis with chronic illness

meditation for chronic illness

Since I started this blog, and started telling my story, specifically, “When Breathing isn’t Easy – A Cystic Fibrosis Adult’s Journey to Teaching Yoga,” I began to get emails from people with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) or parents of children with CF from all over the world. I’ve done my best to give advice based on what I’ve learned and on my own personal experience. I often hear from yogis with CF about their struggles with practicing yoga without being self-conscious, which I don’t think is unique to people with CF.

So, here’s a letter to the yogis who have expressed doubt about pursuing yoga because they are afraid some aspect of their illness will be bothersome to other people in a yoga class.  While this one is targeted at someone with CF, the message is applicable to all of the yogis out there battling chronic illness.

“Dear Awesome Yogi,

I certainly understand what you’re going through, and your concern about starting a regular practice in class out of fear that your cough will distract or irritate other students.  As people with CF (or any chronic illness for that matter), we don’t ever want to be a bother to anyone or be pitied, etc., right?
The thing is, our cough is really a bigger deal to us than to anyone else.  I used to struggle through savasana because it was hard to breathe lying flat on my back, and I didn’t want to disturb anyone.  So, I started taking savasana on my side or sitting against the wall.
For the yoga teachers whom I saw regularly, I let them know about my challenges, and the modifications I chose to make.  None of them ever have a problem with it.  In fact, all of them had additional, helpful suggestions on how I can modify my poses so I can get the most out of my practice without adding mind struggle to the mix.
I also had the same reservations about teacher training.  I thought, “what if I start coughing during meditation?”  “what if I have to miss a week because I’m sick?”  “what if I get made fun of because I’m too thin?”  Turns out,  it was the most loving, welcoming and accepting experience I’ve ever had.  It literally changed my life, and my preconceived view that people judge me because of my illness.
In training, we had several check-ins during the day in which we went around in a circle and discussed what we were feeling, anything that was on our minds, etc.  Right away, when it was my turn, I shared with my fellow students.  I told them about my disease, my struggles, my  triumph, my concerns, and no one responded with pity or disgust.  I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders as I unburdened myself from this “secret” I was harboring in an effort to protect myself.   My fellow teacher colleagues were understanding, and it actually led more people to open up about their own issues.
The coughing was rarely an issue.  In fact,during meditation, if I had to cough, I realized that they were all probably deeply into their meditation or just understanding because no one acted ‘disturbed.’
Yoga is about cultivating acceptance of exactly where you are right now.  It’s also about silencing the mind despite what’s going on around you.  So, maybe our cough serves as outside noise to someone who’s working on their personal meditation practice and needs to learn how to focus inward despite what’s going on outside of their space.
What you have to recognize is that EVERYONE has some hangup about themselves.  Something they’re self-conscious about that they either flat out with didn’t exist, or something they’re working through.  So, you’re not as alone as you think.  If you have to cough, cough.  If it causes you so much anxiety that you can’t focus on your practice, step outside.  Have your coughing fit, and come back to class.

Yoga, pranayama and meditation will help your lung capacity as well as your self-acceptance, and help with anxiety.  Use your anxiety about your illness as an opportunity to grow, spiritually.  when you feel a wave of emotion or fear begin to rise up, simply let it go.  Or better yet, ride it all the way to shore and know that you’re not alone.  
Keep in touch, and let me know if you need anything else.

Again, while I know this is slanted for someone with a respiratory disorder, the message is the same. Don’t be ashamed of who you are, no matter what. If you have an illness that you’re battling and someone in your yoga class is ‘disturbed’ by it. That’s their problem to work through. Allow you to be yourself, and all that comes with it. Accept yourself with the same unconditional love you would show a child who needs you.

Love starts with you.

(Photo: The Conversation)


– Your Charmed Yogi

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12 thoughts on “A letter to yogis with chronic illness

  1. Having practiced yoga for many years, I could say that one’s yoga practice should be done without judgement towards oneself and others. It is an introspection and not an external observation. I echo your sentiment…if others have a problem with
    it, it is theirs to deal with.

  2. Honestly, I don’t recall your coughing so much as I recall your laughter….especially when you managed to get Father Bear laughing, too. 😀

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  10. I think this is great! Thankyou for writing this. I have found a spiritual journey has been the most beneficial realisation that has come from my illness – I have been battling with chronic respiratory problems for 3 years now. I have been tested for CF several times, however I keep resulting in a negative result. I am on the exact same medication/dose as a CF patient and I have the same symptoms. It’s more about managing my illness rather than putting a name to it. I find the same problem – during exercise, classes, at the work office, during meditation (etc) I cough – and it’s really embarrassing sometimes. Everyone thinks I’m contagious and I should be at home “getting better”. It’s sometimes hard to block that out of your head, and I find people comment a lot on my cough as it’s so bad. I’m sorry to hear what you are going through – but it is also reassuring that there are other people feeling the same as me (as much as I would love for no one to have respiratory problems!) I have a blog in process if you’d like to check it out –



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