Reforming – A woman overcomes chronic illness & heals her body with the sustaining power of yoga

by Monica Voss

Breathing, growing roots and letting go have sustained my body through physical life changes – pregnancy, childbirth, menopause – and my mind during parenting, working and being in relationships. Yoga fosters my imagination, offers me the opportunity to try to understand the mind, helps me to connect with the rhythms of nature. It brings me physical pleasure, comfort in my own skin, emotional security, and supports my hopes, goals and dreams.

My Hatha Yoga practice and teaching are based on three principles learned from Vanda Scaravelli, my teacher for twelve years, and synthesized by Esther Myers, my teacher, colleague and friend for almost twenty-five. In all of the poses, all of the time, we breathe, we ground the body consciously and we elongate the spine in wavelike pulsations, passively or actively using gravity for support and often releasing deeply held tension. These three principles – breathing, grounding and releasing – are universal life skills, and their application to the asanas naturally results in individual expression of the asanas and the development of a rich inner life.

I have survived six decades without serious injury, surgery or illness, so it is difficult for me to imagine experiencing continual pain and deep fatigue. One of my students has struggled through darkness and depression to the light of a very new life using grounding principles to help slough off despair, breathing to rebuild, and elongation to reach out to others. Now she offers her students the sanctuary and the resources she sought, providing succour, relief and inspiration.

Kathy Felkai immigrated to Canada from Hungary in 1980 and opened a high-end jewellery store in downtown Toronto. She had the “Superwoman syndrome,” taking care of two children, a home and the business. In her early forties, she had an active gym routine of aerobics and weights when she began to feel unexplained pain in her body.

“About ten years ago, I got aches and pains in my shoulders and arms,” she says. “I thought I had just overdone the weights. Then I began to get tired, which was very unusual because I always had tremendous energy. The pain and tiredness would go away and come back, until it began to take me off my feet for a couple of days at a time. When it really hit, I couldn’t get out of bed. My organs felt so tired, I couldn’t even breathe. For me who was always so energetic, it was devastating.”

Kathy consulted her family doctor after reading a newspaper article about chronic fatigue. Her doctor told her, “I don’t believe in it, there’s no such thing, you’re just depressed.” Eventually Kathy was able to get a referral to a rheumatologist and after six months of struggling with symptoms and unhelpful advice, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS).

Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia often co-exist; they are both chronic, but they are not the same. Dr. Valeria Blumenkranz, a yoga practitioner and medical doctor with extensive experience working with clients with CFS and FMS, stresses the difference between the conditions. “With CFS, the issue is a deep tiredness, an exhaustion that hardly allows you to accomplish anything, and with FMS, it’s the pain that impedes your activities. The only way to diagnose is through symptoms. There’s no blood test, for example, and no cure. The treatment for both conditions is the same: anti-depressants and gentle physical exercise.”

Kathy went to clinics and saw doctors who didn’t offer much except increasingly stronger painkillers. She took the anti-depressants, which gave her the strength to begin her recovery, but had to sell her jewellery business because she just couldn’t manage it. She also began to experience memory lapses.

“I was handling large amounts of cash and began to wonder what I did with that money or those diamonds. I was able to manage the pain and even the tiredness, but not the brain fog. I always thought of myself as bright and quick, but with the brain fog, I became even more anxious about what was happening to me.”

A trainer at her gym suggested that Kathy try yoga, and although the idea was “almost degrading after all my weight training,” she was eager and desperate to move her body again.

“I had no experience of yoga, didn’t know any yoga people, had never read a yoga book. I had no body-mind connection. The yoga postures did not really interest me, but the relaxation felt so good. I think I managed to take the focus away from the pain. And I became fascinated by yoga. I had no idea why it might be working.”

That sense that “something felt good” in the body motivated Kathy in a profound way. She had worked her body very hard, felt betrayed by her body, grew to hate her body, and was now finding her way out of suffering through mindful attention to the body. The revelation that the body and mind are indivisible helped Kathy realize an essential link in recovery. “It’s so important when something feels good to use the mind. If you know something and feel it, some amazing changes can begin.”

Dr. Blumenkranz suggests that CFS and FMS patients be viewed holistically. “There’s a strong sense of not being understood. Therefore, people suffering from chronic pain and fatigue tend to do better in a group led by someone who has experienced what they are experiencing.” In a yoga practice, she recommends movement with concentrated focus on the body and spending only short periods of time in each position. Conversation, supportive touch and rest are also beneficial.

“It started with the physical but went way beyond it,” says Kathy. “The grounding for me now is being present, looking at things as they are, not letting the emotions carry me away. I used to be always thinking of what could happen, what if? Soon that one little thought became an elephant!” Kathy also learned that breathing is an invaluable tool for soothing her anxiety. The breathing became “the way in.”

The focus on the release of the spine, she says, has “opened up my mind, opened my life. I’m more accepting, more tolerant, my values have changed. I feel like I enjoy life even more now than before. Yoga has opened my eyes to the little things I don’t think I noticed before, like taking a walk on a beautiful day. I never had time for that before.”

The body is the here and now, and is our grounding in reality. I have observed Kathy as a student in yoga classes for many years now and it is amazing to witness her process. She knows the route to releasing pain is through the body and she has a true desire to feel her body. Every week in class, she physically expresses the surging energy of nature renewing itself. In Vanda Scaravelli’s words, “The resulting wave is extraordinarily powerful… an unexpected opening follows, an opening from within us, giving life to the spine… the body awakens into another dimension.”

Kathy never expected the level of recovery she’s experienced and is excited about the effects of physical movements on thought patterns, emotions, attitudes and even ethics. She was determined to persist by herself without medical intervention and without much familial support, but she claims that yoga gave her the extra courage and motivation required to teach.

For the past ten years, she has been instructing breast cancer classes designed by Esther Myers at the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre, and the yoga program at the Wasser Pain Management Clinic  at Toronto’s Mt. Sinai Hospital. In 2012 she was a guest speaker at CPS Annual Chronic Pain Refresher Course; presenting yoga for managing chronic pain and in 2013 she was featured on the Dr. Marla and Friends show about yoga for chronic conditions and pain.

Kathy considered teaching as an expression of her desire to help, but also as a challenge and an experiment – to find out how far she could take this practice that was at first a last-ditch effort at reclaiming some part of her devastated life. How deep can the breath go? How full the awareness? And what really are the effects?

To connect with the reality of the body begins the process of loving and healing the body. Kathy’s practical message to her students is to not identify with the pain. “You have that pain, but that’s not who you are. Movement creates pain, but you must go through pain. If you don’t, what is the future? If you stay where you are, there’s still pain.”

Kathy feels that these days her life is good. What she’s learning, teaching and experiencing are integrated. As well as a yoga teacher, she is a single mother with an active social life and many interests. She claims that anyone can help to transform difficulties. “It’s not complicated. It’s not only for the special few. You don’t have to be a genius or a scientist. You just have to make the decision!”

As I listen to Kathy’s story, I’m reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple and strong invitation for beginning walking meditation: “Anyone can do it. It only takes a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.”

My yoga practice has made me feel grounded, happy and at home in my body and mind. Kathy’s bravery is a reminder that yoga prepares us with little challenges, such as the Headstand, for bigger ones: sickness, disability, death. Now, as I pray for courage to face all obstacles, I trust in the breathing, the grounding and the releasing that I experience through yoga.

Published by Ascent Magazine
Issue 38, Sustainablity, Summer 2008

Scaravelli, Vanda. Awakening the Spine. New York: HarperOne, 1991.
Thich Nhat Hanh. The Long Road Turns to Joy. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996.

1 thought on “Reforming – A woman overcomes chronic illness & heals her body with the sustaining power of yoga”

  1. I am one of Kathy’s grateful students. Practicing her Restoryoga for the past 7 years I have been able to live more comfortably with chronic back pain. Her care & concern for each member of the class has encouraged us to get in touch with our bodies & to focus on the parts that limiting us. What I have learned from Kathy I practice daily, & I believe that I would not be able to manage pain without doing so. Her methods are special & because of her teaching I have been able to join other yoga classes & to make yoga a central part of my life.

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