Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by fatigue, pain in the joints and connective tissues, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. For the millions of Americans diagnosed with fibromyalgia, most of whom are women, the diagnosis is small comfort. The cause is unknown, there is no cure or single standard of treatment, and because many people appear healthy on the outside, their symptoms are not always taken seriously. Because pain medications don’t always help, many patients look to alternative and complimentary techniques like yoga for fibromyalgia relief. Because of its meditative qualities and ability to relieve other kinds of pain, researchers have begun investigating the merits of using yoga for fibromyalgia patients.

In a small-scale study of about 50 women, yoga appeared to provide some relief for symptoms like pain and stiffness. Half of the women in the study participated in a 2 hour, once a week Yoga of Awareness class, while the control group continued their usual treatment routine. The Yoga of Awareness classes consisted of 40 minutes of yoga postures, and about 80 minutes of breathing, meditation, and discussion. The women were also given DVDs that they could use to practice at home daily. At the end of the 8 week study, around 90% of the yoga students reported feeling better to varying degrees, compared with 19% in the control group. And throughout the course of the study, the yoga students reported a decrease in the severity of their fibromyalgia symptoms.

This news is likely not surprising to yogis, many of whom have felt the benefits of a yoga practice in their own lives. Many schools of yoga emphasize internal aspects of yoga, such as awareness of the breath and gentle acceptance of bodily sensations. The Yoga of Awareness participants practiced is drawn from Kripalu yoga, and has also been used to help women with breast cancer deal with the physical and emotional side-effects of their treatment. The practices of yoga help to strengthen the mind-body connection, and teach people to use this connection to improve their internal, emotional state. The creators of Yoga of Awareness tailor the program to suit the needs of participants, with the goal of helping them to “ride the waves” of life in a balanced, aware way.

Because the mind-body connection is difficult to scientifically study, researchers are not yet ready to give yoga a blanket approval. They point out that the improvements could be the result of the placebo effect. However they also stated that whatever the cause, the fact that so many participants felt better is most important. Movement and exercise are commonly recommended for fibromyalgia patients, but the pain and fatigue of many times of exercise make it difficult. The gentle nature of many yoga postures, coupled with meditation and the social aspects of group discussion are believed to have made it easier for the women to embrace the yoga practice.

Like any other medical condition, people with fibromyalgia should not jump into just any yoga class. Restorative yoga, or other gentle practices are more appropriate than intense or highly active practices. Students should inform their teacher of any issues or limitations they have, so the teacher can provide modifications. And if classes focus almost entirely on yoga postures, the researchers involved in the study recommend seeking out a meditation course as well.

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