Yoga and illness | Barbara Gallani

Yoga and Illness

Barbara Gallani specialises in teaching yoga as a tool to support times of illness. In this article she explores how yoga can help us to connect our body and mind when unwell.

Yoga and Illness

While in complete lockdown, I experienced the swelling of some lymph nodes, accompanied by fever and quite a lot of pain. It took a couple of days for the cause of this discomfort, not COVID-19 but a banal mouth ulcer, to become apparent and another few days for the problem to resolve itself. During the first two days and nights I did not feel in charge of my thoughts.  My mind kept going around and around the list of all my symptoms. I would wake up in the middle of the night overwhelmed by fear. As a yogini, I had some very useful tools to manage these moments: conscious breathing and pranayama exercises to calm myself and regain a more manageable perspective on what my body was going through.

During testing times such as the one we are living through, falling ill can be accompanied by a sense of great anxiety as doctors and treatments might be less accessible. We can find ourselves experiencing worrying symptoms while confined at home, maybe alone. In these cases, in addition to following the advice of our doctor, we can use breathing exercises to find a sense of calm and connection, and we can to meet our changed or changing needs by listening to our bodies with compassion. This same practice can assist us when dealing with a condition that affects our energy levels, mobility, lung capacity or ability to concentrate. In these situations we need to let go of all expectations and give ourselves the space to heal. 

Here are some situations we might experience and some tools that can support our healing:

1. Fear of becoming ill

This is a very common and natural state of mind. It is possible to use breathing exercises and body awareness practices to focus on the present moment and move away from circular unhelpful thoughts.

Sit or lie comfortably and warm. Close your eyes or lower your gaze. Bring your attention to your nostrils and to your natural breathing. 

Practising Yoga Nidra can also help connect with one’s body and emotions.

Try this yoga class for supporting anxiety

or this class to support your breath and bring you into a state of calm.

2 Feeling quite unwell 

When I have been ill I have happened to be completely absorbed by my illness and even unable to remember ever being well. Pain can be terrible and remove our ability to connect with our thoughts or with other people.

Pranayama and relaxation can help, to a certain extent, manage pain and assist our healing.

While lying in bed, allow your attention to focus on the parts of the body in contact with the mattress. Bring your attention to the back of the body, the front of the body or your side, depending on how you are lying. Feel all points of contact with the mattress sink softly towards the floor. Allow your physical body to sink deeper and deeper and to feel cocooned and protected.   

Try this class to help you focus on your breath

3 Being bed-bound or coming to terms with physical limitations

Our bodies are constantly changing. Some changes are gradual while some, for example the ones brought about by an illness, can be very sudden. Conditions that affect our energy levels, mobility, lung capacity or ability to concentrate can be particularly challenging. A gentle yoga practice, from the safety and comfort of our bed, can help us reconnect with our body and support the healing process.

Try to let go of your idea of how your body should respond to your instructions. Also try to let go of what you consider to be your usual yoga practice or physical activity routines. Allow yourself to find stillness and comfort while lying in your bed. Bring some mobility into your fingers. Wriggle your fingers and then stretch them out before closing them into fists. Repeat slowly a few times. Now bring some movement into your wrists by rotating them in one direction and then the other. You can now place your hands on your shoulders and slowly lift or rotate your elbows in the air, bringing movement into the shoulder joints. Find again stillness. Now bring some movement into your toes and ankles with slow rotations in both directions.

Try this class if you are in bed and low on energy

Gentle Yoga for Times of Illness

If you need additional support, why not try our course Gentle Yoga for Time of Illness. This includes 27 short classes addressing the common states you might find yourself in during illness such as anxiety and fatigue and it supports you to build strength as you feel better. Also included are three specially commissioned recipes.


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