Yoga with Fibromyalgia: Carol Royal's Story

US News

Have you ever tried yoga? It's not just for the thin, fit and athletically-built. Just about anyone who can breathe can practice yoga to some extent and reap its many benefits. We'll prove it. In this series, U.S. News talks with people who are changing the face of yoga.

Carol Royal is a nana to three (going on four) grandchildren and lives in Wilkesboro, N.C., a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She's certified to teach several yoga specialities, and she also has fibromyalgia. This syndrome is unique to everyone who has it, but the main symptom is widespread pain in the muscles--muscles that stretch and strengthen while practicing yoga. Royal found yoga almost accidentally. In fact, it was more like yoga found her. She was coping with pain through meditation, and wanted nothing more than to take her practice outside in the yard on a bright, sunny morning. But for several days, every time she tried outdoor meditation, she could only sit for a minute before her pain acted up.

"I said to myself: 'Body, look, what would it take for me to be able to sit here comfortably and meditate, and do this for myself?'" Royal says. "And immediately, surprisingly, I started moving. My body started doing these simple, easy, flowing stretches. And then I was able to sit comfortably for much longer than a minute!" Royal continued these stretches for a few more days before realizing she was practicing yoga. "I knew nothing about yoga whatsoever, but my body had led me in that direction."

And the rest, more or less, is history. Below, Royal continues her yoga story with U.S. News. Her responses have been edited.

First, could you explain what fibromyalgia feels like?

It feels bad. There are so many different areas of the body that fibro affects--like your mood, nervous system and obviously your muscles. In my case, the muscles feel very tight and tense all the time. So, the gentle stretching helps soothe that pain of the tight muscles. With fibro, you also feel achiness in your muscle fibers, kind of like you have a slight flu all the time. You have to be really careful if you do too much activity or stress the muscles too much because that causes them to go into severe pain. After you've overdone something, the pain is so intense that the only thing I can compare it to is like waking up after surgery. It makes you sick to your stomach.

Luckily, it's only gotten that bad for me three times. With fibro, the more I practice yoga, the more the pain limit is lifted. Say, if I'm in a space where my fibro pain is almost out of control, like an eight or nine on the scale, and I start the yoga practices, the pain level goes down to a two or three pretty quickly. It's amazing.

Besides pain management, how else has yoga affected your life?

My sleep has improved. With fibro, sleep is a big issue, but I've learned techniques that help. For example, if I'm awakened with pain, I know how to practice deep breathing and try different methods to calm my muscles. This helps the pain, and then I can get back to sleep.

And basically, I'm just feeling so much better than I did 20 years ago. I play better. My heart is always full of love. It's all because of finding yoga and breathing practices.

How do you play better?

I have three grandchildren and another one on the way. Twenty years ago, I was so frustrated with being in pain for so long and having depression. It was hard to play with the children and to get out and do anything active that brings most people joy. Just to be able to sit on the floor and play with the little ones as they grow up, to ride bikes--these are things that, before yoga, I was not able to do.

Excellent! Do you have a favorite pose?

My favorite is the squatting pose. For some reason, with the way my body is made, when the knees are separated and go down into squatting, it just feels so good on my back, lower back, shoulders, legs and hips.

How did you get into teaching yoga?

In 2010, I decided to share yoga with other people because, especially in our town, nobody knew the benefits. Most people in my area at that time had only been exposed to photos of perfectly-fit bodies doing yoga poses. I was so thrilled and wanted to share it. But I couldn't figure out how to get through the teacher training with the fibro. That was really, really tough. It took me a few years of asking questions and pleading with people. Finally, I found a place in Virginia, and in 2010, I went there and lived at this place for a month and did my 200-hour basic teacher training. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But I did get through it and became a registered yoga teacher.

What's been your biggest challenge with yoga?

There's a public and a private biggest challenge. Publicly, I find that the biggest challenge to going out and doing yoga is my size because I am overweight. And privately, my biggest challenge is the fibro itself. My muscles will probably never be able to stretch out like most people's, but that doesn't mean that I don't get all the wonderful benefits of yoga.

Any advice for yoga beginners?

This is pretty general advice, but it's the best advice I know: Take it slow and easy, and stay focused on your own body and your own breath. If you do that, you're going to have an amazing experience with yoga. The second that you look across the room and start comparing yourself to other people, you're going to find that the benefits go way down. You start to tense up and have negative self-talk. It's not a good situation. Take it slow and easy.

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