Photo Credit: courtesy of Cheryl Kain
By 2006, Cheryl Kain was at a breaking point. She was caring for her dying mother and trying to maintain a long distance relationship. Kain, then 44, was also struggling to manage her newly-diagnosed type 2 diabetes.
It was too much. Three times that year, heart palpitations brought Kain, a voice teacher and writer, to the emergency room near her home in Cape Cod, Mass. Doctors put her on beta-blockers to control them. She suffered panic attacks, acid reflux and sciatica (pain, numbness, or tingling in the leg). Eating to calm herself, Kain became 120 pounds overweight. She ate a pack a day of Tums for indigestion, and took three daily medications for her diabetes. But the drugs did little to help. Kain felt exhausted and depressed.
“I was a wreck,” Kain, now 48, recalls. “I knew I had to do something, but didn’t know what.”
Her father recommended a five-day retreat at Kripalu, a yoga center in Western Massachusetts which emphasizes a holistic lifestyle. Kain wasn’t convinced it would help. “I figured it couldn’t hurt,” she says, “but I wasn’t sold on anything.”
Yoga, an Eastern practice that combines stretching with breathing exercises, chanting or meditation, has been shown to improve stress. It can slow a practitioner’s heart rate and breathing rate and lower blood pressure, says Stephen Cope, M.S.W., who directs scientific research at Kripalu. It can also lengthen brain waves (a sign of relaxation) and decrease levels of blood-glucose and the hormone cortisol, both components of stress. In a study Cope conducted with Harvard Medical School professor Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D., professional musicians who practiced yoga regularly for eight weeks reported that they felt better and experienced less performance anxiety,tension and anger. Yoga, Khalsa says, alters practitioners’ sense of what is stressful, making them feel more capable of managing their emotions.
“They have a greater sense of their ability to control the intensity of how they feel their feelings and express them,” Cope adds. “It gives them a sense of being less at the mercy of feelings, thoughts and moods.”
At Kripalu, Kain practiced yoga every morning and also learned to meditate. She also learned to bring yoga and meditation into the choices she made about food and stressful situations. Because yoga and meditation are structured around deliberate breathing and movement, they promote heightened awareness of emotions and physical sensations. That taught Kain to eat “mindfully,” aware of whether she was truly hungry – or just upset – before she chose to consume food. Even doing a few minutes of yoga when she was dragging (putting her legs up against the wall is a favorite pose) gave her energy without having to break open a candy bar.
Her struggle to control her expanding girth began to ease.
“I had really lived life from the shoulders up, in my head – that changed for me,” Kain says. “As a lifetime overeater, I’d eat to avoid feelings. All of a sudden I was living in my body and it became not scary. I could feel things and the world wasn’t going to end. If I felt angry or lonely it would pass, just like my food cravings.”
Kain stuck with yoga and meditation after she got home, squeezing in a weekly yoga class and practicing at home once a week even as she continued caring for her mother. And that knowledge proved crucial as her mother’s health declined even further and Kain moved in. Even when she helped her mom negotiate repeated emergency room visits, Kain managed her own stress by packing a healthy meal for herself and practicing deep breathing at the hospital.
The effect on Kain’s health has been been dramatic. These days, Kain still feels drained from grieving (her mother died in August 2009), but she hasn’t been to the E.R. for heart palpitations in two years and no longer takes beta blockers. She has lost 50 of the 120 pounds she hopes to take off and is down to one daily diabetes medication. She no longer has sciatica or acid reflux, and her panic attacks and depression are a thing of the past.
Kain has found yoga and meditation to be surprisingly easy,and affordable, to keep up at home. She alternates between 10 minutes of yogic breathing and 30 minutes of meditation every other morning. Recently, she began teaching yoga to seniors and practices three or four times a week.
“It was a process – it’s not like magic,” Kain says. “What clicked was how great it felt to be in balance and living in my body and treating my body well. I know how it feels to be healthy now, so I want to continue that.
“I think I’m a more patient, compassionate person because I’m compassionate with myself,” she adds. “Yoga has helped give me that. It really gives me hope.”