ME/CFS overview

ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is a serious illness affecting around 250,000 people in the UK. There is some confusion around the name; the term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome actually covers a variety of illnesses including ME, cancer, MS, depression, heart and lung disorders and diabetes; all of which can cause severe fatigue as a side-effect of the original disease.

ME stands for myalgia encephalomyelitis and describes a chronic condition with a range of symptoms such as brain fog, memory loss, muscle aches and pains, sleep disturbance, sensitivity to light, noise and extremes in temperature and severe fatigue which is not made better by rest.

People with ME will often follow a pattern of relapse and remission, so that they may be able to function quite well at times and at other times be completely incapable of doing anything. The illness can last for many years, although surveys done by the charity Action for ME have suggested that those who are given an early diagnosis can recover well, provided that they take enough rest and manage their illness by pacing themselves. The illness varies from person to person – some people can function and even work part-time while others need to use a wheel chair or are bed-bound.

ME is often caused by a combination of stress followed by either a virus, inoculation, shock or toxin such as organophosphate poisoning. There are various theories about what prolongs the illness, but most evidence shows that the immune function remains faulty and is often over-activated. Additionally, people with ME often produce too much adrenaline and cortisol as the body may remain in a chronic ‘fight and flight’ pattern, which will include hyperventilation.

A few years ago, doctors would advise patients to exercise more; something that was actually counter-productive and pushed people into relapse. The current protocol for ME/CFS from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) is to recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), anti-depressants (even though most people do not have a primary depression) and graded activity. This benefits some but not all as many people with ME will be made worse with any aerobic activity.

It can be seen from this that yoga is hugely beneficial in treating ME, although a remedial teacher who runs a dedicated ME class is advised as a general class may be too strong for someone with ME. Teachers who work with this condition understand the importance of going gently and not pushing students, encouraging them to learn to pace themselves and listen to their bodies both in the class and off the mat. Primarily the teacher will show the student how to correct faulty breathing patterns so as to re-set the autonomic function back to health. This involves slower diaphragmatic breathing and correcting the student if they are mouth breathing.

Much emphasis is also placed on relaxing and releasing long-held tensions and habits (samskaras). Visualisation, affirmations, chanting, pranayama and meditation techniques are also used to encourage healing in the energetic body so that prana (universal life force energy) can flow effectively. The teacher will also work on the problems of muscle atrophy through de-conditioning – but again, very gently, teaching the student not to push and not to be competitive. Building up muscle groups in the back, core, legs and arms is gently encouraged. Inversions are also used as there is evidence from a study done by Dr Costas of the Royal Free hospital in the 1990s that those with ME have lack of blood flow to the head. While it is arguable that inversions can increase this, what they do is to raise blood pressure (most people with ME have low blood pressure) and help to encourage better circulation.

The Yoga for Health Foundation at Ickwell Bury was, in its day, a pioneer in setting up protocols for yoga and ME.

There are some teachers throughout the UK trained to help those with this condition. For details contact Angela Stevens or Fiona Agombar Fiona and Angela run courses for teachers interested in teaching those with ME. Angela has some excellent CDs including a series called Breath to Live. Fiona has written a book and produced a DVD Beat Fatigue with Yoga (Cherry Red publications), which many find useful. Fiona runs regular retreats for those with ME at Claridge House in Lingfield, Surrey and in Turkey. For details of these visit Courses and Events or Fiona's website.

Learning about yoga and leading a yoga life-style is a very effective way of overcoming many chronic conditions and, although not a quick fix, is particularly effective with ME in encouraging a change towards a more healthy and relaxed way of being.

A ‘Yoga for ME’ CD is available from experienced remedial teacher, Joy Frame. Cost £5 including postage & packing. Email

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