by Candice, late stage lyme and chemical sensitivity survivor
Suzanne Stephens of Yoga Empowered is, without a doubt, infectiously optimistic. Her motivation is contagious, and her strength is inspirational. She’s one chronically badass Yogi. Suzanne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. At 27 years old, her diagnosis turned her world upside down. She faced the overwhelming task of reshaping her life, a life once full of soda pop and rock and roll, as she embarked on her journey of living life with a chronic illness. At the young age of 27, it would have been easy to be bitter about the weighted diagnosis and her new physical hinderences, but instead of throwing in the towel and walking around with a chip on her shoulder Suzanne took matters into her own hands. She researched and looked tirelessly for tools that could help her manage and reclaim balance in her life. That’s when she found yoga, and simultaneously landed where she was always meant to be.
Hi Suzanne. Thank you for taking part in this interview today. You are quite an inspiration to so many of us who live with chronic illness. Can you tell me a little bit about your diagnosis and how your journey with yoga ensued?
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2003. At the time I was a bass player in a rock band, a hairstylist by day and my main food groups were pizza and diet coke. I was scared to death – having no idea what MS was or what that meant for me. I’d only been to a doctor for strep throat a handful of times and, until that point, I found a shot of whiskey could cure most of what ailed me. I was 27 years old.
Immediately, I began learning about MS. I learned that everyone’s dis-ease progresses differently, some meds work, some don’t, some strict diets worked for some but what interested me most was the one and only consistency I found again and again. In all my research, I found that lifestyle modification and stress reduction were the two things that created the brightest prognosis, whether you have MS or another auto-immune condition. I heard yoga was good for stress reduction and figured if I needed anything at that time – it was stress reduction! So, I joined my local YMCA and started taking one class a week.
I loved it! I began feeling confident in my body again. I felt so deflated, defeated and let down by my body being un-able all of a sudden. Yet, when I’d leave yoga class I always felt better, even if I couldn’t do everything everyone else was doing in the class. I didn’t know why it made me feel so much better (in mind and body) but I figured, feeling better was good enough for me. I kept taking classes, bought books and learned more about yoga practice. Eventually, a teacher of mine recommended I take a teacher training course. I thought she was kind but out of her skull! Me? Teach yoga? Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed… how could I teach yoga?! It was then that I learned that yoga is not just physical postures (asana) but also pranayama (breath work), meditation, self study and ritual. The goal of yoga practice is to see things as they are, including yourself, and to find balance in body, mind and spirit. As long as you can breathe – you can do yoga! This is when my practice really began to become a huge part of my life. This is when teaching became something I did because I couldn’t shut up about how and why a yoga practice helps living with chronic conditions.
Was there ever a point in your struggle with Multiple Sclerosis that you began to doubt that you would be able to continue to practice yoga?
I’ve never doubted my ability to continue practicing – as long as I can breathe, I can practice yoga. As for doubts about teaching yoga, I have absolutely battled with doubts! I was lucky enough to do my entire 500 hour teacher training (with emphasis on therapeutic applications) with a teacher who taught me to meet myself where I am. I was encouraged to listen to my body with loving-kindness, at times when I’d feel physically/ cognitively challenged, and to honor that and do to what I could. I never felt rushed to come back to training – she let me know I could come back and continue when I’m feeling better. We’ll just meet ourselves there and continue to move forward. I took two breaks from my training due to MS exacerbations and got caught up when I could. I finished the entire training with the rest of my class to boot! That was super cool!
I continue to teach students to meet themselves where they are with loving-kindness. Most of us tend to ignore our bodies, often in hopes that messages (sensation, pain, feeling off etc) will just go away. Our body gives us messages to listen to – not to ignore. This is a huge part of what I teach my students and even more importantly, how I lead by example. If I come in to teach when I would have been better served by getting some rest- I become a hypocrite since I tell students to listen to their bodies, to honor themselves, and to practice accordingly.
You now hold yoga classes exclusively for those with chronic health conditions. You so poignantly named your classes “Yoga Empowered”; how do you feel that yoga empowers those who are living with a chronic illness?
Yoga Empowered comes from the truth that yoga is meant to fit its practitioner – you! Not my practice, not the practice you did 2 weeks ago, not the pop-culture yoga you see on glossy magazines with models wearing fancy yoga gear – your practice is meant to fit you! The goal of practice is to meet yourself where you are and to practice to take yourself closer to where you’d like to be (balanced, let’s say for this conversation). Learning how to listen to your body and then using yoga tools to bring yourself to a greater place of balance is most definitely empowering. Especially, for those of us that live with chronic health conditions – that make us feel, at times, like our bodies are attacking us – to be able to use your body to feel better, is a life changing and incredibly empowering experience.
To take your practice to a level where you already know 2-3 yoga practices that make you feel more energetic, more relaxed or help you manage chronic pain, for example, you will be able to access those practices at any time to bring yourself to a more balanced place. Empowered indeed!
It’s almost as though, through your yoga classes, you have become a “coach”. You are coaching others in their effort to “take back the reigns” and find balance, as well as both mental and physical stability despite their chronic challenges. What would you tell someone who is currently debilitated by their physical condition, and how would you encourage them to try yoga and meditation practices? Can those who are bedridden or wheelchair-bound practice yoga, too?
Great point! I am most definitely a coach! You live in your body and you feel the benefits of yoga practice in your body. I tell my students, “I’m just a coach, I just point to the stars – it’s you who gets to do the work and discover along your own yoga path what practices resonate with you most to create balance.”
To those who are debilitated by their physical condition currently – I say if you want to begin to feel better and more empowered then learn about how your breath can affect your energy. Learn about self study (things that make you a better version of you), for example learning to cook for better nourishment – that’s yoga. Learn to listen to your body and practice, say, a laying yoga nidra meditation daily. Learn, for yourself, how this will increase your feelings of wellness. There’s tons of guided meditations/ breath practices, articles and videos for you online at Yoga Empowered for Chronic Conditions – start there!
To those who are bed-ridden and/or wheelchair-bound – Breathe, baby, breathe! You, too, are able to have a strong and fortifying yoga practice. Not all practices are right for everyone – really, why should they be?! We’re all different and unique in our own ways, including our challenges. If you want to do something to help your whole well-being – begin here, just start paying attention to your breath for 3 minutes a day. You can practice asana in bed, you can practice laughter yoga, you don’t have to be a buddha-on-the-mountain-top-pretzel-person – all you need to be is you! Just you. As you are.
The fantastic thing about your classes is that you provide your students with tools that they can use to manage their chronic conditions outside of the yoga studio, despite their level of physical strength and ability. Can you tell us a little bit about those particular tools and how they can help in daily life?
Absolutely! We find ourselves in many positions daily that mimic yoga postures. Standing, being seated and lying down right? Why not make these already daily positions (postures) into a mini yoga practice?! Standing in line or brushing your teeth – stand in Mountain Pose (tadasana). Low back ache – sit down in a chair and fold forward – yummy for the low back – breathe there feeling the expansion and release of your own breath stretching every muscle connected to your spine. Lying down? Why not drop into a meditation, a pranayama practice of being present with your breath or some posture work. It doesn’t have to be fancy at all.
When we learn that we don’t need to make a big production out of practice you begin to see things a little differently. You begin to learn and know that whereever you are (on a bus, in an MRI tube, at work, at a stressful family dinner…), however you are (in pain, in love, connected to IVs dripping away…), you can practice yoga. Practice is what brings balance and that practice empowers you with self knowledge that will advise your own self care.
So much of yoga practice is centered around awareness. How does this level of awareness also help outside of the yoga studio, as we strive to maintain balance in our daily lives?
Mindfulness is simply being aware. To do this- you put your attention on everything that’s happening in this moment right now. What you hear, see, taste, feel, smell and what thoughts are pulsating through your mind. These practices teach us that all things are impermanent, how to avoid adding unnecessary suffering (emotionally or physically) and that we needn’t respond to every little thing that presents in life.
My best version of me includes being able to be there for my family and loved ones but I can’t do that to the best of my ability if I’m not taking good care of me. If I’m depleted or if I’m too busy fighting away the feelings of fatigue I’m currently experiencing- I cannot be present for a student or friend who needs my full attention. By learning to check in with yourself first, by practicing awareness, you can begin to dissect this for yourself and practice being/ offering your best self.
Do you practice breathing and meditation outside of the yoga studio? Has it proven helpful in managing symptoms and chronic pain?
Many times a day I practice being aware of my breath as well as meditations. These practices have helped me immensely in living well with chronic pain, and with my MS symptoms. The MS symptoms that challenge me most are cognitive things (brain fog, not being able to find my words, memory, and understanding seemingly simple concepts when I’m fatigued) as well as physical symptoms (chronic pain in my legs, chronic fatigue, numbness and loss of sensation in areas, weakness, muscle spasticity and more). I meet myself where I am many times a day. I listen to my body’s symptoms and signals as messengers, rather than adversaries, to inform me of where I am, how I am in that moment. After listening, I do what I need to do to bring myself to a greater place of balance. Sometimes its a long juicy nap, sometimes it’s gentle asana, breath or meditation. There’s a purpose to each practice. Learning to listen and to give your body what it needs – regardless of what I want is a hard practice! It takes diligence.
When I miss a practice or I don’t find/create the time- I notice a difference immediately. I may feel more pain, I may get lost in a downward spiral of thought, I may get snappy with someone over nothing, it’s when I don’t practice that I truly notice how much practicing helps me!
It’s almost as though battling a chronic illness is like playing a sport. It requires focus, mindfulness, physical and emotional endurance, balance, positive self-talk and a hefty level of motivation. Our head always has to be in the game. How has yoga helped shape the way you have dealt with your daily “game”, and how has it shaped the way you view your own journey with Multiple Sclerosis?
Oooooo! I love this question! It’s true – you are totally right! There’s stamina, fortitude and diligence that must be given consistently with living with chronic health challenges.
Yoga has shaped the way I see myself and my place in this world. I know that’s it’s my responsibility to show up at this life. My goal is to be present for it and not sleep through it by wishing things were different or other ways of distracting myself. There are times that I wish MS never found me but I know that I’m always okay here and now. I know, without a doubt, that whatever life brings I will have my yoga practice to guide me and to inform my continuing to be the best version of me.
Thank you Suzanne, so very much, for being such a source of inspiration and encouragement, and for empowering those with chronic illness to move their bodies and find balance despite their pain and challenge. You’ve helped many of us to feel as though despite our many physical weaknesses, we are indomitably strong.
Wonderful, then it is a good day! Thank you! Return often to your breath!
Suzanne, her wisdom, and her journey serve as an incredible reminder that every bump in your path and fork in your road serves a purpose. Through her diagnosis, Suzanne not only discovered a new way of life, but she discovered the purpose of hers. Each day she meets herself where she is at, and proceeds to inspire those around her to do the same. She coaches others as they strive to be the best version of themselves, and she provides invaluable tools to those with chronic challenge, allowing them the ability to think better, feel better, and be better. She aids others in finding their strength despite their physical weaknesses, and reminds us that despite our limitations, we are able. “If you can breathe, you can do yoga!”
Rock on, Suzanne Stephens.
To learn about some of Suzanne’s tools and to soak in her wisdom: