Yoga, Meditation, and IBD

by Elizabeth Roberts Patient Expert

In some of my previous Shareposts I've mentioned that yoga and meditation help me to cope with the symptoms that come along with my ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. And many of you have asked me to discuss this further. So, here goes.

By nature, I'm what some would call a type A personality plus I was raised in a German/Polish family, and I'm also a Virgo. So, I tend to be very precise, directed, organized, and just a bit "anal." This is just how I've always been and I never really thought much of it until my gut became a serious issue about eleven years ago.

After my IBD and IBS diagnoses I tried the prescription medication route, which has helped to a point. And if you are a regular reader of my Shareposts then you know that I've also spent a lot of time and effort paying attention to my diet and learning what foods make my gut happy vs. which tend to upset it. But that is where my self-care ended.

In comparison to me, my husband is pretty much the complete opposite, personality-wise. He's calm, laid back, and perfectly capable of sitting still without a care in the world. It used to drive me nuts. My mind would always be doing something, thinking about something, or worrying about something. But my husband just isn't like that. Worry comes rarely to him. Rushing about isn't in his vocabulary. And he has no problem being perfectly calm and serene for 10, 20, or even 60 minutes at a time.

"How do you do that?" I asked him one day when my mind wouldn't stop racing about how many bathroom calls I'd made.

"Do what?" he asked.


"I just turn off my mind," he replied.

It was as if my husband were an alien. Turn off his mind How in the heck do you turn off your mind? I wondered. My mind never turned off, not even at night, not even if all I was thinking about was stupid stuff like, "Did I put my shoes in the closet or were they still in the living room?"

This was all eleven years ago and there still wasn't much understanding of the mind/body connection in Western medicine. But it was out there in small pockets and my husband was one of the few who had been practicing yoga and meditation since he was a teenager in California - a granola-crunchy my family called him. But the more I started to listen to my body and what made it happier or grumpier the more I realized I had to at least learn to calm my mind, if not turn it off altogether in order to help my gut calm.

So, I started doing yoga with my husband two or three times a week. This wasn't easy. At the time I started this new routine I had been having a UC flare for about eight months, I weighed a mere 98 lbs. (I'm 5'7"), and had very little energy. So doing 30 minutes of yoga a few times a week took some serious effort on my part. But the amazing thing was that the more I did it, the better I felt both physically and mentally.

During those 30 minutes of yoga poses I didn't think about much other than if I was doing each pose properly (that type A personality sneaking in). And as more time went by and I didn't have to think about the poses I actually found that I simply got lost in the routine without any real conscious thoughts. I just was.

After a year or so of doing yoga, I got interested in Buddhism. I read about it and liked the concepts. But it took another two years, after we moved to Colorado and met a group of Western Buddhists, for me to actually begin to learn to meditate.

The actual concept of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, which is what I am learning, is actually not to turn off your mind but rather, to redirect the mind. I can now spend 10, 20, even 30 minutes just sitting and focusing on my breath - the in and out of the air as it moves through my lungs and my nostrils. Contrary to how it might sound, this is not easy. When I first tried sitting, or meditation, I would actually feel agitated, or as if I was choking. Apparently this is common, especially for Westerners because we are simply not used to doing nothing. But this is why it's called a meditation practice, because just as with any other activity, learning to sit with a quiet mind takes practice.

I now try to sit each day, if even for only 5 minutes. Plus, I have found groups where we sit for 30 minutes. And my husband and I now have a designated space in our house where we do both yoga and meditation. But meditation doesn't require a special space, or special equipment, or special knowledge which means that I can do it anywhere. I can meditate in the car, as long as I'm not driving! Or on an airplane, or at a coffee shop, or just before a meeting or social engagement. Meditation helps me to calm my mind and in turn that helps my gut calm as well.

So far, yoga and meditation haven't cured me of my IBD or IBS, but these two practices have helped me to calm my mind and therefore my body and my overall life. I have friends who claim they don't really know who I am because I'm less of a stress monster or type A person. I like that and take it as a compliment.

Elizabeth Roberts
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Elizabeth Roberts

Elizabeth wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Digestive Health.