Fiona’s Journey: How I came to write Yoga Therapy for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
In 1989 I became extremely ill for no apparent reason. I say ‘for no apparent reason’ but with hindsight it was obvious that I was living in a way that was unsustainable. But the thing is, this was the way that most of us expect to live our lives without repercussion. This illness left me so exhausted and worn out that I couldn’t function normally, and I lost fifteen years of my life – or that is how it seemed at the time.
The illness goes by different names but is commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). In the UK it’s called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME/CFS. The story of how I got ill is typical of how so many of us can get unwell – being driven and rushed by a consumer-based society and by the wrong values.
I led a hectic, stressful life. I was pretty unconscious about the kind of way I was living and what I was asking my body and mind to do. In the mid-1980s I ran a busy and successful public relations business which turned over nearly £1 million a year. I had clients on my books that included Duracell and brands owned by the pharmaceutical giant Ciba Geigy. Something was missing though – I often felt a gnawing emptiness inside – that I wasn’t quite good enough but I thought that by being more successful materially, which is how society judges us, I hoped my feelings of inadequacy and insecurity would be fixed. Deep down I felt sad. This feeling of not being good enough was compounded by being in an unhappy marriage with an older man who was quite critical and controlling. This part of my story might not be so typical – but the rest is – being driven, wanting to be the best, to please people, to compete, to be perfect and to be respected by those around me. I was the typical over-achiever. And so, I whirled away working harder and harder and becoming more and more successful – at least materially.
We lived in a charming 14th century farmhouse in the country. We threw glamorous parties for beautiful people. My husband was a journalist and something of a local celebrity. I drove a fashionable convertible car. We drank only the best wines. We flew around the globe on expensive holidays when we had time, which wasn’t very often because I was always working so hard. However, there was a shadow-side to this life-style. My husband (who has since died) suffered from depression. He had always drunk heavily but he became a full-blown alcoholic. He also became abusive to me – sometimes physically. In hindsight I don’t blame him for this – it was the only way he knew how to cover up his own pain and he was just reacting from his conditioning, which is what most of us do. I then reacted to him through my conditioning, which meant that I buried all the sadness inside, put a brave face on things and just ‘got on with it.’ Meanwhile, the flip side for me of flying journalists to exotic locations to launch some brand or other, was that I was beginning to have panic attacks and crippling insomnia. I was always tired so I used fast food and wine to give me an extra boost of energy. I suppose I knew that something was drastically wrong, but I thought that if I worked harder and became more successful – or if I ignored what was really going on inside me and what my inner-wisdom was trying to tell me (which was, of course, to slow down) – then the problems would just disappear.
I worked yet harder so that I could push away the anxiety and fatigue. They never went completely though, so I made myself busier. I took up aerobics in my lunch-hour when I had time, to try to exercise the tiredness away. The idea of resting or taking time out never occurred to me. I was part of the Mrs Thatcher: ‘You Can Have It All, Especially If You Are A Woman’ generation and the culture of ‘doing’ and ‘work’ was the only way to be. I became extremely run down, and then I had a bout of glandular fever, (also known as mononucleosis). The exhaustion from this was unbelievable, but still I dragged myself into work. By 1990, I decided to sell my shares in the business, but I had to work out my part of my contract as a Director. Even though I was now quite ill, it was six months before I could actually leave. One of my first Yoga teachers – Bill Feeney – says that we need to listen to the body’s whispers before they become shouts. How I wished that I had paid attention to the whispers then, before it was too late!
Even after I stopped work, the exhaustion became so profound that sometimes I couldn’t even hold a conversation or do simple tasks like making a cup of tea. I was like a battery that was permanently run down and couldn’t re-charge. I became weaker and weaker and eventually I was diagnosed with ME/CFS. I ended up in a wheelchair for a year and then spent three months in a psychiatric hospital. I remember crying to one therapist: ‘I don’t know who I am anymore, now that I am not a successful career woman!’ She tried to explain to me that I was still something at my essence, even when all the labels and all the things that I identified as being me were stripped away. I just didn’t understand though – it seemed to be that I could only get my identity and wellbeing through some external effort – and that route had been negated through this terrible illness. So, my self-esteem was non-existent, and because I had no self-worth it left me open to being bullied even more by my husband. I figured that I must be a useless person to be so crippled and it wasn’t worth arguing with him. Instead I took lots of medication to help me sleep and to blot out the pain of my marriage.
By now it was the early 1990s. At that time people with ME/CFS were treated pretty badly by society. ‘Malingerers’ and ‘Yuppie flu whiners’ were some of the kinder comments. A doctor friend of my mothers told her that I needed ‘a kick up the bum’. In one UK national newspaper, a doctor who wrote under a pseudonym, referred us to as ‘Monomaniacs’. In retaliation we formed support groups. I became involved as a Trustee advising on PR for Action for ME, which was a great national campaigning organisation. One of the challenges in the early days however was that we were all so busy arguing that ME/CFS was a physical illness that, in my opinion, we rather threw out the baby with the bathwater. However, we reacted like this because there were unhelpful, hard-line psychiatrists claiming that we weren’t really ill at all and that ME/CFS was a kind of mass hysteria or ‘learned helplessness’ (their phrase of the day).
As a Yoga teacher I now understand that this is nonsense – you simply cannot separate the mind from the body or from the emotions. When we get sick, it is a message that we have been doing something unhelpful. There are often (in my opinion) trapped emotions – often going back to childhood – that are trying to express themselves but that have been covered by years of conditioned responses that keep them buried. This creates a very stressful scenario so that viruses and pathogens can get a grip. Healing is unlikely to occur unless all the layers are uncovered so that the true self is gently allowed to come back to harmony. (This was explained further in Chapter Eight in the Pancamaya Koṣa model). Just taking medication to try to fix either a so-called physical or mental problem is missing the point. It is also my opinion that stress and exhaustion related conditions are partly caused by how we are living in our consumer based society today. The micro reflects the insanity of the frenetically paced macro, which actually is set up to make us ill and stressed. We need to look not just at how we are living and what conditioning we are reacting to – but question how our peer group is asking us to live. We need to pay attention to everything in our lives – nothing is separate. In fact, we need to just pay attention! And it’s helpful to really listen in and to allow ourselves to be still enough so that we can see if there is a spiritual answer beyond the suffering of the body and mind. By spiritual, I don’t mean that this is about ‘God’. But by spiritual I mean that this book is about you and who you really are – and why understanding this will help you to be more happy, peaceful and well through the path of Yoga and self-inquiry. This book is about discovering your authentic being.
In 1993 I was discharged from hospital. I was very weak. I was still trying to push the illness away and I was angry and confused about being so exhausted. In town one day, trying to do some minimal shopping, I met Angela Stevens, a Yoga teacher, who suggested setting up a small Yoga group for those who were unwell with ME/CFS. In the class, which focused on slow breathing, relaxation and meditation, Angela talked about something known as ātman. This, she explained, was the real, authentic ‘self’ that is in all of us – our divine true being. Angela told us that the point was to link the internal ātman with the external ātman (or Brahma). My ideas about this have since changed a little – but what she said really made me sit up and take notice. All my life I had been a seeker of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What’s going on and why am I here?’ I had gone terribly astray from this in my career and marriage. I now had a further question which was: ‘Why am I so ill and is there any meaning to all this suffering?’ Angela offered the first possible answer through Yoga. There seemed to be a ring of truth in what she was saying – that divinity and peace were always available inside rather than being something that was external and separate. Furthermore, this was not something mysterious but was available right now – in every moment. Importantly, she explained that the second of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras states that Yoga comes about when the mind is quiet.
Now my mind was driving me insane – it was absolutely crazy, running day and night, so much so that I needed a hefty cocktail of drugs to get any sleep. My quality of sleep, if it came, was poor. I had other symptoms too – a foggy head, an inability to concentrate, a spaced-out sensation of not being in my body, muscle pain, weakness and feelings of extreme malaise. I was still profoundly tired for most of the time. My memory and concentration levels were so bad that I couldn’t read or watch TV for more than about 15 minutes. These symptoms would fluctuate, and I would have periods of remission but I always had to rest a lot after even minimal activity. I understand now that, like many others of us in the western world, I was locked in the fight or flight syndrome – in other words my body was not operating as it should to calm my system down. It was due to a chronic hyper-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS which prevented any repair from any chronic viral infection. In Yoga we would call this too much ‘rajas’ – a state of agitation. But amazingly, although I had tried every treatment going with no luck – very gentle Yoga made me feel better. So, the idea that Yoga was for the mind and not just the body – and that it could actually help to give me back some agency over my crazy thinking – was very appealing.
I started to spend as much time as I could at The Yoga for Health Foundation – a wonderful Yoga centre in the UK (sadly it’s now closed). I was so impressed by what I learnt there that in 1997 I spent a year researching and writing Beat Fatigue with Yoga. In 2001, I trained to be a Yoga teacher and by 2004 I had made a complete recovery. Yoga helped me to discover how to let my layers, conditioning and attachments fall away so that I was able to pay more attention to my inner voice. I left my husband when I finally saw that I couldn’t be my real self with him because I was living constantly under a dark cloud of anxiety and fear. Being free from the constraints of a highly manipulative relationship was a big part in my recovery. This might sound obvious, but it is amazing how many of us get locked into unhappy situations which we unconsciously put up with – a job that we hate, a lifestyle which demands a punishing work schedule, or a relationship that disempowers us. We become so attached to this way of living that we lack the objectivity to see that this is the cause of our unhappiness or illness – we rarely see how we are trapped by the life that we have made for ourselves. Or maybe we do see it, but we are too fearful to make any changes, and we would rather put up with the unhappiness. Change can appear as something so terrifying that we would rather live with our suffering than let go of what is familiar, even if it no longer serves us.
In 2005 I came to London to teach Yoga full-time and I also started running retreats. After a couple of years, I decided to spend more time in India. I was still extremely hungry to know more about Yoga, as I felt that I wasn’t truly getting my answers about, ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ and I hoped that India might have the answer. I looked up a few ashrams on the Internet, and then made a vague plan. It was quite scary. In preparation, I asked my mother to buy me a rucksack for my 50th birthday. At Heathrow Airport I was shaking so much, my teeth were chattering. ‘Why are you doing this?’ asked my mother, who has always loved and supported me in whatever I have done. I was doing it because I had to – because my heart told me to.
My heart was right. At the Vyasa ashram near Bangalore, we studied the Bhagavad Gītā, the main scriptural text of India, and I learnt about the concept of karma Yoga – non-attachment to the result of any action. I chanted my way around the south of the country, visiting five different ashrams altogether. I also had an intensive bout of panchakarma –an ayurvedic detox treatment – to get all the medication that I had taken over the past 15 years completely out of my system. Then I set off for Dharamsala in North India, to hear teachings from the Dalai Lama and to study some Tibetan Buddhism. I was doing a kind of spiritual pick-’n-mix of seeking and I wrote a diary about some of this for Yoga and Health magazine. Still I didn’t really get my answers. But I got the travel and the ‘seeking’ bug.
Back in the UK, I carried on running Yoga retreats. Rather to my surprise, because of my book: Beat Fatigue with Yoga, people with ME/CFS and other chronic health problems started to come. I established a network and began to specialise in teaching people with fatigue conditions. One of the things I learnt was that there were many others like me looking for some kind of meaning in life. It seemed to be crucially important to ‘crack the code’ and work out what existence was about. Around this time, I had a mystic awakening experience in Winchester Cathedral, in which the ‘I’ that I thought I was disappeared. It was an insight of divine, unconditional love and I saw that love makes up the very fabric of everything.
In 2008 I decided to take further training in the Yoga tradition as taught by the great yogi Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. I knew that their standards of teaching were excellent – rigorous, but of a very high quality. The tradition advised that Yoga should ideally be taught one-to-one and they had an excellent Yoga therapy centre – the KYM Mandiram, in Chennai. Importantly for me, there was a course in the UK and it included a thorough teaching of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I lapped up the teachings, especially the Vedic chanting and the philosophy. I was lucky to be mentored by Gill Lloyd, who supported me through some very difficult times. What the tradition also gave me was many more ways to work with my students with ME/CFS – in particular, the tool of mantra. I discovered that working with sound (nada Yoga) is a very effective way of promoting healing. (We now know that sound and chanting can also help to optimise the vagus nerve, bringing the whole system back to balance).
At the end of 2009 I attended a course on the Yoga Sutras in Chennai with TKV Desikachar and his son Kausthub. After the course, I travelled to a pilgrimage centre called Tiruvannamali, the home of the great saint Ramana Maharishi, where I intended to stay for three nights, before I moved on south to Kerala for Christmas with two friends. We even had the train tickets. But then something mysterious happened. On the second day, the two friends independently had a crisis (death of a family relative and a stolen credit card), which meant that our plans were scuppered. Leah flew back to the UK. Emma couldn’t join me from Bali. I was stuck. I tried to get out of the town but couldn’t – every time I attempted to book a ticket or made a plan something happened to prevent me from leaving. I began to get the feeling that I was meant to stay. Then I came across a notice from a man called James Swartz for Vedanta teachings, as taught in the Chinmayananda tradition. Vedanta is a traditional path known as jnana or knowledge yoga. It is based upon the classical Indian teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. The teachings are simply that: I am whole and complete and need nothing outside myself to make me happy. Happiness, Freedom and Peace are who I am, but when I seek it in the world, especially through material possessions or objects or relationships, then I am bound to fail. I need to discriminate between what is real and what isn’t. That which is real is that which doesn’t change – which is me.
This understanding through the teachings, may lead to Self-Realisation. Vedanta shows that we all desire freedom and happiness and that this is our true nature. Ignorance of who we really are, causes us to suffer and to feel inadequate and so we erroneously look outside ourselves for happiness by chasing objects and pleasure in the world. There are many similarities to Raja Yoga (as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras), although Yoga is understood to be a dualistic teaching. This means that there is a fundamental difference between the ‘seer and the seen’ or between puruṣa (the seer: me as the ever-present witness) and prakṛti (all of the material objects in the world, including our thoughts and feelings). According to the Yoga tradition as taught by Patanjali, both are real, but we suffer because we confuse the two. When we see that we are the witness and stop confusing ourselves with the ever-changing objects of the world, then we have freedom – kaivalyam. However in advaita Vedanta, as taught by the Chinmayananda tradition, we see that puruṣa (our true self, also known as Brahma, ātman, cit or consciousness) is the only one principle. We understand the material world as something that is real in the moment and perceived in our awareness – but it is also like a dream – not quite real and not quite unreal either – and something that passes very quickly. When we are liberated (mokṣa), then we understand that this one principle is who we really are – and that the true self is eternal. There is no internal or external ‘me or the world’ as such. All is one.
When I first met my Vedanta teacher, I inundated him with questions. ‘What or who is God or Īśvara?’ I asked. ‘Simply the field of creation as it is in this moment – Everything That Is, including you.’ He explained. ‘Your ignorance of your true nature makes you think that you are separate from everything and everyone else,’ he went on to say, ‘but you are not really a-part at all.’
I ended up studying Vedanta for two years. I started passing on these teachings to my own students on retreats. I also set up teacher- training weekends, exploring how to teach Yoga to those with stress and ME/CFS through Yoga Campus and the British Wheel of Yoga.
During this time, there was a spate of scandals involving Yoga teachers. These were people (usually, but not always men) who abused their power and manipulated vulnerable women, often sexually. Some of these stories were very disturbing and I witnessed some of this behaviour first hand with two male teachers – one who was a Swami. What I learnt from these disappointments was the importance of not abdicating my responsibility to any teacher or guru. Previously I had been inclined to put teachers on pedestals and to mix them up with the teachings. Indeed, many of us make heroes out of our teachers and we are encouraged to do so by the Indian tradition of ‘surrender to your guru’, which is meant to dismantle the ego. However, I now learnt from this to trust my own heart more and to listen to the voice inside. It is all too easy to be swayed by charismatic teachers who seem to hold the power and knowledge of the Universe. But in the end, I understood that we must do the inner-work for ourselves and we can only do this by being very quiet and still and listening to our real self. Ultimately, Yoga is about taking responsibility for our own destiny – it is the route to complete self-empowerment. It is public knowledge that Kausthub Desikachar was one of these teachers. However, I am now working with him again as nine years on he has apologised and owned his behaviour and has changed a great deal. He is also brilliant teacher. As well as speaking up and acknowledging abuse when it occurs, forgiveness and redemption are very important part of the process in this ‘Me Too’ era, in my opinion. Of course this takes time to process for those who have been hurt and is not to be rushed.
I would like to finish with an example of what it means to live from the heart, which was explained by Adyashānti, who is my spiritual teacher. I was on a retreat with him in Holland in 2013. During a talk, people were invited to ask questions. A woman who was very distressed explained that she had had ME/CFS for 20 years and that it had destroyed her chances of having a proper relationship or a baby. In his book The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment (Adyashānti, 2010), Adya had written about his own experience with Chronic Fatigue – which is why she asked him the question. I am paraphrasing his reply: ‘Life has given you an opportunity to be very quiet and still’, he advised. But the woman got more distressed. She had been quiet and still for years, she said – she had been forced to live like this because of her illness. ‘But you are still resisting your experience!’ said Adya. ‘Let go and fully accept what is happening. Then you will be amazed – a new and creative energy will come in. This is the energy of the heart.’ This indeed is the secret of life – to let go completely so that life can give us its bounty. It might not be what we wanted or expected or were trying to make happen through control or manipulation, but it will still be a gift. If we can accept and embrace life as it is (and not see ourselves as separate from its flow) rather than desire that things should be different – only then we can find peace and be that peace. Every second that we are alive truly is a miracle. We sincerely hope that this book will guide you to listen to your true heart – and to discover the peace that is always there.
Yoga Therapy for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Fiona Agombar, released November 2020.