This is Izzy Arcoleo's story of how Yoga helped her accept and manage her epilepsy, how she reconnects with her body and mind and how she raises and shines despite her health condition. Izzy is now a certified yoga teacher, dedicated to sharing what she’s learnt about yoga and healing, and improving wellbeing through creativity. You can find her at www.yogaskrit.org.
Epilepsy, Yoga and Me
When people ask me what happens when I have a seizure, I tend to say something like: “well, I usually sit down in a weird position, and my eyes blink really fast and my right arm shakes, and sometimes I say random words and occasionally if I’m walking when it starts then I’ll keep on walking.”
But I don’t remember any of that happening, ever - it’s just what my family and friends have told me happens. What I experience is completely different, and difficult to explain. It starts with a feeling that is just off; the world doesn’t look quite right, and I feel a bit fearful for no immediately apparent reason. I become a little unstable on my feet, and at that point I usually want to sit down. The next thing I know is that I’m looking around and I know something’s happened, but it takes me a few minutes to come fully back to reality and realise that I’ve had a seizure.
I’ve been practising yoga on-and-off for a long time, but it was after I was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 19 that I started to practice consistently. My seizures are most often triggered by stress, so yoga helps me to manage it - when I do yoga regularly my stress hormone levels are lower, and I have fewer seizures. It took me a while to realise that this was the case, but once I did, I embraced the new-found importance of a practice that I already loved for lots of other reasons.
So far, there hasn’t been - as far as I’m aware - much in depth research into the relationship between yoga and epilepsy. I hope that changes soon. But apart from actually reducing the number of seizures that I have, my yoga practice does another really great thing for me: it helps me to manage the post-seizure blues.
After a seizure it takes some time to feel ‘normal’ again. Sometimes it’s only a few hours, but it can be a day or two. During that period, I feel pretty low. Again, it’s hard to explain - but I feel sad or angry, tired, cry a lot, want to be alone, and find it difficult to eat properly. From my experiences connecting with other people living with epilepsy, these feelings are quite common. To anyone struggling with this at the moment: sending love your way, and if you have even just a little energy to spare, I really do recommend trying a super gentle yoga practice.
Moving my body in those hours after a seizure, as much as I might not want to, makes a huge difference to how I feel. Even a brief, gentle yoga practice gets muscles moving and stretches out some of the tension that seizures can create. The benefits aren’t only physical. Yoga - the physical practice combined with meditative practice - helps me to calm down, release stress and fear, and process what’s going on in my brain (literally). Yoga is the element of my life that, more than anything else, helps me to accept the strange electrical interruptions in my life and to find ways to live well with them.
I am a yoga teacher, but I’m not a medical professional of any kind. The advice that follows is based on experience. My own experience, primarily; but over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of connecting with many other people who have seizures, and talking to them about their own experiences of epilepsy and yoga, so what I’ve learnt from them has strengthened my understanding of how yoga can help to manage, and sometimes even reduce, seizures.
If you have epilepsy, as long as you start gently and are sensitive to your physical abilities and limitations, trying yoga certainly won’t hurt; and it might help a lot.
Find a teacher who has lots of experience, and who is comfortable having you in class; talk to them about your seizures and make sure they know what to do if you have one during a class. Choose a style of yoga that suits your level of fitness and experience - a gentle, restorative practice is just as valuable as a more physically challenging practice, as the slow movement and focus on breath and mind will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower your stress levels. You might need to try a number of different teachers and styles before you find the right one; but when you’ve found one that feels good to you, commit to it regularly for a few months.
It won’t stop you from having seizures. It isn’t magic. But if you give it time and build your practice slowly, without expecting too much too soon, it’s possible that the benefits you experience will be more than you bargained for. You might notice small changes, or you might notice massive changes - but I’m confident that you’ll feel better, either way.