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Yoga Transformed Me After Chronic Illness

Kelli Hansel Haywood didn’t know she was struggling with multiple autoimmune disorders. Here's how her yogic journey helped her heal and inspired her community in Appalachia.

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Standing on the cold concrete floors of an old department store turned library, tucked into the timeless emerald hills of my hometown of Whitesburg, Kentucky, I look out over a yoga class of 10 or so students. With a population of less than 2,500, Whitesburg is in the far southeastern part of the state—in the coalfields of the central Appalachian Mountains.

The faces of my yoga students are familiar. Some are former co-workers; one was my fourth-grade teacher. Most have never done yoga before, and they are trusting me to guide them. And I’m not your typical teacher. Throughout my life, I’ve battled a long list of issues—depression, anxiety, and chronic illnesses, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, dysautonomia, and polyarthritis. Symptoms such as constant fatigue, brain fog, and migraines have, at times, created such a disconnect that I’ve often felt like an alien in my own body. Yet, here I am.

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A Journey to the Whole

When I discovered yoga in 1999, I was a coal miner’s daughter putting myself through college. There weren’t any studios around. Instead, I practiced through videos, occasional workshops in nearby cities, and online classes in the tiny living room of my trailer. My first Sun Salutation was with Jane Fonda, who had released Yoga Exercise Workout on VHS in the early ’90s. I had no idea that would be the beginning of a lifesaving spiritual practice. And I never envisioned sharing it with people in my hometown.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second daughter, in 2007, that I tried a live yoga class at a nearby studio. And I stuck with it despite an unfortunate experience. I was sick, but my illnesses were neither properly diagnosed nor medicated. I appeared swollen, and many thought that at five months I was ready to give birth any day. As I rested in Child’s Pose, the instructor came by to adjust me. As she tried to coax my sitting bones toward my heels, she whispered, “Your thighs are bigger, so you’ll probably never be able to come into the full pose.” For the first time since I had started practicing, I felt that my body was not a “yoga body.” After giving birth, I was officially diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Once my thyroid medications were at the right dosages, I began to feel better. We had moved back to Whitesburg, and the public library asked me to lead free community yoga classes, using part of their outreach budget to pay me. Everyone was served.

See also Overcoming Past Trauma to Create a New Future.

It was both my illness and that first studio experience that made me want to share yoga with others who needed healing. Yoga is a gift, especially to communities like mine. Our region’s economy is rebuilding. Coal, once one of our largest industries, is no longer king. We face some deeply rooted struggles that generational poverty brings—high rates of opioid addiction, obesity, hunger, diabetes, preterm births, and exposure to early trauma through adverse childhood events.

Here, at the library, one of my students, a 64-year-old Navy veteran and farmer of heritage-breed livestock, says coming to yoga helped him reduce his blood-pressure medication, gain strength, and become more productive on his farm. Another student attended class after spinal surgery and is slowly regaining her mobility and sensation.

It is humbling.

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