Even when under control, HIV can cause great stress. Some of the biggest challenges for a patient can include adapting to a new diagnosis, having difficulty disclosing the disease to loved ones, or worrying about one’s health outcomes. It is vital, however, that stress levels be kept as low as possible, since studies have shown that tension can negatively impact one’s viral load and CD4 count. One important study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine by G Ironson et al (2005) found that patients with high-stress life factors tended to encounter increases in their viral load. Negativity, depression and a sense of hopelessness were also strongly linked to drops in CD4 counts.
Because stress can be so detrimental to outcomes and to a patient’s sense of wellbeing, holistic practices such as yoga have come to be an important part of recovery for many persons battling this disease. Yoga has been proven as a powerful stress buster, and is also used to deal with depression, tiredness and altered sleep in patients suffering from other diseases such as cancer. The regular practice of yoga has been found to improve mood, reduce symptoms of depression and increase energy levels in women receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer, to name just one example.
The secret to yoga’s power lies in the combination of asanas (the poses performed), pranayamic breathing (controlled or abdominal breathing) and mindfulness. Many yoga styles have a strong mindfulness component, enabling practitioners to escape the negative cycle of worry and focus on their breathing – in many ways, yoga keeps the practitioner in the present moment and encourages a strong positive focus.
Mindfulness has been shown to slow down the progression of HIV. One study, carried out by researchers at UCLA in 2008, showed that the practice of mindfulness meditation stopped the drop in CD4 T cell levels in HIV patients suffering from stress. The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, was the first of its kind to show that mindfulness as a stress management tool can have a direct impact on slowing down the progression of HIV. In the study, some 48 HIV patients took part in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, which results showing no loss of CD4 T cells for these patients. Researchers noted that the results were dependent on the frequency of sessions – the more mindfulness meditation classes attended, the higher CD4 T cell counts were.
Still another study looked specifically into yoga – a trial published in the American Journal of Health looked into how pranayamic breathing and meditation on 62 HIV/AIDS patient could be beneficial. Results showed an improvement in wellbeing and a more positive outlook for those who had completed a yoga program.
In other studies, yoga has been found to curb anxiety, one of the most common mental conditions affecting both HIV-positive patients and human beings at large. HIV patients who have contracted the virus through risky behaviors such as sharing needles, can face the additional stress of having to quit their addiction, thus needing extra support when it comes to battling cravings and resisting the temptation to relapse into drug use. Currently, yoga is an important part of most top level drug rehabilitation programs across the globe. As a natural stress buster which also improves strength, flexibility and fitness levels, it is an ideal ally when body and mind are put to the test.
Yoga can be adapted to all levels, so that even those who have never partaken in a session, can begin to reap its benefits quickly.
HIV patients who regularly practice yoga report a more positive outlook, brought about by their growing confidence in their ability to perform different asanas, which grow in difficulty as a practitioner’s level rises. Yoga is, of course, part of a larger philosophy which espouses acceptance, kindness and compassion. The latter is an important component in self-acceptance, a quality which can help patients stay positive and focus on their future goals rather than regrets. The yogic lifestyle takes into account many other factors that can benefit the HIV patient – this includes whole, sound nutrition, based on healthy, unprocessed, seasonal foods. Yoga additionally can open the doors to a new social network, helping patients deal with the isolation that often accompanies this challenging disease.