Illness as a Teacher

I do yoga every morning… except when I don’t.


For the past twenty years, I have done yoga every morning. But there are periods in my life when I get busy and stop doing yoga because I simply don’t have the time.

As I write this post, I’m struggling to sit in my chair because yesterday I bent down to pick up something off the ground and hurt my back. What amazes me is that what I was just picking up a small toy (nothing heavy) and the pain in my back far exceeds what I was doing. I’d be fine if I had been outside picking up rocks or moving something else heavy and my back hurt, but — come on — this much pain from a simple movement to pick up a toy?

Here is the thing: I know my back can go out easily; I spent the early part of my life generally abusing my body and everyone in my family also suffers from back pain. I know that my back needs my attention and that is why I do yoga every morning… except when I don’t.

There are times of the year when I get very busy and this is one of them. With birthdays, holidays, and the work that needs finishing, I have had a lot going on lately and have missed my yoga sessions. I could easily blame my back pain on a variety of causes, but the only real cause is me and my stupidity. My back pain  is the result of me not doing what I need to do to take care of my self. That simply.

Illness as Teacher

Illness has actually been teacher for me on more than one occasion; in fact, I would say that illness has also been a guide.

Many of you have read my story, and know that illness is what led me to becoming a doctor. The first illness was (no surprise) back pain. I had been working as a carpenter when I injured my back one day, trying to keep a very heavy structure from falling over. I ignored the pain and continued to work. The pain in my back progressively worsened to the point where I woke up one morning and couldn’t get out of bed. My wife talked me into going to see a chiropractor and the moment I stepped into the chiropractor’s office, I knew I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life (illness, however, had another idea for me).

Later, as I was preparing for chiropractic school when I became ill due to exposure to chemicals. The chemicals damaged my liver and while I didn’t know it at the time, I had chemically induced hepatitis. All I knew at the time was that I felt bad and was unable to exercise (or even walk) without feeling extremely exhausted. When I decided to seek care I found out that my chiropractor was out of town, so I went in search of another doctor and that is when I found Naturopathic School. The rest, as they say, is history.

Illness can be Random

There is no doubt that illness is a random event, but I like to think of illness as telling us that we aren’t taking care of ourselves. My back pain today is a not-so-gentle reminder that I need to return to my yoga practice. My yoga practice is not just something nice that I do, but a necessity.

For you, it may not be yoga, but walking, eating better, getting more sleep, spending time with the ones you love… That cold you just “caught” may be a sign that you need to slow down and take better care of yourself. That heart disease is a message that you need to focus much more on your health.

I’ve known cancer patients and others stricken with serious illnesses who have taken this illness-as-teacher approach to their illnesses and who have dramatically changed their lives and improved their conditions.

In my way of thinking illness sends gentle reminders first and then the illnesses and “reminders” get worse over time.

Remember, there are many reasons why you might be sick: harmful chemicals will give you cancer, infectious diseases can strike anyone, injuries do happen. I’m not denying these causes of illness, I’m only saying that the best way to think of illness is as a teacher; regardless of cause. You need not feel guilty that you have somehow caused your illness either; that is not a healthy way to think. You are, however, responsible for where you find yourself and how you react to a situation.

Thinking of illness as a teacher means that you prioritize your health just as you would other parts of your life. You health is just as important as a new cell phone, a new house, or anything you would want to spend money on.

Illness can be a great teacher and a place to begin your journey back to a healthier you.

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About the Author

I'm Dr. Scott Olson ND. I'm a Naturopathic doctor who specializes in diet, health, nutrition, and alternative medicine. I've written numerous books and articles on health, medicine, and alternative medicine I want to help you get healthy! Take a look at my blog and make sure you join in the conversation!

5 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Cynthia H December 14, 2008 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Illness as a teacher – how I love that!

    As someone who grew from a child caretaker in a very disfunctional family into a single parent and then into a case manager/advocate, my life has been about prioritizing everything BUT myself.

    As a caretaker of everyone else, my physical disabilities intensified and I’ve had FMS for the past four years as well.

    FMS is definitely leading me to learn different ways of being – learning stress reduction techniques, changing dietary habits, researching bio-accumulative toxins and endocrine disruptors…discovering acupuncture. And I’ll be starting a therapeutic yoga class next month.

    But my biggest struggle, by far, has been learning to bring balance into my life. A balance that will allow me to be my essence, to honor myself, to continue to work, and to be healthy. I’m very lucky to currently be working with a life coach (pro-bono!) towards that goal.

    So glad that I’ve found your site/blog – and that was via Twitter! I’m on Twitter as @PeepsHelpPeeps (work) and @Hyacinths4.

  2. EV Satie December 1, 2008 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the great post- I have stuggled with why I became ill for a few years now. Looking at it from this point of view will certainly take the pressure off!

  3. Evita December 1, 2008 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    What great truth Dr.Olson, ever since I got into the holistic line of health I realize that our body communicates with us all the time, and really loud when it comes to an illness. So now I am so much more intuitive when it comes to what my body is saying on a daily basis to try to avoid those loud wake up calls.

    And as you say taking care of oneself is so important and should in my opinion always come first. I know this is hard for many people to do, but the result is some sort of suffering which is never worth it!

    Wishing you a quick recovery back to great health!

  4. Tom Thorne December 1, 2008 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    Kind of like experience. It’s a hard teacher but it can be a good one if we have the courage to learn from it.

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