Finding Her Light Within

Yoga Helped Eugenia Esquivel Cope With RA. Now She Teaches Others How It Can Restore Every Body.
A couple dozen people in the yoga studio lie back on bolsters, their eyes closed and their arms resting loosely by their sides. “Give yourself permission to be supported,” instructor Eugenia Esquivel says gently. “Give yourself permission to rest.”

Those are sentiments Eugenia takes to heart. The mindfulness she gains from yoga helps her cope with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). And the lessons she’s learned from her journey with RA shape her approach as a yoga instructor.

Yoga can seem intimidating when it is portrayed by photos of people in formfitting clothes doing backbends or headstands. But Eugenia assures her students that yoga isn’t a competitive sport; it’s a personal practice. No matter what physical limitations someone has, poses can be adapted, and there should be no pressure to fit anyone else’s expectations.

“Yoga is for every body. It doesn’t have limits of age or size,” she says. “It’s a practice that is for any- and everybody, any ability.”

Eugenia, 49, first felt unexpected soreness in the joints of her toes and balls of her feet about 19 years ago. Then her knuckles swelled, her fingers became hot and tight and she struggled to hold even a toothbrush. She was 30, vice president of marketing for a financial services company and living in Dallas when she was diagnosed in 2000 with RA and ulcerative colitis, both autoimmune diseases.

“The hardest thing for me was not being in control of my body,” she says. She enjoyed working out in the gym, but when it became too hard, she discovered yoga. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. She’s continued ever since and enrolled in yoga teacher training in 2008, although she remained committed to her corporate life.

Her RA went into remission in 2004, and with her rheumatologist’s blessing, she tapered off the disease-modifying drugs she was taking for it. But the RA came back with a vengeance in 2011. Some days, the pain and fatigue would keep her in bed, where she would work with her laptop and cellphone.

Although biologic medications have controlled her RA, she still has had to learn to navigate a world in which she might feel fine one day but struggle to get out of bed the next. She knew it was hard for some of her friends to understand why she would cancel plans at the last minute – “You wear the mask of being OK and being normal,” she says – and she struggled with feelings of loneliness and loss. Over time, she stopped worrying about how people would respond and focused on friends who were supportive and understanding.

Stress made her RA worse, and when work stress compounded the daily challenges of living with RA and led to more frequent and severe flares, she knew she had to make a change. She left her corporate job in 2015 and took some time off to regroup. Yoga became one of her cornerstones, and she eventually took another yoga teacher training program.

The physical practice of yoga improves Eugenia’s strength and mobility, while its mindful breathing and principles for living help her avoid stress-related flares.

“It’s that yoga-off-the-mat that has been most beneficial to supporting my arthritis – letting myself be OK with not being able to do what I did yesterday because I know tomorrow’s going to be another day,” she says.

Today, she and her husband live in Atlanta, where she teaches yoga in private sessions and in a studio.

Among her students are people who have experienced domestic violence or other forms of trauma as well as those with physical limitations. Eugenia helps her students modify poses to accommodate their abilities and disabilities. She also encourages everyone to feel grateful for whatever they are able to accomplish.

“It’s easy to focus on what you couldn’t do in class,” she says. “Sometimes you need to be reminded of what your body can do.” —MICHELE COHEN MARILL

All you need is comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely, and a positive attitude.

  • Start with a gentle or beginner class.
  • Tell your instructor about your arthritis and mobility issues.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.
  • Consider a private lesson or two for advice on modifications.

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