“I was born with the gifts of illnesses.” These seemingly paradoxical words of B.K.S. Iyenger have helped me clarify the role that yoga has played in my own life.
As I sit here writing this, my stomach curls unpleasantly after a lunch of rice, tofu, and broccoli and my mind flirts with negativity. My Dad had invited me out to a café that he considerately knew was friendly towards a vegetarian, gluten free diet. Conscious that such characteristics would not necessarily insure I felt good, I made sure to avoid the cheese and hot sauce as well as eat less than half of the portion given to me. Yet, as has happened so many times before, a nagging stomachache reminds that my efforts were fruitless; I can’t help but feel a familiar sense of defeat. Years of digestive issues have injected fear and regret into most foods and beverages, and almost every social situation involving them. The physical discomfort and stress I experience from eating out, or at other people’s houses makes me feel high maintenance and abnormal. Even so, I am grateful that, as imperfect as my situation is now, yoga has helped make it worlds better than it used to be. This deep sense of gratitude corresponds with a bittersweet recognition; for me, yoga is not a choice.
Three years ago, I had trouble imagining a healthy, happy future for myself. My digestive issues were affecting every aspect of my life from my relationships, to my ability to participate in physical activities, or to simply get work done. I had visited dozens of doctors and specialists seeking answers. They had administered dozens of tests and medications in search of results. Yet in the end they had found none. In the end, the answer was in yoga, the answer was in myself.
I was lying on my yoga mat during the summer of 2009, so physically sick that I could hardly move when somewhere in my mind I recognized that there was no way that the three crackers I had just eaten should have provoked this level of discomfort. I subsequently went off gluten and soon confirmed that I was gluten intolerant. As someone who never had allergies, the lifestyle change seemed significant, but completely worth it if it meant I was feeling better. Friends and family congratulated me on having found an answer. Yet the subsequent months revealed the confusing reality that going gluten free was only part of the solution. Through a slow, painstaking process, I came to understand that my stomach was not just sensitive to gluten, but chemicals, preservatives, artificial flavors, caffeine, as well as high amounts of sugar, dairy, fat, sadness and stress. Thus far, yoga has been the only thing that physically helps to relieve the persistent discomfort I feel in my stomach. Yet beyond the physical benefits, it gives me the clarity figure out what food, toxins, and situations affect me as well as the strength to change my habits to minimize them.
Today I am much physically healthier, productive, and happier then I used to be. Even so, I find myself much less resilient; painful stomachaches combined with a closer awareness of my body often spark a cycle of negative thoughts and painful memories. At these times, yoga is crucial for maintaining not only my physical health but my mental health as well and I am reminded of the lack of choice I have in regards to the yogic practice and lifestyle. Yoga is not something that I could quit tomorrow if I wanted to. It’s not something I could “take less seriously” or pare down to 2-3 times a week. In truth, I have no interest in doing such a thing. Yet my culture and family raised me with the notion that I have a great deal control over my life; I have had moments where I feel somewhat shocked by the awareness that a path has unfolded before me.
Listening to Bikram and Iyanger’s stories about the way that yoga has transformed their lives from that of dominated by physical illness and handicap to that of health and peace has been very affirming for me. In truth, without a real need to push my practice, yoga could have remained simply a set of asanas. I would not have had the drive to work on developing the mindfulness that has beneficial to so many aspects of my life besides my digestion. My worldview, values, and even thought processes have undergone significant changes in the last few years. For instance, my physical awareness of chemicals and toxin has transformed me from a passive and uninformed environmentalist to some one who is passionate about the way that food is processed and distributed in this country. Meanwhile my physical sensitivity to changes in people’s emotions and energies give me a deeper sense of the nature of human interactions and how they affect others around them. I think often, not only about simplifying foods, but also simplifying events, activities and obligations. This list goes on, but in essence my physical health makes it so I am constantly forced to work on myself and glean insight about the world I live in. Without sounding too cheesy, my gut has truly been my guide.
So as my stomach begins to settle, and the notion that all sensations pass is confirmed once again, I give thanks to my body and even to the discomfort I often feel in it. My body has given me the gift of a lifelong commitment. It has given me the gift of mindfulness and insight. Finally, I hope that, as a teacher, it will give me the gift of empathy as I help guide my students in the ways that yoga can spark a transformative change in their own lives.