When I was diagnosed with HIV, over 20 years ago, I went through a profound trauma. It was terrifying. I was physically well, but I knew that HIV was inside me. It made me feel like my body was hiding a terrible enemy. When I started on the first gruelling regimes of Anti Retro Viral (ARV) medication, I also felt quite toxic, as I had so many side effects. Luckily the medication has vastly improved.
HIV had not only invaded me at a physical level, but also mentally. I had struggled with low self-esteem and depression, through my teens and twenties. The diagnosis exasperated those problems and I went though some really dark times. I initially experienced having HIV as a confirmation of all my worst thoughts about myself. I felt, worthless, damaged, tainted.
Self-Stigma was one of the first and most painful symptoms of HIV.
Somehow one weekend in 2000, I stumbled into a local Ashtanga Yoga class, in a rundown room at the Brockwell Lido, in South London. The room seemed to breathe, and sweat, as the practitioners moved from posture to posture. The yoga teachers, two black women, Jennifer and Sabel, had supple and toned bodies. Even when they didn’t move, there was an energy about them like two beautiful wild leopards that are about to spring and run. Their eyes sparkled, as they gave instructions, and supported students into postures. I was hooked, even as I panted and sweated and struggled through the positions. I was stiff, breathless, and very weak!
Through yoga I rediscovered the joy of being in my skin, flesh and bones. As I started to go to yoga classes more frequently, something awoke within me. Pure happiness of being alive. Lifting my arms, breathing: I felt all the cells in my body rejoicing.
Almost immediately yoga helped me re-connect to something within me which is strong, happy, stable and compassionate.
Soon I started practicing yoga first thing in the morning, every day, before going to work, as it helped me feeling well, and focussed.
Through years of practice my body and mind have drastically changed. I am 51, I have lived with HIV and Hepatitis C for over two decades. I have been through years and years of powerful cocktails of drugs to keep HIV under control, and I am still often surprised that I feel stronger, healthier, and more confident in my body now, than I ever had in my twenties or thirties.
Mentally I have also changed profoundly, I just don’t get caught up in my own thoughts the way I used to. I also look at my HIV diagnosis in a different way. I can see now that HIV was my first yoga teacher. It made me face my mortality, what in Yoga we call ‘impermanence’. Realising that ultimately I had no control, I could die any moment, made me value the life I have. It made me truly realise that we really only have the present moment. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, one of the most important philosophical text in yoga, starts with the word Now. ‘Now, in this moment, we start the instruction of Yoga’ – atha yoga-anuśāsanam.
HIV woke me up, and made me pay attention to my life, it made me realise I cannot take what I have for granted. Each and every moment is precious, and I am grateful to be alive.
Because of the huge benefit yoga practice has offered to my mental and physical health, since 2015 I have started teaching a community class for people living with HIV at Positively UK. Yoga is very expensive, and it can also be intimidating going to a yoga class if you have never done it, or if you have lost your confidence after an HIV diagnosis.
Through this class I want to share, in a safe peer space, the transformative experience of yoga. The class is free for people with HIV and everyone is welcome. No previous experience of yoga needed. The class is every Monday from 6pm to 7:30pm, at Positively UK, 345 City Road, London EC1V 1LR.
You can just drop in and try! If you have any questions about yoga and participating, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been practicing yoga since 2000, with several teachers, mainly in the Astanga yoga tradition. In 2007 I have started practicing under the guidance of Hamish Hendry, one of the few teachers certified by by Guruji – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – in Mysore since 2001. Hamish has supported and encouraged me to teach and share yoga with others.
In 2016 I completed the 200 hour Teacher Intensive with Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor – senior Ashtanga yoga teacher, with over 40 years of experience, in Boulder Colorado.