Ashtanga yoga is known to be a highly dynamic form of yoga requiring a good dose of stamina, strength and sweat.
So how come that ‘me’: a middle age woman living with two life threatening viruses, hepatitis C and HIV, taking a heavy cocktail of Antiretrovirals for the past 10 years, has been attracted and greatly benefitted from such a demanding and strenuous practice?
The practice of this form of yoga starts by stretching your arms to the sky and then folding forward and touching earth all at the rhythm of your own breath. However these breathe synchronized movements – called sun salutations – and the sequence of postures that follow – are not just an exotic form of exercise. This discipline is not the latest fitness craze, but is a thousands years old method of self-knowledge. This method was firstly thought to Western Yoga students by Sri K. Pattabi Jois, who is still leading The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, at the age of 93!
The word Yoga can be interpreted in many ways. One interpretation that resonates with me is given by Desikachar – one great contemporary Yoga teacher- in is book ‘The Heart of Yoga’:
‘ …yoga is “to attain what was previously unattainable”. The starting point for this thought is that there is something that we are today unable to do; when we find the means for bringing that desire into action that step is yoga. In fact, every change is yoga
…Another aspect of yoga has to do with our actions. Yoga therefore also means that all of our attention is directed toward the activity in which we are currently engaged…Yoga attempts to create a state in which we are always present – really present – in every action, in every moment’
From this my understanding is that Yoga is fundamentally positive change and conscious action. It therefore encompasses all aspects of human experience the physical and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen, the Outer World and the Inner World.
The practice of the Ashtanga sequences gives an opportunity to observe change within ourselves both on a physical level (our toes my get closer to us when we bend forward!) and on a mental/emotional level: our mind becomes more attentive and calm as we focus on moving our body and regulate our breath. However this awareness is not just restricted to what happens while on a yoga mat. The practice supports us to become more attentive and present during other aspects of our lives
In Ashtanga practice, sun salutations are followed by a set sequence of postures. The Primary Series is the name of the first sequence that is learnt. This series is also known as ‘Yoga Chikitsa’ which means ‘Yoga Therapy’ and has as a main aim to cleanse and heal the body. This progression of movements is designed not only to make our limbs stronger and suppler, but also to stimulate our internal organs and cleanse our subtle energy channels, allowing vital energy to flow more freely around the body. Another essential aspect of this practice is the attention to the breathing. By focusing our mind on extending and making the breath more balanced we also affect our mental state, we become calmer and more focussed.
Ashtanga Yoga is is not limited to the performance of set posture. In Sanskrit the world Ashtanga means eight limbs. Patanjali – the ancient Indian sage – uses it in the Yoga Sutra – the ‘Bible’ of Yoga’ – to describe the eight branches that compose Yoga. However it must be noted that this is not a ladder, a step by step programme – but a holistic approach where each limb supports the other.
There are eight components of Yoga. They are:
Yama, our attitudes towards the environment.
Niyama, our attitudes towards ourselves.
Asana, practice of body exercise.
Pranayama, the practice of breath control.
Pratyahara, the restrain of our senses.
Dharana, the ability to direct our mind
Dhyana, the ability to develop interaction with what we seek to understand.
Samadhi, complete integration with the object to be understood.
Yoga Sutra 2.29 translated by T.K.V. Desikachar
Asana – postures, is what is usually thought in Ashtanga yoga classes. For most of us starting from our body is the easiest and most appropriate way to approach the study of yoga. Asana – physical practice- is the gateway. By studying postures synchronized to breathe – if we do it long enough and wholeheartedly, we will slowly develop access to the other more complex limbs of yoga.
Going back to my initial question I would like to share with you how yoga has helped me with living healthily with HIV Hepatitis C and tolerate a powerful cocktail of Antiretroviral medications.
When I was diagnosed with HIV my life felt completely broken. I thought all I had ahead of me was disease and death. I never felt so lonely and disconnected from myself and the world. Looking at death as a reality and not just as a remote possibility made me feel an urgency to act and do something with my life that was meaningful. All of a sudden I felt all I had was the present. The future looked too uncertain. The diagnosis gave me such an intense shock that the only way was to find a new way. Change. HIV was going to be my first yoga teacher.
My life was quite a mess before HIV’s arrival. I had been working on and off as an independent film/documentary writer since I left college, but at the moment of my diagnosis I didn’t have job. I had also been suffering from depression and chronic low self esteem since my teens: taking drugs, being wild, and getting involved in harmful and impossible relationships.
However, after the initial paralysis and despair, I set myself on a healing path.
My first step was to act upon my Outer World. I made a short term plan. I decided instinctively that I wanted to do a socially valuable job, which would make me feel I was living a worthwhile life, something that was of service to others. Because of my extensive travel both in Africa and India I knew that even as an HIV positive person I was in a privileged position having access to high quality health care. After not much thought I decided that my aim was to work for an NGO that supported people living with HIV in Africa where I had previously lived. I found a postgraduate course in Development Studies which would give me the qualifications to do such a job.
I also started to work harder at improving my relationship with my family members: since my mother had died when I was 20, it was only my father -who was very ill with Alzheimer- and my bother, with whom I had a very difficult relationship. I must say this took me a long time and also a lot of counselling. However it was definitely an essential part of becoming a healthier me!
Fast-forward a few years and in 2001 my dream of working for a voluntary organization supporting people with HIV had finally come true. I started working in the Case Work Team here at Positively Women. It wasn’t an NGO in Africa, as for my initial plan. But I realized that there were a lot of needy HIV+ people on my door steps.
However, starting working full time was a real challenge. The job was emotionally very demanding: providing support to other positive women, including women in prison and drug users. It was my first 9-5 job 7 days a week ever. And I had been through some difficult years struggling to pay for my degree and moving to London. I was also bereaved by the death of my father.
On top of all of this I had started antiviral therapy in 1998: my first regime included nearly 20 tablets a day and some pretty weird side effects! It has improved a lot over the years and nowadays I am ‘only’ taking 7 pills a day.
It’s not a surprise that my energy level was getting lower and lower. I was often so fatigued I didn’t even want to talk to my friends on the phone. My doctors thought that the culprit was the Hepatitis C virus which I had also been living with for several years. At the time of my HIV diagnosis I had been told not to worry about it, because Hepatitis C would have not had the time to affect me. Generally it takes 20 or 30 years for the liver to be severely damaged by this virus. I was told that AIDS would kill me first.
However, with the advent of successful anti-retroviral therapy my liver had quickly become my most important organ. It was my liver who processed my HIV medication and stored energy and nutrients from my food. Research was showing that the leading cause of death for HIV positive people in the West had become liver related disease. Fatigue and lack of energy was a typical symptom of a poor liver.
My doctors started suggesting that I considered treatment for Hepatitis C. One year on Pegylated Interferon. I knew that this treatment could potentially clear the hepatitis C virus. However I also knew that it had some awful side effects, including severe depression. Because of my personal struggles with mental health I was terrified by the idea.
It was at this time that I started Ashtanga Yoga. I am not sure it was love at first sight. Initially I just thought that most of the postures were out of my reach. I couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees – unlike most people in my class. I would look around and think: I will never in a million years be able to do any of this! The initial sun salutations were so hard for me that by the end of them I was in a pool of sweat and catching my breath, thinking of a way of leaving the class without being noticed. However I also always felt so much better after a class then before.
There was something that kept me going back to the classes. The sound of the breath. My body awakening. My body that had been under the shadow of imminent illness and death since my diagnosis was instead getting stronger and suppler.
I started attending self-practice sessions. Those are sessions where you practice at your own pace within a group and get individual supervision by a teacher. I had to wake up before six in order to fit my yoga practice before my work. My morning practice has become very special to me. It is a moment of freedom in which I try to totally focus in the present, experience my Inner World. It connects me to the Source. My practice is a moving prayer for health and stability. It starts my day with a positive intention.
A side effect of yoga has also been that my diet started changing. If I eat too much heavy food, or drink too much alcohol…I feel it immediately while I practice…I am heavier and sluggish. So eating, fresh nutritious foods and not overindulge supports my yoga practice and makes me feel more energetic. But I still fall for chocolate and a glass of wine now and then…But overall my good diet has also really supported my health.
6 years have passed and I am now practicing Ashtanga yoga 6 days a week. I am amazed at how healthy and strong I feel. I can not believe that in spite of all the viruses I have, all the tablets I swallow, I have never felt so healthy in my life. I feel healthier then when I was HIV and HCV negative, and I can do things with my body now at 41 then I didn’t dream of doing in my 20’s. On most days I am full of energy. Sometimes I am also knackered… But who isn’t in London!
I have refused treatment for HCV. Few weeks ago I went for a liver check up at my hospital. The woman doing the liver scan was surprised –knowing my diagnosis- how good my liver was: “Very good shape n size…excellent blood supply” she kept saying with her eyebrows raised. My liver exams have been getting better and better. Even my doctor – who has been trying to convince me to go on interferon for the past 6 years, told me: “Whatever you are doing keep doing it!”
The moral of my story is that to live healthily with HIV it is vital to have a deep connection with the Outer and Inner World. I express my connection to the Outer World especially in the work I do. My work now focuses on healing our society: aiming to make it more accepting of people living with HIV. On the other side my practice heals me and strengthens my ‘Inner World’, therefore allowing me to do my work with passion. Ashtanga Yoga allows me to experience – maybe only for a few instants- that no matter what happens in the ‘Outer World’ deep within me there is a place of peace where I can just Be, where HIV, pain, disappointment and the limitations and conditionings I daily experience can all disappear.
Ashtanga Yoga London: www.astangayogalondon.com