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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

December 2007

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26 thoughts on “Yoga and HIV

  1. Thank you so much for the article
    i am currently doing a intensive yoga teacher
    program here in Montreal and reading about
    your experiences fills me with hope.
    I ve been HIV positive since 2005 and had to
    start ARV right away because i got real sick.
    The practice of Ashtanga yoga supports me
    mentally and physically.

    I worry too about my liver and kydneys, but i m confident that the practice of yoga helps my body dealing with the ARV consequences and HIV infection.
    Merci again for giving me such inspiration
    Namaste
    Jacques
    Montreal

  2. Thank you Jaques. I wish you all the best with the teacher training. It is inspiring for me too to know that there are other positive Ashtangi.

    Blessings,

    Silvia

  3. Thank you for sharing your life.! I am diagonalized with HIV Aug 2009. Now I am feeling very tired and shortness of breath. I hope the yoga thing will help me improve my breathing and determined to start it tomorrow.

  4. Thank you Yesewzer for reading and taking the time to comment. I am glad the article was useful to you. It is still really a short time from your diagnosis and I am not suprised that you feel out of breath. So many of our emotions are reflected in our breath and I am sure that yoga will help you bring back some balance and healing in your life.

    I don’t know where you are based, and if you have access to any HIV services, I would like to suggest that if you can get in touch with other people living with HIV. For me it was just a releif to realize I was not the only one facing this illnesse.

    Lots of love and light

    Silvia XX

  5. Thanks so much for the article. Just six months ago I tested positive for HIV doing very well though. I’ve been interested in yoga for quite a while but still haven’t found the drive to joint a class. My partner (I’m a gay male btw) has practiced ashtanga for many years after a serious injury in his lower back got him almost disabled. Doctors at the time couldn’t believe that he managed to recover his mobility and live a nearly pain free life.
    After reading your article I will for sure find the time to squeeze yoga between my gym and rowing sessions. I am a strong believer that healthy life style and ARV are the secret to live a long and productive almost normal life span.
    Again many thanks for the article and continue the good work I am sure than many people out there really appreciate what you are doing for the well being of the society at large.

    Luis

  6. Thank you, Luis. I feel homoured to inspire other HIV positive people to take up yoga. I know how beneficial it is to our health, taking pills is not enough!

  7. Hey there!

    I just tested positive for HIV this past Tuesday. So like you, I have turned to my Ashtanga practice for health. I actually have quite an extensive yoga practice having gone to India to practice with Guruji 3 different times but have fallen “off the wagon” for the past 2 years.

    Since testing poz on Tuesday, I threw myself back into my neglected yoga practice with vigor practicing the past 3 out of 4 days. Instinctively, I knew that my yoga practice was the thing I’d need to do to stay healthy and reading your testimonial reaffirms what I felt intuitively.

    I always felt so invulnerable with my yoga practice. Now I’m wondering if it will be enough to defend me from HIV or at least help me feel healthy. Your story has really calmed my nerves and helped me to feel better about my future!

    Sincerely,

    Vincent

  8. Hello Vincent and thank you for your comment. I am so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I am sure the practice will be an invaluable support in this difficult time. The first months are really hard but with support, medical care and yoga it is possible to live a fulfilling life with HIV. I send you love and light.

  9. Your an inspiration and amazing role model to the world at large. Kudos to you and may your incredible journey continue to inspire others. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story. I have been doing yoga for 5 years, and was diagnosed just this past August with HIV. Your story reinforces my belief that yoga will truly benefit my body/mind’s ability to cope with the dis-ease.

    I have recently moved to Edmonton and am not familiar with resources for meeting other people with HIV here, although I plan on visiting the local HIV community group in the city this week. I think that will also help, as you said above, with not feeling like I’m the only one with HIV.

  11. Thanks! I am happy it was helpful to read my experience. Doing my practice is as important as taking ART in keeping me healthy…and above all: sane!

  12. Thanks for this article. I was diagnosed with full blown AIDS at the age of 40 12 years ago after my partners recent unexpected illness and death. It was a major blow to me emotionally and physically. I came to Ashtanga a few years ago and practice 6 days a week, doing my best attempting the full primary series. I think Ashtanga has kept me alive to be honest and at least looking healthy. No one would know…and now in my mid 50s defies my age group as well. What a blessing this has been. Truly a challenge, but a great way to start the day and keep centered. Thanks for your article. Maybe one day we can all meet up at a workshop and start a group!
    Thanks again

  13. Thanks for sharing your story. I also practice ashtanga mysore and am also 15yrs POZ and teach yoga. I also write for positivelite.com and was wondering if you’d be interested in allowing me to interview you about the subjects of yoga and hiv sometime.

    Namaste

  14. Silvia! You are an inspiration! I love that you were online at 05.38 answering Daniel’s comment above! You are so precious!

  15. I dont know adjectly i m suffering with HIV BUT I HAVE DOUT BUT WHEN I RED ALL UR STORY I GOT POWER TO FIGHT WITH DEASIS.
    THANKS

  16. Mi fa’ piacere sentire storie positive, mentre io vedo tutto negativo. Io mi sento stanchissima e la depressione mi sta rendendo tutto piu’ difficile. Il mio medico vorrebbe che inizi la terapia di interferone, ma non credo che il mio corpo c’e’ la possa fare a sopportare tutti i side effect. Ho provato a fare dei corsi di yoga, ma non vedevo l’ora che la classe finisse, perche’ mi rendevo conto che l’insegnante non riusciuva a seguire tutti (anche se non eravamo piu’ di 7 persone). Le posizioni sbagliate e anche la respirazione, le trovavo inconfortabili e penso perche’ non erano corrette. Ho pensato che la soluzione sarebbe avere un insegnante a personale fino a quando non sei pratica, ma questo significa avere soldi e spendere una fortuna. Vorrei scrivere di piu’ per spiegare quanto le giornate stanno diventando sempre piu’ incubi, ma penso che lo capisci. Forse la colpa e’ anche un po’ mia. Dopo aver perso tutte le persone piu’ care, incluso mia sorella fratello l’altro mio fratello che ha subito 2 ictus e altre complicazioni, tutto questo e’ successo qui’ a Londra e quindi ho vissuto tutto da sola nascondendo la verita’ (finche’ c’e’ la facevo). Amici non ne avevo e le pochissime persone che vedevo si sono ormai stancate di chiamarmi perche’ con loro trovavo sempre scuse e non le richiamavo indietro. Certi momenti, quando sto un po’ bene proggetto di fare tantissime cose, poi arriva la depressione, la stanchezza e tutto finisce in un altro giono vuoto. Non so’ perche’ ti sto’ scrivendo, forse per via della pratica e del benessere che da il praticare yoga. Qualunque sia il motivo, mi fa’ tantissimo piacere e in un certo senzo mi aiuta sentire storie positive.
    Grazie dei tuoi post e complimenti.

  17. Cara Rita,

    Grazie per I complimenti. Mi dispiace sentire che stai vivendo un momento così difficile. Penso che il senso di solitudine, e il vuoto di avere perso le persone più care sia un peso veramente terribile. Vorrei incoraggianti a cercare un supporto. La depressione è difficile superarla da soli. Ne hai parlato con il tuo dottore? Forse potrebbe mandarti a un supporto psicologico? Se vivi a Londra forse potresti chiamare Positively UK per avere il supporto di un peer mentor. Il número di Positively UK è 0207 7130222. Personalmente ha me ha aiutato moltissimo essere in contatto con altre persone sieropositive.

  18. Cara Silvia, ho letto il tuo blog tempo fa, e non mi sono mai preso il tempo per dirti quanto ho apprezzato la tua testimonianza e quanto ti sono grato del supporto, se pur indiretto, che mi hai dato. Ho l’HIV dal 2001, e sono entrato in terapia dallo scorso ottobre. E’ meno di un anno che pratico Ashtanga, e devo ammettere che mi ha cambiato, e sta cambiando, la vita in un modo che non mi sarei mai aspettato. E come te, non mi sarei mai aspettato di sentirmi cosi’ in salute e pieno d’energie come mai prima d’ora. Grazie di cuore.

  19. Ciao Simone,

    Grazie per le tue parole. Anche per me continua essere incredible che sono fisicamente e mentalmente più forte e più sana di 20 anni fa. Nonistantw l HIV e… la vecchiaia che avanza…Davvero incredibile. :)))

    Un abbrqccio

    Sx

  20. hola, practico ashtanga yoga, es una pasion para mi, pero creo tuve riesgo de contraer vih, aun me haran la prueba, pero si sale positivo me da miedo no poder hacer mi practica como antes, gracias por tu articulo, me encanto

  21. Gracias. Ir is important you test as if you have HIV you can treat it and stay healthy. But if you don’t know it can really affect your health. Yoga will always be there. I wish you the best xxx

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