One of my strategies as a yoga teacher is story telling. I love to unravel the tendrils of a harrowing tale, or a hilarious or inspiring one. Offering just the right details, at just the right moments, to support or impact students’ effort in asana, is a project that tantalizes and taunts me almost as much as the practice of yoga itself. I often remind students during classes that Yoga is hard because life is hard, and I say it to make us laugh, but also because it’s true. Similarly, I think that a story’s complexity can be its strength. I think that often, what seem at first to be unwieldy details, or random tangents, or confusing subplots, turn out to hold gifts of depth and layered meaning mired within them. I hope I’m right about that, because I have a story to unravel that’s so complex it makes me tired just thinking about it.
But then, I’ve been tired for years, which is what this story is about. Though hardly anyone knows about it, for years I’ve struggled with minor to moderate but persistent health concerns, resulting in my body flat-out refusing to perform in the manner I had come to expect. Over the last five years os so, I have been deeply, chronically, at times debilitatingly fatigued. I balk at staircases. I’m not always up to walking my own dog. There have been stretches, a week, a couple of weeks, even a couple months at a time, when the only time I got out of bed during the day was to teach a yoga class. I watched the whole spring of 2014, the whole beautiful spring in beautiful Portland, pass by through my bedroom window.
There have been many ups and downs, times of feeling better, and then not so much. I have been positively diagnosed with, and treated for, a host of things; broken adrenals, low functioning thyroid, some issue relating to cortisol and estrogen balance (I can’t remember exactly), anemia, various vitamin deficiencies. Basically your run-of-the mill hormonal imbalances and stress related depletion disorders. But none of these things seem to explain the tenacity of my symptoms. That spring was the worst of it. It turned out I had Epstein-Barr, a wicked virus that has no business taking root in a healthy adult. But then I wasn’t healthy.
Mind you, there’s nothing threatening my life. I am am starkly aware of that fact. In the time I’ve been navigating these waters, I have watched friends and colleagues bravely face such demons as cancer, M.S., Lupus. In the past, I have nursed and then mourned loved ones who succumbed to AIDS and mental illness. I know how lucky I am for my overall health. And yet, there has been something taking the life out of my life, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s a special kind of torture to not have a diagnosis, a named enemy to go into battle with.
I have been both blessed and cursed in this life by a kind of stalwart, take-it-on-the-chin optimism, a quality that has both saved my butt and kicked me in it about a thousand times, such that through all of it I’ve simply held the belief that I’m on the mend. I’m always “getting my strength back”, emboldened by one treatable diagnosis or another. But the truth is that I’ve gone from vital and athletic, my can-do attitude perfectly matched by my hardy, reliable frame, to being almost paralyzed by a fear that I might inadvertently over-do, and trigger another bout of fatigue that will leave me unable to compose an email, or have a phone conversation. Afraid to accept a social invitation, or to practice asana for more than a few minutes at a time, after consistently requiring days of recovery after any but the most minimal movement. At a certain point I realized that there’s a way in which my positive attitude, the expectations I have held fast to that I would once again be the person I have always been if only I keep at my practice, get more rest, eliminate this food or the other from my diet, had become a pernicious presence of self-judging as I fail to meet those expectations day after day after day. For five, going on six, now, years.
At the moment of this writing I am – better. I have grown cautious around feeling excited about feeling better, because again and again such excitement has proved premature, but I do feel better right now than I have in a long time, and I have reason to believe that this time it’s going to stick. I’ve been taking steadily longer walks. I’ve been slowly adding strengthening asanas back into my yoga practice. That said, I still have days where I stand up, and promptly realize I have to lie back down again.
Why am a telling you this?
1 –Because I know I’m not the only one.
I heard a quote the other day: “If we knew each other’s secrets, what comfort we should find.” As I have walked through this foreign and sometimes terrifying period of unexplained alienation from my body, I have scoured the internet for evidence that I wasn’t alone. That someone, somewhere had experienced this before me, and had maybe even recovered. In part, telling is a way of giving back.
2 – Because not telling is exhausting.
This thousand armed beast wants out. As I mentioned above, I have mostly kept quiet about my struggles because I keep thinking it’s over (and then it’s not). But it’s also because it just feels unseemly to complain. Teaching yoga is a service, and it has felt inappropriate to me to burden those I serve with concerns for my personal well being. But I’m starting to see that this plan is unsustainable. I cannot continue to hold all the things I’m holding and still have the energy to show up for students, or even for my family, or myself.
3 – Because I’ve learned, so, much.
I used to think I knew what practice was. I thought I had discipline, because I diligently did my tapas, and the fire of my yoga steeled me, gave me strength and brought me peace. Just as all my teachers, and all of the texts had told me it would. But this particular demon I’m up against now only gets stronger when I confront it in battle. Like Raktabija, the demon who, when squaring off with the powerful Durga, produced infinite Raktabijas with every spilled drop of his blood.
As it turned out, I hadn’t begun to practice until my practice was taken away. Until what I thought to be the very heart of my sadhana – my body and the insights I gained on my yoga mat – was pulled out from under me, leaving me untethered and unsure.
So, I have a story to tell you. Or a thousand stories. Maybe a hundred thousand. I’m not sure what they are yet. For the month of the Yogathon I’ll post them here, as they surface, and also my practices. I know it will be healing for me to unravel them. And I hope they’ll be of use to you.
To register for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here.Thank you.