June 18, 2018

How Autoimmune Disease made me a Better Yogi.

Not to brag, but I’m #blessed.

I’m blessed to be earning my living doing what I love as a yoga teacher and designer. I’m blessed to have a partner and family who unconditionally love and support me. And I’m blessed to have lived with a handful of autoimmune diseases since age 10—diseases that have given me arthritis, skin conditions, digestive disorders, thyroid deregulation, and all that good stuff.

And before you call “bullsh*t” on me describing these lifelong illnesses as a blessing, hear me out.

My disease taught me to speak kindly to myself.

As yogis, we are taught to practice ahimsanonviolence and compassion—both on and off the mat. And we’re taught that that the words we choose to vocalize are fundamental to this concept: we must avoid harmful language.

And yet, so much of the language we use to describe autoimmune disease is actually pretty violent.

“Autoimmune disease is the body attacking itself.” Those of us with autoimmune conditions have all heard our doctors tell us this, yet we hardly consider what this language implies.

The notion that our bodies would spontaneously start attacking us from the inside out sounds like a dystopian sci-fi film, like the alien from “Alien.” And doctors, researchers, and holistic health practitioners alike are starting to converge around the consensus that this language is reductive and inaccurate. Even those autoimmune diseases which have traditionally been assumed to be hereditary and without a cure are now thought to have underlying causes that are often treatable—such as leaky gut syndrome, gluten sensitivity, or the mysterious Epstein-Barr virus.

It’s in response to these root causes that our immune systems begin to create inflammation and pain to alert and protect our bodies in the first place. And if those root causes are chronically exacerbated—for example, if someone kept eating gluten for years while unaware of an underlying gluten sensitivity—our immune systems would be chronically stuck in defense mode, which is essentially what autoimmune disease is.

In other words, our bodies aren’t attacking us—they’re actually defending us.

So, to speak more kindly toward ourselves, we can hack the language we use to describe our diseases. Simple shifts in the words we choose to communicate our illness experiences can shift the blame away from our own bodies, leaving less room for resentment and hopelessness and more room for curiosity and self-love.

Instead of vilifying our bodies by insisting that “autoimmune disease is the body attacking itself,” perhaps it would be more accurate (and more kind) to say: “Autoimmune disease is the body protecting itself.” Instead of resigning to the notion that our immune systems are “disordered,” we can describe them as “sensitive.” And instead of lamenting, “Why is my body doing this to me?” we can ask, “What is my body trying to tell me?”

Et voilà: ahimsa-friendly language!

My disease taught me to listen to my body.

“What is my body trying to tell me?” has basically been my guiding mantra for the past two years, since starting my first holistic health protocol. After seeing notable improvements in my pain, mood, and energy levels, I was so thrilled with this newfound outlook on healing that I decided I wanted to befriend my disease. And just like with a delightful stranger, any new friendship must start with getting to know one another—which takes a lot of listening.

Listening to my body became my (second) full-time job. I was laboriously journaling my foods, symptoms, and moods, trying to get to know my disease’s patterns of behavior. Instead of reacting to flare-ups with indignation, I’d greet them with compassionate curiosity, asking myself questions like: How much water have you drunk? Have you eaten any dairy or gluten recently? What were you thinking or talking about when this started?

These daily gentle “conversations” I was having with my body soon started permeating into my experience on the mat. If I pressed into my first downward dog and noticed my shoulders were particularly tight and it was hard to breathe, I could observe these sensations without judgment and ponder: How has my posture been today? How did I sleep last night? Are there any new burdens or responsibilities I’ve taken on recently? Listening for my body’s response to these questions would immediately improve my ability to carry on my yoga practice moving intuitively with my breath and releasing whatever physical or emotional tension was creating my discomfort.

My disease brings me into a “beginner’s mind” at the start of each practice.

The Zen Buddhist concept of the beginner’s mind offers the paradox that the wisest people are those who can basically admit that they don’t know anything, thus receiving every experience with an open mind and receptive attitude. In other words, approaching a daily yoga practice without any preconceived ideas or opinions of how it’s supposed to look—almost as if we’ve never even done yoga before—can manifest our most healing and transformative moments on the mat.

And for those of us with autoimmune diseases, lucky us! Because our illnesses can do a damn good job at knocking us back into the humility of accepting this “I don’t know” mind on a daily basis—both on and off the mat—simply because of how confounding and unpredictable they can be.

Because my chronic joint pain would flare up seemingly erratically day-to-day, it trained me to wake up each morning with a sense of total uncertainty of how my body would feel, move, and serve me that day. It trained me to accept this uncertainty and surrender my expectations of how I was “supposed” to experience my physical being. It trained me to take this uncertainty to my mat and let go of what I thought my postures or flows were “supposed” to look like, and instead simply trust the millennia-old science of yoga to work its magic on alchemizing my body, mind, and spirit (regardless of how deep my backbend is).

When we step onto our mats and strip ourselves of these concepts, all that’s left is playful curiosity and a deep reverence for all the juicy wisdom and healing benefits that yoga has to offer. As I’ve learned to consciously greet my disease each morning with a beginner’s mind, my yoga practice has transformed from 60 minutes of trying to contort my limbs into different shapes to a sustained session of focused breathing and asking myself mindful questions—namely: what is this pose asking me to feel?

My disease keeps bringing me back to my mat.

Yoga is a healing science. So naturally, people with chronic illnesses often find profound, life-changing benefits to incorporating a safe and properly-aligned practice into their daily routine.

As someone who embraced the healing power of yoga in my daily life and subsequently quit my corporate job to share it with others, I can safely say that my appreciation and awe for this practice would not nearly be so profound and internalized if it weren’t for my disease. Sure, maybe I’d still go to classes a couple times a week. I might even go on a yoga retreat. Yet without my illness, I wouldn’t know the terror of feeling trapped in a body that feels like it’s constantly breaking down, or the emotional exhaustion of masking just how deeply the disease affects me. So, I couldn’t know the sheer joy and self-empowerment that yoga can manifest by liberating me from this terror and exhaustion, nor would I have any inclination to dedicate my career to it.

Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the light enters us.”

If our disease is our wound, perhaps yoga is the light. So, the next time we experience a flare-up, strange reaction, or feel simply sick and tired of being sick and tired, we might ask ourselves: why is this happening to me? And perhaps with genuine belief, we can close our eyes, take a deep cleansing breath, and respond, “To remind me why I need yoga.”


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