November 28, 2013

Whole in the Heart: Re-examining Yoga in Action. ~ Sorina Diaconescu

A friend’s sudden illness invites a re-examination of yoga in action.

Three weeks ago they found a hole in Leslie’s heart. Sweet-natured, kind Leslie Gossett—a 29-year-old Southern girl from Nashville whom I’d met, earlier this year, at my yoga teachers training group.

I wish I could say it’s the kind of metaphorical hole that opens up in the chest after a breakup—the kind that inspires tearful midnight conversations, love poems and so on.

But they found a real hole. A congenital cardiac defect which can allow blood clots, that naturally form in the body, to pass into the brain and cause a stroke.

When news of Leslie’s sudden stroke and subsequent hospitalization spread through Facebook and reached us, her community of friends and fellow yogis, we were all startled. Why would a 20 something, with a self-disciplined life regimen sustained by a vegan diet, daily exercise and a regular meditation practice, be felled by a stroke?

We collectively summoned good karma and prayers to vibe off in her direction. We wondered what we could do to help. Perhaps we also paused in contemplation, experiencing a renewed awareness of these miraculous, mysterious machines that carry our thoughts through the world.

As students of yoga we learn that we should practice care and love of the body, even as we seek to attain freedom from body consciousness. “The body has its own wisdom—it’s the ancient wisdom of nature”; “Remember to feel gratitude for this body”; “The yogi does neither underrate his body nor think merely of its perfection, but also of his senses, mind, intellect and soul.” These oft-mouthed aphorisms of the yogic canon acquire additional poignancy when ill health is visited upon ourselves or a loved one.

Sometimes, because we purposefully cultivate awareness and care of our bodies, we can become mired in the illusion that we possess ultimate control over our bodily wellbeing. My friend’s reaction to her unexpected sickness snapped this illusion into focus for me.

“I found this experience freeing,” she says. “I finally truly understood that you can’t control things in life. There is such freedom in that realization!”

“God, that’s so Leslie,” I think. To dig for the silver lining, the bounty, the gift even in the crappiest of circumstances.

Yet for us committed yogis, any obstacle, challenge or misfortune represents an opportunity to renew the commitment to our foundational truths—to practice our yamas (ethical restraints) and niyamas (codes of conduct).

Last spring, during our introductory session as yoga teacher trainees, I was instantly drawn to Leslie’s calm demeanor and easy smile. When she shared that she’s devoted herself to the study and practice of Buddhism, I instantly dubbed her “the Zen mistress.” (Never mind that Leslie is a student of Tibetan, not Zen, Buddhism—specifically within the Shambhala lineage. Oops!)

As we both plunged into training—sometimes muddling through, sometimes skipping along with joy and pep in our step—I found Leslie’s presence quietly inspiring. She had a way about her that struck me as open-hearted and even-keeled.

I remember a particular instance, during a philosophy lecture, when I trotted out one of my favorite Joseph Campbell quotes—“Love is the burning point of life. And since all life is sorrow, love is the pain of being truly alive.” I noticed a tear sparkle in Leslie’s eye as she met my gaze from across the room in bittersweet recognition.

A group of us fellow yogis visited Leslie upon her recent release from the hospital. Clustered around the living room couch in her charming, rambling Oakland apartment, we listen to her recount the terrifying way in which the hole in her heart announced its presence.

Driving on the freeway, on her way to teach a meditation workshop, a sudden numbness gripped the right side of her body, followed by gradual loss of motor coordination skills. She brought the vehicle to a stop in the fast lane before a shroud of confusion enveloped her brain. Cars zipped by at traffic speed and motorists were honking. She somehow summoned the strength—where did it comes from?—to make her way to an exit and park roadside. When she called 911 on her cell phone, she discovered the urgent pleas that formed in her mind came out as mere gibberish. She caught sight of a passerby, and—again calling upon unknown strengths—managed to stagger toward him and wordlessly translate her call for help.

An ambulance arrived to whisk her to the hospital. Hours and days of yet more confusion followed. CAT scans and other medical tests left both doctors and patient puzzled. Finally, they figured it out: “You’ve got a hole in your heart,” they say.

Now what?

Doctors believe the effects of Leslie’s stroke could be entirely reversed with proper medical rehabilitation. After being released from the hospital, a new life regimen was instituted: Daily blood-thinning medication, physical therapy, regular check-ups and tests. Her day job employers have been supportive; her wide circle of friends, relatives and loved ones have sprung into compassionate action.

There is of course, the specter of mounting medical bills: Like too many of us, Leslie did not have health insurance at the time of her stroke. Taking time off to properly recover means a loss of steady income. Her usual living expenses are climbing too, on account of rehabilitation costs. And that’s not even considering other big issues momentarily parked on the back burner: Should she have surgery to fix the hole? And if so, will the procedure necessitate that her chest cavity be cut open? By what means would she pay for it? My own heart twinges with worry to even think about it all.

As disciples of yoga, we practice saying “yes” to life with equanimity of spirit. We seek within ourselves that which remains steady and unchanging through constant reversals of fortune. Whenever things go our way or catastrophe strikes, whether sickness or success sweep us off, we remind ourselves that it too, shall pass.

Loss, sorrow and death are inevitable. But we can still choose to affirm life by joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world. We can become a conduit for love and compassion—not just for the benefit of a loved one in need, but also without any pointed motive or expectation of reward.

During her hospital stay, Leslie posted a haiku on her Facebook feed:

A hole in my heart
How else would the sky fit there
Love spacious and vast

May the loving out-pour of our hearts knit the world back together whenever it falls apart—again and again and again.

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Assistant Editor: Richard May/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives

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Sorina Diaconescu