May 11, 2015

In Sickness & in Health: Why I’m Married to my Mat.


“You’re not supposed to have a cold,” a student said one night at the yoga studio.

“You’re a yoga teacher,” she offered by way of explanation.

I wish I’d had a witty comeback, but instead, I just sneezed and blew my nose.

“Isn’t yoga supposed to make you healthy?” she asked.

“Yogis are human,” I replied. “We get sick. We get old. We die.”

“Then why do yoga?” she asked.

“For those very reasons,” I replied. Because we get sick. We get old. We die.

The truth was, such questions—and their underlying assumption that yoga was somehow a miracle cure—struck a chord. I felt lucky that my practice had given me the gifts of stamina, energy and general good health.

So I was surprised when a congenital heart issue surfaced just after I turned 50. And when I told people about it, their responses surprised me even more.

“What? There’s nothing wrong with your heart,” they said. “You do yoga!”

I noticed a theme here.

Where had people ever gotten the idea that yoga was a miracle cure?

To be sure, I’d made it my practice to open my heart in ways both literal and metaphoric. I took refuge in the Heart Sutra and meditated on forgiveness. I sent compassion and loving-kindness to friends, strangers, people I had difficulty with. I taught those practices to my students, too.

My heart was strong. But the muscle itself was weak. In my childhood, a slow heart rate (bradycardia) was always commented on at the doctor’s office.

“You have an athlete’s heart,” the pediatrician would say after putting the cold stethoscope to my chest. I was no athlete, though. The condition was just something I lived with.

I never felt dizziness. I never felt faint or short of breath. Once, a decade before, I’d had surgery to try to open blocked fallopian tubes and had taken a very long time to come to. The doctors warned me that my heart rate was slow. Groggy from the anaesthetic, I nodded. I knew.

Shortly after that we adopted an energetic young boy and got very busy. I forgot all about it.

Ten years later, a friend encouraged me to drink a triple espresso. As someone who tended to avoid caffeine, I felt the effects right away. But there was more. The dizziness turned to vertigo, and I began to see double. I went to the doctor. He said my heart rate was 30 amd that I needed to be put on meds, or have a pacemaker installed immediately.

I did what anyone would do; I posted the news on Facebook.

First, there was disbelief.

“What? You’re a yoga teacher. You can’t have a ‘bad heart.’” Then the remedies came pouring in. Try biofeedback, acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy.

Backtrack a decade, when I was tackling infertility. The same remedies had been suggested then—and tried, and tried and tried. Now I know that my slow heart rate was most likely responsible for my inability to get—and stay—pregnant. But back then, I wanted to heal naturally. So I tried all of those remedies and more.

And I took out my yoga mat and practiced. And I cried me a river on that mat.

Ultimately, yoga gave me the realization that what I really wanted was to be a mother. So I adopted, and became a mother. I’m grateful for the difficult experiences I went through to get there. Because I appreciate every day of being a mother. Even the shitty ones.

So this time, I skipped the biofeedback and the acupuncture and the aromatherapy and went straight to a cardiac specialist. And I got the medication I needed to speed my heart rate and whisk me out of the danger zone. And I’ll most likely get a pacemaker when the time comes. Because, as my yoga taught me, we really don’t know if we have tomorrow.

In the end, though yoga didn’t fix my heart, it gave me a better medicine: the tools to be calm in the face of a potential crisis, and the awareness to be grateful for the heart that had worked so hard to keep me alive all those years at less-than optimal functioning.

So now, when people say things like, “Yogis don’t get sick,” I tell them that yes, we do. Yogis are human.

The body is our chariot, our rental car. And it gives us valuable information. It’s our job—and our yoga practice—to listen to it. When it needs care, we need to care for it. When it needs rest, we need to rest. It’s our responsibility and our privilege to take the best care of this vehicle that we can.

That’s why I roll out my mat and do my practice—in sickness and in health. I’m so blessed that yoga meets me where I am, every single time.


Author: Leza Lowitz

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Flickr

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