How Autoimmune Disease made me a Better Yogi.

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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.”

~

Image: Mariko Jana Azis

Image: Author's Own

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Mariko Jana Azis

Originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, Mariko Jana Azis is a third culture kid who was raised somewhere between upstate New York, Massachusetts, and Tokyo, Japan. Today, she makes her home in Ithaca, New York, where she previously studied studio art and psychology at Cornell University. She now earns a living (and finds purpose) as a certified yoga teacher, freelance creative consultant, and writer covering holistic wellness, travel, and living with chronic illness. See more of her work on her website, and connect with her on Instagram or Twitter.

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Kaisa Kupila Jun 23, 2018 6:55am

Dear Mariko, your story gave me a lots to think....Most of all, would I be able to study my illness in a same manner and finally find some reason to go on? I have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and my days are filled in foggy pain which makes me so weak, that any kind of sturctural functioning or decision making seem to be impossible. Even taking a shower is sometimes too much. Before this I was super active person practising daily yoga and Pilates, and taking long highs with my 4 dogs. But now I feel that I am trapped in this body and not knowing how to get out. Thank you

Mariko Jana Azis Jun 21, 2018 2:04am

Thank you for sharing, Vern--I empathize with your pain. Wishing you clarity and peace in your healing x

Mariko Jana Azis Jun 21, 2018 12:20am

Thank you for reading! :)

Vern Thompson Jun 20, 2018 2:28am

You have made me think more about my R. A. And I also have lupus I hurt everyday and hope that tomorrow isn't the day that I won't be able to walk work or play with my grandkids I am so happy for you that you found away to deal with your illnesses bless you

Joshua Reynolds Jun 20, 2018 1:28am

This is so incredibly important, what a powerful perspective!!

Mariko Jana Azis Jun 19, 2018 5:57pm

yes, thank you for reading and reflecting on the standard vernacular of healing–so key in holistic wellness! 🙏🏾

Cognitive Behavioral Teamwork Jun 19, 2018 1:51am

Good luck -- I mean it -- getting to the place UNDER these so-called diagnoses (I'm coming from a technical vernacular*) to acheive understanding that brings healing and the healing that brings understanding. Yoga is the light, and that unity brooks no darkness or dis-ease. When you're ready. Stay at it. It's all about the path. (* dia=through/thorough; gnosis = knowledge/understanding. MOST medical "diagnoses" are mere descriptions. ) One other thing: The more -- and the more unusual -- "diagnoses", the more alternative ways to look at any and all of them. That's called Baysian Theory, and it's a good thing.