The air is cold as I find a corner of the spacious wood-floored room for my worn purple mat. It’s September, but the A/C is strong in the mind-body studio at my gym.
No one will be joining me today; I’m stretching and flowing and breathing on my own. I just ran for twelve minutes on the treadmill and am triumphant. A year ago I was preparing to run a half-marathon, but today I’m satisfied with the mile-plus that pushed me to my limit, exhausting my lungs and my legs.
To my left I can see swimmers, tennis players, and cyclists through a wall of windows. If any of those athletes care enough to look, they can see me, alone in the dark, at the top of my mat with my hands in prayer.
I can lead myself through a flow, though on most days I let a good teacher do the direction. I have “only” been doing yoga for four years, which doesn’t feel like long enough to know anything at all about hip flexors and poses and using my breath. My body, however, has learned more than my mind, so I let it take over.
An inhale takes me into a long stretch, leaning back and feeling the forward hunch of my shoulders relax. Exhale, and my arms fly wide as I lower my torso into a forward fold. Inhale, flat back, and the stretch through my hamstrings is blissful, so I repeat it a few times.
When I went to my first yoga class, I didn’t know I was developing Crohn’s disease. It’s just coincidence that a week after nausea, vomiting and pain shocked me for the first time as summer moved to fall, I began a new practice that would transform me as surely as disease would.
My hands drop to the mat, my right leg reaches back and I lower into runner’s lunge. My short arms, which I tend to blame for any challenge in yoga, barely reach the floor, but no matter. My arms and torso are already swinging up into crescent lunge.
A few times this summer those transitions had me seeing spots. My heart would race, my head would swim, and I would retreat to forward fold to keep from toppling over on the mat. Deep breaths cleared my head and brought me back. I could always breathe.
I didn’t know at the time how severely anemic I’d become from the flare that was causing me so much mental and physical pain. When my blood tests came back my doctor was shocked I was able to stand, and I didn’t tell her that sometimes I couldn’t.
In crescent lunge I lower my hips just a little more, and I feel any strain from the preceding run release just before I move back into runner’s lunge.
Could I still call myself a runner? After ten years of pushing myself in that sport which had challenged me so much, I had to hit pause during these recent months when my health took a turn. My pain was unpredictable and I never knew when the bouncing of my guts would be too much to bear mid-run.
From runner’s lunge I sweep my left leg back into high plank. I tuck in my elbows as I bend them to lower down an inch or two. Illness’s weight loss has eaten away at my muscle, and my firm, strong low push-ups are now smaller and tentative. An inch or two is enough. Inhale, and I shine my heart forward through upward dog. I exhale through my mouth and find downward dog.
Getting back to the gym has been a victory, as a few medicinal changes have me gaining some energy and strength. I am rebuilding, trying not to be ashamed that I couldn’t maintain all of my physical practices through a bout of bad luck, healthwise. First I ran seven minutes, then eight. I set the weight machines on the lowest poundage. My mat is the one place where I am not a beginner again.
Even when abdominal inflammation made locust pose awkward, or when the unfairness of illness caused tears to flow during savasana, I had refused to become alienated from my body. The tiniest motion, energized by breath, was something.
Movement, breathing, and focus sustained me during some of the hardest months of my life. Even if I only had an hour’s worth of energy on a given day, I wanted to spend that energy on the mat. If nothing else, I could still breathe.
Everything melts into downward dog. Bending my knees I hop forward. My feet land about halfway to their goal, and my memory takes me back to a more athletic time, when my hops were stronger and longer. I recognize the thought and let it go.
Inhale, chair pose. Exhale, hands to prayer. I hook my left elbow around my bent knees and twist. I have been assured that this is good for my poor, aggrieved intestines so I inch my hips toward the floor and deepen my twist. Each breath both relaxes and energizes me. I stay here for a few breaths before shooting my left leg back into a twisted lunge.
The ball of my left foot plants securely on my worn, beloved mat. My legs are firm. I don’t wobble or fall. I inhale, exhale, twist deeper. For a moment I feel strong again, and I know I should let that thought float away too, but I savor it instead.
My body is a mystery. It has always been, but now it is more so, as my immune system attacks me and my digestive system picks and chooses when it will behave and when it will scream at me.
My body is my home. Both yoga and illness have taught me this in ways I never imagined when I nervously entered that windowed studio at the local gym four years ago. Each inhale and exhale remind me that my body is a blessing, no matter what.
I move out of twisted lunge and into another high-to-low pushup. Oblivious to the sounds from the pool and the spin studio next door I let my beautiful, confusing body lead me through a few more poses, stretching and releasing any area that calls out. When I feel balanced I bring my two feet back to the top of the mat and joyfully fill myself with the cool air as I reach up to the sky. I exhale and lower my hands back to prayer.
Sponsored by MPH@GW Public Health
This post is part of the MPH@GW yoga matters blog campaign and I’m grateful for the encouragement to write about why yoga matters so much to me right now. If it matters to you too I hope you’ll share your story. Keep breathing!