Illness as Asana (Yogic Posture). Part 1

A 45-year old yoga student develops a pain on the right side of his neck. Over the next two weeks it radiates agonizingly down his right arm, until his arm and hand are numb except for the pain. Holding a coin in his right hand, he is unable to identify its denomination. A month later, noticing atrophying muscles in his hand and forearm, he decides it’s time to seek medical advice. His physician has little difficulty ascertaining that the man has severe arthritis in the vertebrae of his neck. Bony spurs, irritating the nerves that branch from his spinal cord to supply his right arm, are the cause of all his symptoms. Another spur threatens the spinal cord itself.

The physician urgently recommends neurosurgery. However, the man feels that surgery must be a last resort. As a yogi, he decides to focus on his symptoms the way he would on an asana. So instead of avoiding his neck pain he breathes into it, focuses attention on it, and observes the sensation as a neutral being. Insisting that this “asana” holds meaning for him, he begins to characterize the pain precisely. “It is a grabbing pain,” he says, “something squeezing my skin as if to draw my head down into my shoulders.” He concludes that his symptoms are a metaphoric attempt to change him into a turtle. “The arthritis symptoms represent a conflict for me,” he says, “and therapeutic behavior on my part means climbing out of my shell, sticking my neck out.”

He combines deliberate behavioral changes with a shift in his practice to include more kundalini yoga, to explore the spinal column more directly by moving kundalini energy through it. Within a week his symptoms disappear. “I’m enjoying being more audacious,” he reports six months later, “and incidentally, freedom from pain is a blessing.” “No one really cares if you can do a perfect pose,” one of my first yoga teachers confided. “Yoga’s most valuable lessons are so subtle that they will pervade everything you do.” He was right. Among its other uses, yoga can be a powerful tool for healing illness. But before you misunderstand, let me explain what I mean by illness.

Illness and Disease During my 22 years as a physician I’ve come upon only one inviolable rule. Every sickness involves a person. I’d be shocked out of my little white coat if ever a sickness hopped up onto the examining table all by itself. This principle, as elegant as a paper clip, is deservedly on its way into the professional textbooks. A growing choir of medical doctors, including Bernie Siegel, Larry Dossey, and Carl Simonton, sing a radical but inarguable new litany: There’s no sickness without a person. (well duh) According to these physicians, sickness has two aspects. One aspect, disease, consists of the objective, measurable physiological symptoms: degrees of fever, size of tumor, pounds of weight loss. The other aspect, illness is the subjective, immeasurable experience of the sick person.

When we’re sick, we suffer not from disease, but from illness. A tumor never bothered anyone. (???) Boils, gravelly joints, and clogged coronaries may not be natural blessings, but they’re not what we actually suffer from. What bothers us is our experience of disease: pain, fear, depression, despair, isolation, panic. (As the classic ad goes, it’s the heartache of psoriasis…) So we would do well to explore illness to learn what we can do about it. Practitioners of mainstream medicine, the discipline that treats disease, have a vast head start on those who want to heal illness.

During the past century, medicine has benefitted from a detailed model for comprehending disease: pathology, the study of abnormal tissue. However, there has been no widely accepted model for comprehending illness. We already know that whereas disease is built of tissue changes, illness is built of emotional changes. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross M.D., autho of On Death and Dying, life-threatening illness includes a sequence of predictable emotions, of which denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are the most common.

According to Kubler-Ross, what remains after we move through these successive emotional stages is “acceptance.” Acceptance s neither wimpy resignation nor joy at the prospect of dying. It’s simply open recognition without emotional decoration. Consider the yoga student who receives the diagnosis of arthritis — a serious problem, but not lethal. In terms of Kubler-Ross’s stages, he may initially respond with denial: “But I cant possibly have arthritis! I’m a yogi!” Perhaps then he experiences anger: “Aaaagh! My yoga teacher taught me hazardous headstands! I’ll sue!” Bargaining might be next: “Well, maybe if I switch to natural grains and cut out citrus.” Depression may set in as he mourns the loss of his health, his career, his marriage, or his life. But once confronted, his grief eventually lifts, exposing a new landscape –a more barren, stripped one, perhaps, but one worthy of exploration. This chatter-free place — acceptance — is where yoga (and a bunch of other disciplines) can begin to heal.

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