Illness as Asana (Yogic Posture). Part 2

Illness and Yoga. Illness and yoga both require us to step outside our comfortable daily habits. They both try us with fear, resistance, pain and fatigue. And both can be reservoirs of wisdom. Just as asana practice needn’t be exclusively painful and tiring, illness needn’t be an unalloyed tragedy. It can be a poignant reminder that we are here to fulfill a particular destiny, that our lives are more than the hyphen between two dates. Like yoga, illness yields fruits proportionate to the quality of attention we give it. Yet healing illness doesn’t stave off death any more than a physically perfect asana guarantees enlightenment. The goal is not immortality, but the transformation of a trial into an awakening. A 56-year old yogini refuses standard medical treatment for her advancedbreast cancer. “It might well be time for me to go,” she says. “I don’t mind that, but I would like to go cleanly.” Uncertain about what tasks might be left for her, she places meditative attention on her left arm, painfully swollen from the pressure of a tumor mass. “It feels like there’s a channel that ought to drain my arm, but it’s plugged by two thick pillars,” she says. Giving personalities to these obstructions, she describes them as kindly but quite insistent. Refining the image, she soon sees the pillars as her son and her former lover and realizes that she could ease her ultimate “flow” by finishing business with them. She does, and dies peacefully. How does one perform an illness as an asana?

First, deal with the accompanying emotions as mental chatter, mind-created clarity barriers. Feel them, note them — and then let go of them. This isn’t easy because the emotions may seem like valid chatter. Take anger, for example. There may be plenty of it, all justifiable. Why did the universe pick you, for example, instead of someone with karma more suitable for this s particular lesson? And while you’re at it, whose fault is this sickness, anyway? The stress that shattered your immune system? The doctors who misdiagnosed you? The fiend who sneezed into your orange juice. The CIA? God? You yourself? Let everyone off the hook. The cleverest and most accurate blaming in the world won’t heal illness or decrease the ultimate mortality rate, which to my knowledge, remains at 100% To paraphrase Ram Dass, “Be sick now.” It’s OK to be sick. Do “sickasana:” Lie back and wholeheartedly let it press you into the mattress. It saddens me to hear someone rattle between coughs, “I don’t have time to be sick.” Pretend that sickness is a spiritual path with the bed as the altar. The view from the sickbed changes radically — take advantage of it.

If you’re depressed, respect your depression. You deserve to be depressed. Your life is derailed, your relationships are askew, and you’re not sure disability and death aren’t in the cards. Ignore well-meaning advice to “cheer up.” At the same time, recall the advice of Shiva and Einstein: Nothing’s lost without something gained. We live in a universe constructed of transitions. It’s certainly uncomfortable in the dark abyss between the known past and the terra incognito ahead, but a little faith can build a strong bridge. When the emotional flak finally subsides, you will find yourself in a receptive state, a pristine asana where wisdom whispers subtly, but with exquisite individuality and precision. Now, instead of recoiling from your symptoms, breathe intelligence into them. Regard them as a form of body language. Rest your overworked frontal lobes for the moment and ask yourself — using your wildest dreams, your most childlike intuition — what your illness would mean if it were a psychologically encoded message. The method I use, as illustrated in the examples in this article, is to describe the symptom as metaphor: It feels as though…what? The challenge is to describe the sensation so juicily that a listener could actually feel it. A man with an abdominal tumor senses the growth as “the filling of a void.” He is a removed, aloof person, even to his children and wife. At one point he (continued on page 7) “Illness As Asana” (cont. from page 5) says, “You know, I’m dying for someone to be close to.” Accepting this as the meaning of his cancer, he begins to change. He becomes warm, personable, gregarious. It is not self-conscious role-playing — he figuratively dies and reassembles as a different personality. His tumor regresses.

When I see him six years later, he has returned, without symptoms, to his career. Not everyone who treats illness as yogic opportunity will come to such epiphanies. More often, the results are subtle but indescribable, like the results of yoga practice. That’s alright. The lessons have been incorporated into the body and will continue to influence behavior. I don’t mean for this yogic approach to illness to take the place of professional treatment. Remember, what we’re confronting here is illness, not disease. Doctors and other health practitioners are well-qualified to cure disease, but the healing of illness must always be self-healing.

Nevertheless, the intense self-healing of illness will often minimize the need for external intervention to treat the disease. We need to be easy on ourselves, to practice for its own sake. All we can ever do, whether in the exploration of illness or in the practice of yoga, is our best, without attachment to the results. Come to think of it, that approach would benefit medical practice as well. Jeff Kane, M.D. is an Iyengar yoga teacher and physician in Nevada City,California, who limits his medical practice to counseling patients with chronic or life-threatening illness.

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