In the beginning there was no yoga, only pain – widespread, quit-school-and-move-home-to-live-with-my-parents pain. It was 1999 and I was 20. For six months I laid very still in bed, only rising to see the endless stream of doctors who told me I was fine and privately asked my mother if I was faking.
Although I eventually left my parents’ home, the undiagnosed pain stayed for the next 11 years. It changed somewhat, migrating through my body, making its rounds from my back to my knees, feet, arms, and neck. I continued to see specialists, waiting months and years to see rheumatologists, internists, neurologists, physiatrists, and infectious disease experts who could find nothing wrong. On the recommendation of these specialists, I saw a number of psychologists to address this mysterious illness which, according to the specialists, was of mind, not of body. I spent six months on Prozac before taking myself off it.
I paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to see chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, naturopaths, osteopaths, acupuncturists, and energy healers. I drank the foulest tasting Chinese medicinal herbs after simmering them for hours on the stove. I slathered creams and ointments on all my aches, bought and swallowed whatever cocktail of supplements was suggested to me. I went vegetarian, then vegan, then gluten-free; I tried the elimination diet, the alkaline diet, and the candida diet. I dropped several pants sizes, resulting in my internist’s expert opinion that I had “a low pain threshold, which should be remedied by gaining 10 pounds”.
When yoga was first suggested to me I would like to write that the clouds parted and faint harp-strumming could be heard, but such was not the case. Instead, I dismissed the idea, thinking, “I’m in no shape for yoga”. But after months of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and hating the world, it was clear that time and rest weren’t helping.
I signed up for my first yoga class in 2000. At first it was only clear that yoga didn’t make things worse. However, as my interest in yoga grew and my asana practice developed, things began to shift in my body. I found I could tailor my practice, making it energizing to lift depression and fatigue, or relaxing to soothe anxiety and insomnia. I also noticed that a regular practice kept pain levels manageable. If I went too long between sessions, pain levels shot up and down, but if I practiced every day or two, my pain evened out. Through the lens of yoga and mindfulness, I began to see my body differently; rather than something to be silenced, I could work with the messages my body was giving me.
By 2010, getting on my mat each morning was as automatic as brushing my teeth. It was part of my routine, and going without was enough to put an entire day off-kilter. In the 11 years since the onset of my pain I hadn’t stopped looking for a diagnosis, but my yoga practice had lessened the urgency. I was still in daily pain, but with yoga the pain was manageable. Thanks to yoga I was living life, rather than surviving it. By 2010, I had travelled to more than 30 countries, lived and worked on three continents, completed a PhD in Linguistics, married my best friend, and together we had brought a healthy baby boy into the world.
Finally, in 2010, I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. For those who aren’t familiar with Lyme disease, it’s a bacterial infection resulting from the bite of certain species of ticks. These ticks are parasites that feed on animals such as deer, rodents, and birds. If they’ve fed on an infected host they’ll carry that infection to their next host. Humans who contract Lyme disease typically develop a high fever and flu-like symptoms within a few days of being bitten. Treatment during this acute phase is a short course of antibiotics. Left untreated, the infection will progress to chronic Lyme disease. In its chronic phase the bacteria invade any number of the body’s systems, and the disease can present as arthritic pains, neurological dysfunctions, and cardiac arrhythmias, among other things, making it difficult to diagnose. At this stage the complexity of the treatment increases, while odds of a full recovery decrease. (An upcoming post will provide information on how to protect yourself from tick bites and what to do if bitten.)
Since beginning treatment I’ve made steady gains and reduced my pain by about 90%. Meanwhile, yoga continues to support me through the challenges of my illness and recovery. My practice is flexible; it changes and adapts to provide me with what I need, whether that is a deeply restful restorative practice, a cleansing pranayama practice, or a good ol’ sweat-and-stretch in the hot room.
Buddhism teaches that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Through yoga, I have learned to live with pain, and I have accessed tools to minimize, if not avoid, suffering. Tools as simple as a deep breath, as available as reaching for my toes, and as profound as the principle of ahimsa (non-harming), these have been my medicine, my therapy, and my guide throughout.
Lyme Disease Awareness Month Event:
Fri. May 24, 7-9:30pm, The Rama Lotus Yoga Centre, 342 Gladstone Ave., Ottawa, FREE
Join the Capital Region Lyme Disease Support Group in marking National Lyme Disease Awareness Month at this free info session and movie screening. The info session will be led by Ottawa Naturopath, Dr. Marie Matheson ND, followed by a screening of the award-winning documentary “Under Our Skin”.