Today I ran a mile.
But one afternoon a month ago, I went from effortless handstands to barely walking. I had agreed to open-heart surgery to repair a possibly-since-birth damaged valve diagnosed 8 years earlier. My doctor figured since I was healthy and still only mildly affected by the blood regurgitation, as they call it, it was a good time to get it fixed. After six hours on the operating table attended to by a team of skilled doctors, nurses, and a robot, I woke up in ICU covered in tape and tubes, my brain fuzzy with anesthetic, my arms and legs restrained to keep me from reflexively pulling out my attachments, my husband smiling nervously as they removed the breathing tube from my throat and I strained to understand my circumstances. I thought they had yet to start. It had already been eight hours. I couldn’t talk, but my expression, apparently, read: WTF?
There are many claims in the wellness industry that are so vague, so oversimplified with shallow logic, that it’s no wonder they are dismissed by western medicine as magical thinking. Detoxing! Fasting! Coconut oil! Turmeric! Kale! Colonics! Sound baths! Infrared saunas! All promise a quick fix to what ails us. Mainstream ideas of wellness are kooky. This is a shame, because real wellness, I finally understand, was central to my surgery, care, and rehabilitation. This past month since surgery has been the best of my life. I’ve got stockholm syndrome with my injury as captor; I want the astonishing improvement from self-care to continue forever. I cried with relief in the hospital, and I still cry when I think of this beautifully-orchestrated process.
Now I have concrete evidence of what’s important, and it’s not kale:
Moderation. Movement. Socializing. Trust. Self-awareness. Nourishment. Rest. Consistency.
In a word: yoga. No, not the ability to do a handstand, but the time, trials, patience and learning of a holistic yoga practice have equipped me with mental and physical resilience that I did not have at diagnosis 8 years ago. I respect my changing limits and seek help when I need it. I still know so little, but I feel so much more. Before and after the surgery, I’ve had to put aside my untested notions of wellness and trust my body and the experts around me. The nurses and doctors in the ICU were my yoga masters: their years of experience got me standing 3 hours after my surgery, and walking 12 hours later. They guided every movement, body function and reaction. Twice I walked too eagerly and began to shivered uncontrollably. It passed. I had time-lapse hallucinations and polka-dot blindspots. I peed gallons. I was soaked with sweat at night. I coughed for 2 days straight. On day four in the ICU I pooped an eggplant (american, not japanese, so, yeah). I thought these were setbacks. No, these were signs of my body regaining control as the anesthetic and trauma subsided. The ICU team rounds nodded with approval at each report.
I was home in five days. Although I’m already back to teaching yoga (I say this not with pride but with astonishment) my own asana practice hurts too much to return to, except for savasana, the restorative properties of which have been a first-hand revelation to me. I walk and jog. I do laundry. I cook. I make the bed. The residual pain forces a new kind of mindfulness that in turn causes me to re-learn many practical movements. I fear sneezing and coughing because it feels like my ribs will tear apart, but I marvel at the other limitations that have broadened my self-awareness. We’ve been taught that there is nobility in pushing ourselves. No; there is nobility in holistic self-awareness, and if pushing ourselves is necessary, THEN we push ourselves. My new take on the value of yoga: tiny, incremental improvements in strength, flexibility and balance bring a joyful, sustainable wellness. Yoga is a tool to prepare us for the realities of life. Challenges cannot be avoided, and are the ultimate strengtheners. I don’t believe that a yogi living decades as a hermit would be able to manage modern life. He would be a mess.
Today’s sustained mile of running is more of a reflection of a decade of yoga than a handstand is. It has subtle, very personal significance: I haven’t practiced yoga to be good at yoga; I’ve practiced it to be good at living.