Disease, Resistance, Surrender, Healing

As I prepare to serve Y.O.G.A. for Youth (Your Own Greatness Affirmed) by teaching yoga to middle school boys this semester I try to put myself in their shoes. I know most of these boys will enter class knowing little to nothing about yoga and many of them may even think it’s a little weird. Some may not even want to participate at all. That prompts a memory of my initial resistance to yoga way back in 1981.

After surviving my first debilitating attack of Crohn’s Disease and subsequent hospitalization, someone recommended yoga to me. There was class nearby so I thought, “What the heck. I’ll give it a try.” So, skinny from Crohn’s weight loss and jacked up on doctor-prescribed steroids I trotted of to my first yoga class.

During my first bout of the disease my left big toe was completely paralyzed. I would often stub it when I walked barefoot. During my first yoga class, the teacher, an elderly be-turbaned Indian man named Baram, mentioned that paralysis of the big toe related to digestive disease. Being kind enough not to single me out, his point made a strong impression on me. At the end of class, his pretty young assistant, Lakshmi, commented,  “Oh, you’ll have to do yoga for the rest of your life to stay well.”

Being the reactive rebel I so stubbornly played in my late 20s, I thought to myself, “Like hell I will.” I never returned to that class and completely ruled out any role for yoga in my recovery from Crohn’s Disease. Of course, I got sick again and again. My next disease episode forced me to withdraw from the University of California at San Diego just as the fall semester began. Not only did I lose any confidence that I’d be able to pursue an education, I settled into a depressive funk of hopelessness that I’d ever be able to pursue developing my full human potential.

Fourteen years later, complaining of chronic back pain, a friend lent me a yoga book he thought might help. I began using the book by myself daily. After two weeks the back pains had vanished. I knew I’d found something important so I kept practicing.

I took teacher training ten years later and began to teach. Even though I’d made progress in my practice, I still hadn’t realized the profound power of yoga to transform my life. After two more bouts of Crohn’s in the early 2000s and several episodes of depression later on in the decade that required medication, I knew that I had to put up or shut up about my yoga practice. Either this practice could help me cope with my dis-eases or not.

I quit the antidepressant medication cold turkey (not something I advise) and devoted myself to daily asana, pranayama and meditation. The combination of these three limbs of yoga relieved the chronic stress and subsequent depression. Consistent practice bathed my brain with a balanced flow of neurotransmitters that I learned to summon at will. It’s been nearly ten years since my last Crohn’s episode. I can say with confidence that I have developed the proper yogic self-care skills not just adequate to keeping myself well, but also to fully enable me to continue my quest towards a life of complete fulfillment and service.

Though I stubbornly spent years wandering in the wilderness of poor health, I have fulfilled Lakshmi’s prophecy that I would have to practice yoga for the rest of my life. Rather than a sentence, yoga has served to liberate me from physical as well as mental illness.

A yoga teacher of mine, Krishna Kaur Khalsa, relayed a quote to our Yoga for Youth training class recently.  It went something like this: “One who seeks the greatest freedom must develop the greatest discipline.” This statement is also a constant thread in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We get out of something what we put into it. It’s the universal law of cause and effect. We reap what we sow.

With gratitude I bow to all the saints and yogis who have come before us to show us the way of yoga (union). This practice will not only heal, but will catapult its practitioners into the lives they long to live.

Blessing to all of you as you blaze your own trail to freedom with the boundless practice of yoga.

Namaste and Sat Nam!





Ashwini Mudra

Before I took my teacher training, personal study of some the more esoteric yoga techniques had taught me about mula, uddiyana and jalandara bundas; or the yogic locks. Further inquiry led me to a jewel of a practice called ashwini mudra. Mudra can be translated as seal and sometimes posture, and is usually associated with hand gestures. These movements can be seen in east Asian dances. But ashwini means mare, as in a female horse.

The ancient yogis were keen observers of animal behavior as is evidenced by the names given to so many yoga poses. Cobra, down and up dog, cat, cow, peacock et cetera. Though it may seem odd, the yogis noticed that a defecating mare strongly puckered its anus to help dispel the contents of its bowels. We humans unconsciously use the same muscular contractions when we regulate our elimination. Well, whoever started exploring these normal muscular contractions noticed the deep internal massage one receives when tensing this region of the body. This undoubtedly led to experimenting with using this mudra in different postures and noticing how the combination of position, gravity and the technique itself increased or decreased the intensity of the experience. As the practice was handed down from guru to student it was finally accepted into yoga tradition which precedes recorded history.

During my teacher training I became known as “agni sara man” because of my fervent interest in the bundas, fire dhauti, and nauli kriya, all of which deeply promote blood circulation in the organs in the abdomen. At our graduation three of my female classmates (I was the only male in a class of 30) sang me a song of the same title to the tune of the old Johnny Rivers ditty, “Secret Agent Man”. As a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease (an ulcerative bowel condition), I wondered if these methods could help me.

For my birthday in 2008 my beloved Michele presented me with a copy of the great classic, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It is not uncommon for the ancient yogis to make what seem like extravagant claims that a particular action will prevent certain diseases if practiced intensely. This scripture hints that what we might call super humanity is available to the devoted yoga student. Usually the recommendation of practice frequency and diligence required is beyond the dedication of all but the most ardent practitioners, and therefore easily discounted. But I decided to take the Pradipika at its word.

Besides my own Crohn’s Disease, Americans suffer from many maladies of the abdominal organs. Colo rectal cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, constipation, incontinence and other urinary complaints, sexual dysfunction, and so on.

Before I moved from Las Vegas to the rural Piedmont of North Carolina in 2002, one of my dear friends was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. At 42 this vibrant, intelligent, beautiful woman succumbed after a valiant four year battle. I was but a helpless witness to her frequent rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The grace with which she handled her suffering was amazing. Perhaps you know someone like her.

An elderly friend of mine now possesses only a cinder of a prostate after 40 days of radiation for prostate cancer. Ironically, one of the exercises recommended by his doctor: the kegel which is an adaptation of ashwini mudra.

As I practiced these methods, I could feel the heat of my core dramatically increasing. I was getting extraordinary blood flow throughout my entire abdomen from diaphragm to anus. That means greater oxygenation in all the organs effected. That’s what yoga is all about; increased prana or life force. For terrestrial mammals the physical components of prana are earth’s atmospheric gases: oxygen and nitrogen carried by the blood to nourish our cells.

I tell my students that decrepitude is a choice. We lose the deep venous circulation to our bodies because we neglect the proper exercise to reach the deep cells within our muscles, organs, glands, bones, tendons and ligaments. The three basic adult postures: standing, sitting and lying are not enough to promote the depth of circulation necessary for robust longevity. Watch children at play and you’ll see that they are repeatedly putting their bodies into many different relationships to gravity as they express the simple joy of being alive. As we get older, tied to conventional lifestyles, we become more sedentary and begin to seize up with the rust of inflammation a harbinger of a plethora of diseases.

Even if you go to aerobics, run, lift weights, practice martial arts et cetera, you’re probably not getting the profound circulation fostered by the abdominopelvic specialties of yoga.

I mentioned that these practices are sort of esoteric, rarely taught in the yoga studio let alone the gym. Few yoga students have even heard of them. The reason? In the past, the priesthood of yoga had decided that these practices should be revealed exclusively to only the most dedicated students. Also, modern day yoga in the U.S. is mostly taught and treated like a glorified calisthenic rather than the universal tool box for human health that it precisely is. I think it’s wrong to withhold life-saving knowledge from people just because they’re not in the clique. So I decided to teach the most accessible of these techniques, ashwini mudra, to my yoga classes. The reactions were, to put it mildly, varied.

The older folks understood the importance of these methods immediately. Some of the younger women, however, were apparently aghast that I would even speak of the unmentionable body parts. Several of them quit coming to my classes. Fortunately, a student who seldom missed one of my classes told me that some of the others were “uncomfortable” with ashwini mudra.

For those who might think these teachings inappropriate for some reason, I would respectfully ask that they check in with themselves and perform a self inquiry to see why they feel squeamish about addressing the health of these important organs.

At future classes I related the stories of my cancer stricken friends in hopes that students would better understand my motivation for giving detailed instruction in these ancient teachings. After one of those classes, an elderly male student of mine spoke with me privately about the wonderful and unexpected results he’d been achieving with ashwini mudra. The man is well into his seventies and had been plagued by incontinence. He reported that this condition was improving markedly. I was so pleased to hear this, but he saved his proudest announcement for last. Apparently he also suffered from the sexual dysfunction experienced by so many older men, and some younger: failing to reach orgasm. With a big smile he exclaimed with zest, “I’ve had three orgasms recently”! Happy that he felt so comfortable to take me into his confidence I congratulated him on his renewed vigor.

As the national debate over health care ebbs and flows to some congressional action this autumn, I’m grateful that I’ve learned how to take care of myself and others with the ancient wisdom of yoga. No amount of insurance coverage or money can confer health upon us like these teachings that have descended to us from the prehistoric observations of simple men and women. As a mere beginner on this path I can only give the advise that echoes in my heart every time I sit on the yoga mat: keep practicing. Mysteries are contained in these timeless teachings and await the probing, persistent practice of those who seek an ever greater fullness of the human experience.