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Living With Yoga and HIV

January/February 2002

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Per Erez

Healing, health, healthy, and wholeness have become words of transformation. The meaning of these words seemed warped after testing HIV positive back in my mid-20s in 1993. In the many months of numbness immediately following my test results, I assumed these words would no longer be a part of life, let alone my vocabulary. Over time, I have come to see them as an evolving process.

Like many people living with HIV, my quest for healing started with a half-hearted attempt at traditional medical options. I established a connection with a primary physician, but knew from the first visit to find out my T-cell count and percentages that this man was not responsible for saving my life. My only expectation was that he respond like a human being faced with someone who was suffering -- even if the suffering was only mental anguish. I agreed to a standard treatment of the time, AZT [Retrovir], shortly after our first visit. After only three months of the medication I passively became non-compliant. My experience of headaches and nausea (which in retrospect could have been as much about my psychological state), as well as my gut instinct, convinced me that this was not for me.

I can distinctly remember a perplexed friend asking what was my treatment, if I wasn't going to take the drugs? What treatment was I choosing, and for which condition, and would it save me? That question turned me towards a renewed interest in eastern philosophical thought, which originated in college.

There is a story among practitioners of yoga that "the road to enlightenment is a pathless path." In other words, the specific steps necessary to achieve the optimal life are inside each of us already. No one can walk your path and only you truly know your way from one moment to the next.

The results of my test and the accompanying mental confusion I experienced led me deeper in this direction. I felt as if the questions I had about the prospect of healing and the larger direction of my life might be found if I opened myself to a wider re-examination of these principles. At the time, I didn't see this as treatment so much as a respite from the mental storm of HIV.

So I took up a hatha yoga practice, initially for purely selfish reasons. It made me feel better. It amazed me that no matter what happened at work or what fears I had about being HIV positive, I could always count on these simple things to keep me clear. Do the yoga, do the breathing, and rest in awareness. Move on with my life. Simple. It was so simple, it seemed crazy. But the craze was highly addictive. With the help of my yoga teacher, I began studying a style of yogic massage originated in Thailand, as well as pranic energy work and tai chi. It seemed the more positive and health-oriented techniques she shared, the better I felt. In those days, I wasn't able to explain how these unfamiliar techniques worked, but I intuitively felt the results. And while there wasn't an investment back then in proving the efficacy against HIV of these techniques, what even the medical establishment seemed to agree on was the stress reduction benefit.

I knew that the tools I was incorporating in my life could be shared with others. I began helping teach yoga for others with HIV. This had two results. I thought less about my own situation as being unique, and I got physically stronger. I recognized that the empathetic connection I had so clearly wanted with my physician could be a powerful experience. Being face to face with another who is suffering and to take in and really listen empathetically in that experience can lead to healing for both people involved.

Because what every real healer knows -- Western or Eastern -- is that ultimately, healing happens around you, not because of you. If the experience of healing occurs, the healer is primarily and hopefully a compassionate companion, an adjunct in the presence of the power of healing. All the medicine in the world will come to no purpose if the power of healing doesn't already live inside the body. This suggested to me that the person doing the healing had as much of a role to play in creating the atmosphere in which healing might be found as the healer. After all, who does healing benefit most in the relationship? It was this belief that led me in 1997 to seek out the opportunity to be a teacher of yoga.

I decided, with the support of my life partner, to leave my fairly secure job and use my 401K as a back-up to take the month-long initial training program required to become an accredited instructor of yoga. In the training, I was introduced to a purer diet, eating primarily vegetarian and macrobiotic foods, and to a much deeper practice of the concepts behind yoga. What the training offered was the chance to become more aware. It cultivated the silent time in which to wholeheartedly accept the nature of life. And by becoming more aware and accepting, creating a tiny space where change might be possible, it supplied me with tools to take the misperceptions I had of health and clarify them. It provided a new vision outside the narrow view of what it meant to be healthy for me. For the first time, I really saw that these lifestyle options were in fact a kind of treatment, not simply for HIV, but for all the other underlying issues in life that we all must address. Sadly, the friend who asked me the question so many years ago isn't here for my answer. Over time, and even to this day, the question still comes to mind from time to time, "Will this treatment save me?" I have come to no conclusions here. I am not sold on the notion that I need saving.

Nonetheless, over the course of the last several years I have recognized that you could just as easily say living healthy is a spiritual discipline with physical side effects as well as the more traditional viewpoint. From the medical standpoint, we test the body for illnesses and we test the mind for illness, but after these tests, there is little else that remains to us. To some degree, we can treat body and mind with allopathic practices, but from a traditional healer's view, all suffering has its core in the fundamental separation from all of our essential nature. Our essence is "buried" much deeper than our medical technology and therefore can't be reached. The vast wealth of yogic thought suggests the body and anatomy of the brain is only the tip of the health iceberg. If you want to know true health, you must be prepared to search further still.

I have to this day not had an opportunistic infection. This in my mind does not indicate I am healthy in and of itself, however. Certainly being physically well is important, but there are other ways to appraise our existence. In yoga there are in fact five components to health. Yoga (the physical science of spirit) and Ayurveda (the health science of life) are two traditional paradigms that tacitly state that in order for there to be health, we have to look at all the modes in which health can be expressed in a human being.

We can express health on a physical, energetic, emotional, interpersonal/self wisdom, and intrapersonal/universal wisdom levels. Moreover, the real assessment of health is the point where all five of these modes of health expression dynamically interact.

Now before you chalk this up to more eastern quackery, I don't recommend anyone throw out their HAART regimen, and certainly, feel free to continue taking viral load/T-cell counts, but consider these additional ways of health self-assessment.

  • What does the body really need? Be daring. For the next four weeks, experiment with a dietary change or exercise routine that you know would support your health. Even if the behavior modification doesn't stick, you will have had the opportunity to be aware of how you feel moving towards your optimal well-being.

  • What is my energy level like? The breath flow is the primary expression of energy we all can understand. Where there is less breath flow, there is less energy.

  • Am I living an emotionally free life? Work towards clarity of perception on an emotional level and begin observing emotional traumas without judgement when possible. This is a big step, may take time, and may require expertise, assistance, and support along the way.

  • What understanding about my life's meaning have I uncovered? Tap into your sense of self-discovery and innate wisdom. Begin to know your own mind on situations in your life. This doesn't mean you can't take the input provided by others when appropriate, simply that you have already considered your own knowingness first, before any decision-making. Cultivating your essential wisdom of what works for you is a crucial stage in getting healthy. It provides a clear understanding that you honor and value who you are on the most basic of levels and you create your life from this awareness.

  • And finally, what is my connection to the underlying unity of all things? Begin to remember that when all is said and done, there is a place of absolute happiness. A place of happiness for happiness' sake. A happiness that is both within you and connects you with all things. This place, sometimes called unity consciousness, is ultimately what we are here to re-discover and share in our lives. It may appear shrouded in mysticism, but if you turn your attention to something that brings you joy without cause, you'll find this concept staring back at you, with a smile. For example, one of my most transcendent moments was walking past a street corner of children, playing in the warm hazy sunlight of dusk. It's late autumn, after a long day's work. The opportunity for happiness without justification is between us and within us, and most of our lives are spent oblivious to this level of beingness.

Today, much scientific evidence has shown favorably that yoga and other traditional systems of healing are valid and cost effective ways to address the health needs of many chronic and life-threatening conditions. Working as a yoga therapist, a part of my path is to share with my private clients what I have found works. A part of my purpose is to provide the encouragement and support for them to be their own source for self-initiated awareness and acceptance, with the intent of transformation in their lives. This is a distinct part of how I get whole and what it means to be healthy, in addition to and in between doctor visits.

Yoga therapist Per Erez (pronounced "pear") is affiliated with the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, the National Yoga Alliance, and the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Per is currently finishing an internship with Joseph Lepage's Integrative Yoga Therapy program in Brazil. Most recently noted for his appearance on and work with "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Per develops and facilitates stress reduction programs as a healing modality, and he volunteers services at TPAN.

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A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
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