The Mind-Body Connection

Yoga for HIV/AIDS

The class begins, led by the soothing, melodic voice of instructor Prema Pleva, and almost instantly an air of peace pervades the room. But the HIV/AIDS classes at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City consist of more than chanting. They are one hour and twenty minutes of inwardly directed focus achieved through a variety of postures, breathing practice, and meditation. Even better, the Integral Yoga Institute is not an anomaly. Today, more and more yoga centers and health projects around the country are offering classes with the needs of people living with HIV and AIDS in mind.

Although it is certainly not necessary for someone who is HIV positive to take a specially designed yoga class, it could be beneficial. Yoga is quickly gaining ground as an important complementary therapy in the treatment of HIV and AIDS because of its adaptability and its physiological and psychological benefits.

What is Yoga?

"Yoga is an ancient form of exercise and healing that originated in India 5,000 years ago," says Claire Diab, Yoga Therapist and Adjunct Professor of Asian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Not surprisingly, the sages found that sitting in meditation for hours and hours was rather challenging. To prepare their bodies, says Diab, "they began to move in the manner of the animals ,which was strengthening and revitalizing." This is how the physical aspect of yoga, or hatha, was born.

Hatha, which translates as "force" or "power," is one of six very distinct branches of yoga, which include raja (path of wisdom or meditation), karma (path of service), bhakti (path of love and devotion), jnana (path of intellect or the mind), and either japa (repetition of a mantra) or tantra (pathway of ritual), depending on the school of thought. Hatha is very popular in the western world, and most yoga instructors incorporate some style of it into their classes. For example, Iyengar and Kripalu are two frequently practiced, but different, approaches to hatha. In addition, there are yoga methods that utilize other branches along with hatha, as in Integral Yoga.

What it all boils down to, though, is that there is a yoga class for everyone. "Yoga is really all about opening up the flow of energy in the body. When the energy is moving freely, we are healing, repairing, and rejuvenating every single cell," says Diab.

The Mind-Body Connection

Asana and prana are important concepts in the majority of yoga classes in the United States. The term "asana" refers to pose or posture, and "prana" means breath. While some classes utilize vigorous breathing exercises, sometimes called "pranayama," others merely bring an awareness to the breath.

The meditative aspect of yoga is often achieved through an individual's mental focus on the asana and prana. This is frequently referred to as "moving meditation," though a yoga instructor may also dedicate a segment of class solely to a still meditation, usually practiced in a comfortable cross-legged position. In the latter instance, imagery may be used.

For example, during the meditation portion of her class at Integral Yoga, Pleva, one of those rare nurturers in life, may suggest that the class visualize all things of beauty "and allow the images to skim the mind like clouds drifting across a mountain top -- always remembering that each of us has our self -- our safe harbor."

Regardless of the method of meditation employed, when the mind quiets down, when we learn to tune out the past, the future, and the stressors of the world and become aware of the present moment, it can do wonderful things for the body. "Yoga is definitely a way of getting to that point," says Joan Furman, M.S.N., R.N., and Holistic Nurse Practitioner in Nashville, Tennessee. But how do the stressors of the world physically affect our lives? "First of all, we know that the communications between body and mind are instantaneous. As soon as the mind has thought or feeling, there is an immediate and corresponding reaction in the body that pervades the entire system. Stress, whether chronic or acute, produces biological changes that are not only damaging, but can be deadly for anybody," says Furman, "especially someone whose immune system is compromised." Enough said.

With all this stress, tuning out the world through yoga, even for a few minutes, can be difficult. That's where HIV/AIDS yoga classes come in. "To support the yoga practices, we need sangha, a community of like-minded people. This is especially true in healing, when pain and depression can so easily interfere," says Jivana Heyman, Yoga Instructor at Integral Yoga Institute and Macy's Living Well Program at California Pacific Medical Center, both in San Francisco. Heyman's classes not only utilize poses and yoga philosophy that are aimed at alleviating the stress associated with HIV and AIDS, but also combine meditation and group sharing as a way to deal with "latent emotions," which he believes can cause or expedite the progression of illness.

Heyman believes one of the most important things he can do for his students is to assist them in reducing stress. "Meditation can calm the mind," he says. "That enables us to focus on the things we want to do, like healing." Though he recognizes the existence of bodily stress, his focus is on eliminating stress in the mind, and he is certain that, with effort, it is possible to experience a sense of peace that in ways is far deeper than that of the physical level.

Brooke Myers, Yoga Instructor at the Iyengar Institute of New York, in New York City, emphasizes a more physical style of yoga in her class for people living with HIV and AIDS. "Asana is performed with a lot of attention to anatomical detail. Attention is constantly drawn to alignment and different areas of the body we are focusing on," she says. "The Iyengar approach rests on the belief that through the physical body you can quiet the mind." Most of the poses are chest-expanding, often referred to as "open postures," and require some type of prop, such as a bolster or chair.

One theory underlying open postures is that the breath flows deeper and more naturally than in other postures. The props are used to assist students in accomplishing or holding a posture. Myers emphasizes, "You don't just fall into this system of yoga; there is a real way to do it." She believes that her students gain a real sense of well-being and control over their bodies through the postures. This carries over to their daily lives.

Myers believes that there are four poses that everyone should do each day, especially individuals affected by HIV. These are the headstand, shoulderstand, the bridge and the plough. This group of poses promotes strength, flexibility, relief from pressure on the abdominal organs, and enhancement of circulation.

A Few Words from the Students

Phil, a yoga student at The Yoga Group in Denver, Colorado, says that yoga helps to keep his outlook positive, an important part of dealing with HIV. "When I seroconverted in 1990, I made the assumption that intensifying my yoga practice would be beneficial," he says. Phil had been in the hospital, where he noticed a sign advertising free yoga classes for people with HIV. At the time, he had not been practicing yoga regularly. He took the class and has been with the group ever since.

"Yoga has really bolstered my self-confidence," Phil says. As a kid, he felt uncoordinated and disliked many athletic endeavors. One day his yoga group began to work on handstands, and all those feelings from childhood began to resurface. "To me it was a nightmare," he says. "Like, okay, we're going to make you play sports all over again." After several weeks of frustration, he still could not do a handstand. Then one of the yoga instructors taught him how to get into the pose in an unconventional way. Phil placed his hands down on the ground, kicked his feet up, and he was actually doing a handstand.

It was a good year before Phil could get into the pose the proper way, but during that time he recalls saying, "If I can do a handstand, HIV is going to be absolutely no challenge at all." Today, Phil feels extremely healthy and plans on staying that way.

Jean Boulte has been taking yoga class at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City once a week since he was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. At that time, Boulte, a professional sculptor and photographer, began to approach life in a holistic fashion, utilizing herbs and meditation. He had always preferred fresh, simple foods, so his nutrition practices naturally complemented his new way of life. With the exception of trying AZT for 24 hours and a brief stint with Antabuse, Boulte was med-free until 1996.

"When I was diagnosed," he says, "I was really sick with so many things and, of course, there were no drugs. People were saying things like 'Go to Mexico,' 'Eat garlic.' No one really knew what to do."

Boulte has a sincere belief that his commitment to a holistic approach is what saved his life. "You need to do many good things for yourself -- take the medication, eat healthy, get plenty of rest, and pay attention to the mind and body," he says. Each week, he follows Pleva's lead in yoga class. After the opening chants and eye movements, a Sun Salutation, a series of twelve poses expressing reverence for life and paying tribute to the energy of the sun, is repeated several times. This is followed by the Cobra Pose, Half and Full Locust, Bow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Full Forward Bend, Shoulder Stand, Fish Pose, Half Spinal Twists, a few optional poses, and Yoga Mudra, or Seal of Union, a breathing technique included in hatha classes that is supposed to quiet the mind. Following Yoga Nidra, or deep relaxation, is pranayama, which includes alternate nostril breathing, then meditation. Boulte also practices at home. "Yoga lets me disconnect from everything," he says. "It is purifying, and the body thrives on purity."

Steve McCeney takes yoga classes in Denver, Colorado, at The Yoga Group. He has lived with HIV for over fourteen years and believes that yoga has helped him in many ways. "There are all sorts of things you gain from yoga," he says, "strength, flexibility, concentration, increased self-awareness."

Yoga has also helped McCeney to manage the symptoms of HIV, along with the side effects of his medication. "As you become more adept at yoga, you learn which poses can help you, depending on how you are feeling physically. There are certain poses that assist in relieving fatigue, diarrhea, anxiety, depression." For example, in the case of fatigue, rather than balancing in a headstand in the center of a room, McCeney would use the wall for support. "You wouldn't work as hard, but would still get the benefits of the pose," he says.

McCeney believes it is the spiritual aspect of yoga that has enhanced his ability to accept. "You do learn about the nature of self," he says, "but you also learn that so much is beyond your control. It helps you realize, somehow, to trust in a higher being."

Finding the Right Yoga Class

In a city like New York, it is relatively easy to find just the right yoga class. "Integral Yoga has 100-plus classes per week and approximately 5,000 students per month," says Boris Pisman, Administrative Manager. The HIV classes have fifteen to twenty students on average and are by donation, as is often the case with these classes.

What if you don't live in a large urban area? Call or visit the nearest yoga center and speak with an instructor, or contact an HIV/AIDS health center in your area. Many health projects sponsor yoga classes.

And an important reminder: It is essential to consult a healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program. In some instances, certain poses are contraindicated because of symptomatology.

To end with anything other than peaceful thoughts would be contrary to the way of yoga. Pleva closes her class with beautiful peace chants, peace chants meant to uplift the energies and spirit of the world.

Translated from Sanskrit, they mean: "Lead us from unreal to real. Lead us from darkness to the light. Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of immortality. Om Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi. May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light. May the Light of Truth overcome all darkness, victory to that Light." Now -- take a bow to your higher self.


The centers mentioned in this article offering yoga classes specially tailored for people living with HIV and AIDS are:

  • Integral Yoga Institute of New York, 227 West Thirteenth Street, New York, New York, (212) 929-0586

  • San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute, 770 Dolores Street, San Francisco, California, (415) 821-1117

  • Iyengar Institute of New York, 27 West 24th Street, Suite 800, New York, New York, (212) 691-9642

  • The Yoga Group, Denver, Colorado, classes held at various locations, (303) 575-1673,

  • For more information regarding HIV/AIDS and yoga:
    Macy's Living Well Program at the California Pacific Medical enter, San Francisco, California, (415) 923-3106

Bliss Foster is an attorney, freelance writer, and yoga practitioner. This is her first contribution to Body Positive.

Photograph by Judy Lawne

Back to the September 1999 issue of Body Positive magazine.