Place of Placidity: Seeking Inspiration and Balance through Yoga
I was never a fan of high school gym class. Sports left me humiliated in a puddle of my own inadequacy. In trying to keep pace with my classmates, I was often left breathless. So you can imagine my hesitancies when I enrolled in a requisite yoga class in college. Standing in the gymnasium with my black roll-up mat, I never imagined that this form of exercise would have such an enduring impact on my life.
Since birth, I have always struggled with chronic and debilitating medical complications triggered by my disease. Sickle-cell anemia is a disease which mutates the body’s blood cells, turning them sickle-shaped. Normal blood cells are donut-shaped, but sickle-cell disease turns these cells sickle-shaped. The irregularly-shaped blood cells do not carry oxygen efficiently, do not survive very long, and can get lodged in the bloodstream, causing constant pain. One of the most frustrating things about this disease is that it presents itself as an invisible disability, leading to a general lack of understanding among the sickle-cell community.
However, I refuse to let this disease seize my life and silence my aspirations. Instead, I hope to shed some light on the disease, while also delving into how I use yoga to cope with the disease’s limitations. The aforementioned lack of awareness about the disease remains an object worthy of illumination in the sickle-cell community. The sad reality is that far too often sickle-cell sufferers overextend themselves in their attempts to remain fit. The disease has been blamed for the deaths of a handful of aspiring athletes. It is an unfair reminder of the physical limitations imposed by the disease. While there is no danger in recognizing our limitations, there is great danger in being polarized by them. The polarization process is a process of overcompensation, goading us to internalize these limitations until they become ingrained into our very thought patterns.
When I practice yoga, I embrace a consciousness of liberation. I listen to my body and respect its limitations using warm-up exercises. I gradually condition my body to try more advanced poses. It’s a very organic approach to exercise. I don’t believe that there is only one path to fitness; we are all at different stages in terms of our health and conditioning. Sickle-cell anemia causes a deficiency of healthy red blood cells in the body. This description can be shorted down into one word: energy. Those who have donated large amounts of blood can relate to the depleted feeling that may follow. For those with sickle-cell anemia, this energy drain is felt on a daily basis. To counteract this, sickle-cell patients often require blood transfusions to boost their low blood count.
Few things are as demoralizing as not having the physical energy to do the activities that bring meaning and purpose to one’s life. On a spiritual level, it conveys a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. With yoga, I appreciate the fact that I do not have to struggle to “find” energy. It invigorates me beyond the physical level. Breathing is a core component of yoga, and illustrates the vital importance of energy. Each breath we take should not be taken for granted; it should be used to energize and imbue us with a sense of purpose. Dum spiro, spero.
The loss of energy felt by sickle-cell sufferers brings a sense of imbalance. When your body is starved of oxygen, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain physical stability. Even simple tasks like walking up a flight of stairs can leave one disoriented. One of the first poses I learned in yoga, the star pose, helped me to regain balance and physical stability. I have also benefitted from the ways yoga uses the lymphatic system to flush away the body’s toxins.
On a deeper level, balance carries different connotations. Some people struggle to balance several jobs. Others seek balance in what they eat or by what they do. Put simply, balance is difficult. Happiness, Thomas Merton once wrote, is not a matter of intensity, but of balance. One of the most interesting poses, the plank pose, epitomizes this balance. The plank pose is a supine pose that is meant to ease physical tension and mental disquiet. In the course of an intensive workout, the plank prose provides a nice juxtaposition. Reflecting the turbulence of life, yoga takes one from a state of high energy to a state of low energy, representing the duality of activity and inactivity needed to maintain balance. In a society that often equates intensity with happiness, yoga reinforces the importance of stillness. Stillness, however, is not synonymous with latency. It is not a place of absence. It is a place of searching and contemplation.
I would have never assumed that yoga would have such relevance in my life. Make no mistake; my goal is not to champion yoga above all forms of exercise, but to encourage others to consider options that make sense to them. Fitness becomes all the more meaningful when it opens up unexpected avenues of self-exploration and consciousness. Max Ehrmann’s influential poem “Desiderata” has always been a source of inspiration in my life. In it, Ehrmann offers this piece of advice: “regardless of your trials and tribulations, keep peace in your soul.” When I practice yoga, I’m not in competition with myself or with others. I am practicing fitness while also seeking placidity.
Note: I do not claim to have any expert, medical knowledge about the disease. I speak only through experience and research I have done on the topic. The South Central Pennsylvania Sickle-Cell Association is a great resource for those with sickle-cell disease/trait living in the area.