The Way Yoga Helped Me Cope With My Autoimmune Disease

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Today begins a new chapter in life, and I will start where I am. Present time. Present time tells me I need a kidney transplant. My second since losing function of my native kidneys in 2004, in fact. The root cause: lupus. Systemic lupus erythematous, to be exact. That is another story. But today, as my journey is in the embryonic stages, I prepare to surrender. For the second time.

And the second time is going to be different.

My passion for yoga began in the late ’90s. My first practice. Challenging and confusing. I stuck with it and in weeks began the transformation to drive me closer, one asana at a time, to my purpose. During that time, I was in my 20s and my life had a plan of its own. Lupus. I was young, vegan, mindful, and loved. I practiced Ashtanga four times a week. How and what left me sick? I was baffled.

During this time, I was determined to fight this with all my might. I dug to the deepest pits of my soul to find what I needed to survive. The problem was I was too young, too kind, too proud, and maybe too embarrassed to ask for help. I was supposed to be a vivacious, budding, healthy yogi. I kept my illness very low-key and tried to hide how serious things actually were. I hid that my husband had to pick up another job to pay medical bills. I hid that he had to leave during his lunch break to transport me to dialysis. I hid that I wasn't having my basic needs met at times because I didn’t want to “bother” anyone. Don’t get me wrong: We did receive help from the people who knew. But we withheld so much from everyone. It left us both drained, broke, and heavy. That process lasted almost eight years, but the feeling lingered far after recovery.

I was too young, too kind, too proud, and maybe too embarrassed to ask for help.

Years later, I decided to make my dreams a reality by transitioning into a full-time yoga teacher and, eventually, a successful studio owner. It’s funny how after enough time goes by, you almost forget the most enduring challenges. You can catch a glimpse of what life used to be, but all the struggles start to fade as you get caught up in repetitious occurrences. Life goes very much back to normal. It was almost like the eight years of life-threatening illness, dialysis, and kidney transplant were a past life or a dream.

I returned to that girl I was before illness: a picture of trying to attain perfection. I balanced my days with healthy food, yoga, and community. At times, I even succumbed to all the beautiful social media and publications showing the most popular and trending yogis. Is everyone in the yoga community perfect and healthy? That's what's depicted, at least. Who is willing to get real and get off the beach in your gorgeous eka pada koundinyasana? There are a handful of yogis who are really good at speaking their truth, and they do it with empowerment, grace, and ease. These were the yogis I looked up to. I was really inspired by Kathryn Budig’s lecture on body image. And Seane Corn’s always pure account of her journey to the practice. I vowed to focus on the benefits of a spiritual practice more so than the physical one. Because let's be honest: There is no hanumasana or ardha chandrasana while you are hooked up to a dialysis machine four times a week. Perfectionism is truly the paradox of the modern yoga world.

This leads me to my current state. I was very healthy for 10 years after my transplant, and now I'm in need of a second kidney transplant. I am not blaming myself. There was nothing I did to contribute to this happening. Should I be embarrassed that the yoga didn’t "work"? This was an actual thought I had struggled with. Would people not want to practice with me because I got sick, again? I sat in meditation and put it all into perspective. Luckily, I’m older, wiser, and willing to get candid about my experience. I put on my big girl pants and decided I was going to use this as a platform to get brutally honest about what it’s like to be sick in the yoga community. And I'm considering that my illness may have a purpose. Having to endure this has given me strength and substance one could only receive by surviving a life-threatening illness. And rather than feel inadequate, suddenly I felt an immense empowerment come over me. This was truly a gift and not a curse.

I had come so far after my first transplant, I was determined not to fall into the self-pity trap. When I found out I was going to have to begin the process to receive a new kidney and upcoming dialysis, I immediately wrote an essay and started a GoFundMe page (typically way out of my comfort zone). My hope was to share the news with my local yoga community and see if we could create positive change that extended beyond me, by promoting awareness of lupus, organ transplantation, and how yoga and spirituality contributed to my healing process.

And then something really beautiful happened.

Within 24 hours, my page was spreading like a virus. The support was overwhelming. I started receiving countless letters from friends, relatives, and even strangers opening up to me and feeling comfortable and confident enough to share their personal stories of illness and challenge with me. I felt so proud of this outpouring of love and the energy exchange that was unfolding right before my eyes, all because I revealed my heart and soul. It brought to mind an old favorite quote of mine: “Let go of how you thought your life should be, and embrace the life that is trying to work its way into your consciousness,” as Caroline Myss would say.

I see now that my journey of yoga includes this disease and the ongoing maintenance of it while I await a new kidney. I also see just how crucial vulnerability is to the healing process. Furthermore, my current yoga consists more each day of the spiritual nature, meditation, and pursuit of the courage to reveal my authenticity. Truth is, I am perfectly imperfect, and my willingness to approach this second transplant with my heart, eyes, and mouth open may just inspire others to do the same. People want to help. It is a cycle of love that extends far beyond our reach. I encourage you to be open and vulnerable and share your personal stories—especially if you are in the yoga community. I think this element of full disclosure can help us all feel more integrated and full of love.

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