From my previous entry, Breath is Life: My first Bikram yoga class was in Feb. 2002, and I became certified by Bikram to teach in June 2006. Yoga teaches me daily (on and off the mat) concepts like discipline, determination, concentration, faith, patience, strength, flexibility, balance … really, all just other words for “awareness.” For me, the most important lesson is to breathe. Yoga teaches me to breathe in what I need and breathe out what I don’t.

Breath Is Life part 2

For me, yoga just kind of “showed up.” During the same week in 2002, I had three different friends on three separate occasions tell me about a “new” yoga they discovered. It was called “Bikram.” A 90-minute class, it was practiced in a HOT room, with humidity. It was the same 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises, done in the same order every time. I had never been to a yoga class. I was curious about the yoga, but mostly intrigued by the coincidence.

My first class was like so many others’ – I was hot, I sweat more than I thought humanly possible, I was nauseous, I was exhausted, I was overwhelmed. Despite all of that, I distinctly remember looking around and feeling, rather than seeing, that the other people in class knew something that I didn’t know. I wanted to know what they knew. So, I went back. By my third class, I was hooked. I went another 3 times the next week, then 4 times the next week, 5 times the week after that. By the end of my first month, I had signed up for the 60-day challenge; 6 days a week for 10 weeks. Holy cow, what a challenge! The deep detoxification process revealed something I was not previously aware of. It was anger, massive amounts of anger. I would twitch, and itch and scratch, and toss and turn. I would do anything I could to avoid feeling what I was feeling. I had never felt so much anger and it scared me. I worried. What if I scream? What if I explode? What if I yell AT someone?! I would panic and hold my breath. Fortunately, I had very patient, kind, observant AND firm teachers. They would tell me “Wendy, breathe”. They would remind me, “you have a choice; you can panic and head down the road of emotion or you can breathe and let that energy go.” E-motion is literally energy in motion, after all.

Fast-forward to July 10, 2005. I was rounding out three years of solid practice. I was averaging 5 classes a week. I’d completed two additional 60-day challenges during that time. I’d attended 3 posture clinics and even spent a weekend in L.A. with Bikram and 1,500 other crazy yogis at the Yoga Expo. The practice had changed my life, cleaned me out, and I had my sights on teacher training.

Then came a day that I will never forget. I was in my home office, working on a project. I heard a loud buzzing sound. I thought it was coming from my computer. When I stood up to look behind the monitor, I was hit with a wave of vertigo. I felt dizziness so intense that I fell to the floor immediately. This is where my memory gets spotty. I know I felt exceptionally disoriented, but also felt a strong need to get to my bedroom. I tried getting up, but my body wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get my arms or my legs to move. Somehow, I managed to stumble and fumble and crawl to my bedroom. When I reached my bedroom, I collapsed, thinking “this is good enough.” My roommate was home at the time. I heard him come out of his bedroom and I tried to yell for him. My mouth wouldn’t work. No words would come out. No sound would come out. I couldn’t use my tongue. I kept trying to make noise but all I could produce was a quiet little buzzing breath, not even “haaaaaa.” I laid there, basically immobile. I listened to him walk down the stairs, pick up his keys, walk out the door, start his car and drive away. I still had no idea what was happening to/with me but I also knew it wasn’t good. All I could think was “I’m alone.” I could feel panic rising in my chest, up through my throat. A voice came to me “breathe” and I inhaled. “Breathe” and I exhaled. “Breathe” and I remembered my yoga classes. “Breathe” and I remembered all that anger. “Breathe” and I remembered all the panic. “Breathe” and I remembered I had a choice. “Breathe” and I chose to breathe. And then I passed out or fell asleep – I’ll never know.

I don’t know how long I was out, but when I woke up, I couldn’t see. My eyes were crossed and blurry. Half of my face was numb and limp. Most of my limbs were like boneless chickens – flimsy. Long story a little shorter: I managed to knock my phone off my side table. I called my friend using my nose. I made vague words and strange grunting noises curious enough that she decided to come over. After medical attention, I found out I had a stroke. After extensive testing, I found out it was the likely result of a birth defect. I had a hole in my heart. Days went by and I had limited control of the left side of my body. I lost a significant portion of peripheral vision on my left side as well.

At the time, I could not explain why but I felt that an integral part of my healing would happen in the hot room. I insisted that I go there. I called in favors, asking friends to drop me off and take me home. The lack of balance and mobility did not stop me. There was little that I could actually do. I was convinced, however, that I needed to get blood to my head as soon, as often, and as much as possible. Not just any ol’ blood either. I wanted fresh, oxygenated blood. I knew the most effective way to do that was with that series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. I became particularly aware of any and all postures that gave me the benefit of head-below-the-heart. I focused most of my attention on those postures. I was diligent, making sure I was breathing before, during and after each posture. My brain depended on it.

Over time, moving at my own pace but with consistent practice, my coordination returned. I was also able to reduce the size of the blind spot on my left side. I had a talk with my neurologist and told her the story of that day. She later commented that it was highly likely that my choice to breathe in those critical moments saved my life. Hearing her say that convinced me that I had to find a way to get to teacher training, sooner or later. I remain convinced that part of the reason I am still on this planet is to pass along the message of how important it is to learn the power of your own breath.

The hole in my heart is fixed. I now have titanium plugging it up. That’s another story for another day/blog/post. It’s a good thing I live in Nashville – Music City. Eventually, I will write a song about a titanium heart.