Getting sick is the equivalent of having life throw you a major curve ball. It wasn’t what you expected; you didn’t see it coming. You had other plans, and then boom: rheumatoid arthritis slams into your body like a truck. Like it or not, you have just changed course.
When RA came into my life, this is exactly how I felt. My life was at a point where I felt like everything was finally coming together, and then BAM. I felt RA’s impact in every joint, and also in every area of my life. Dressing myself, getting groceries, washing my hair - all of these tasks became cumbersome and difficult, requiring me to adapt and slow down. Keeping up at work meant cutting back on my social life, but I somehow managed to keep most everything in my life afloat except for one: my yoga practice.
Before RA, I not only practiced yoga several times a week, but also taught several classes each week. Over the course of three years, I had gotten my 200 hour certification and had even begun working on my 500 hour training. While it wasn’t my full time job, yoga filled up a lot of my life. Once RA struck, though, it all changed. I went from taking advanced classes to basics classes, but eventually, those were too difficult as well. Even restorative yoga hurt too much and took too much energy. I stopped taking and teaching all my classes, and for the first time in seven years, yoga was out of my life - just when I needed it most.
But because nothing in life is permanent (as yoga has often taught me), this period of my life eventually passed. While it had felt like an eternity, in reality it had only been several months. My medications kicked in, and as soon as I felt like I could muster up the strength and energy, I got back on my mat. It wasn’t pretty. My body felt and behaved differently than it had before. I had so many limitations, had lost so much strength and flexibility, and had an additional fifteen pounds on my frame.
During many of those early times back on the mat, I often found myself crying out of frustration, anger and loss. Where had my fit, lean body gone? Every time I came up against a part of my body that had changed or a pose that I could no longer do, an avalanche of grief and negative thoughts crashed down on me. All I could imagine was a life full of pain and limitations, of no longer being able to live life the way I wanted. At the end of my practice, I would sit propped up awkwardly on blankets and pillows to meditate and feel overcome by everything about my life and circumstances that was bad or not what I wanted it to be.
This brings me to one of my favorite passages from the book Peace Is Every Step, by the renowned Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes:
‘We often ask, “What’s wrong?” Doing so, we invite painful seeds of sorrow to come up and manifest. We feel suffering, anger, and depression, and produce more such seeds. We would be much happier if we tried to stay in touch with the healthy, joyful seeds inside of us and around us. We should learn to ask, “ What’s not wrong?” and be in touch with that.’
Coming out of the darkest period I had known in my relatively short life, all I could see in front of me and focus on was what was wrong in my life. One day, I finally had my aha moment when I was able to practice downward dog, a yoga pose that places a great deal of weight on the wrists and requires a broad range of motion in the shoulders. It was a pose I had doubted I would ever be able to do again, but I decided to try it and see, and I was elated when I found I was able to do it without pain. At that moment, a switch flipped in my brain, and I realized that I had only been focusing on the negative instead of acknowledging what was not wrong- and not only in my yoga practice. This dismal, depressed perspective had invaded how I felt about all aspects of my life.
Instead of dwelling in my sorrow for what was different in my body and my life, I began to recognize what was working. I was able to practice yoga again, and that in itself was a great accomplishment. Living alone with a chronic illness made some tasks tougher, but it also afforded me a great deal of freedom and privacy. Sure, my job was demanding, but I loved it and was fortunate to be able to adjust my schedule around doctor appointment and fatigue.
Bit by bit, I was able to adjust my attitude and realize that all was not wrong with my world. Sure, a lot still was, and a happy attitude was not going to cure my RA, but this subtle shift made living with my new reality much more manageable. Best of all, it gave me hope and a feeling that all was not lost.
These days, my yoga practice is much closer to what it was pre-RA, but I still notice a difference and still have some limitations and a changed awareness. Most likely, I always will. The stresses of everyday life- some RA related and some not, have a way of piling up now and then, and when that happens, I find myself forgetting to remember what is not wrong. Stepping onto my mat is my reminder to create a space in which I can remember to be grateful for everything in my life that is good, while acknowledging what is hard. As yoga has taught me, perspective is a grand thing.
Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.