Stuck in traffic

by Lygia Lima

“No way, Doc! I don’t have that disease. Go find something else for me to have. I’m crazy, but not that crazy to have created such a disease!”

I could understand why the doctor smiled. A scientist by nature, he is a man who has studied many, many things, but not necessarily the subject of how we create our own disease and where the cause of our illnesses come from – except that this doctor was also a student of mine. That is why it was not strange for him to hear me once again use the active voice, placing myself as the grammatical subject of who created my illness. In his world of medicine, objects are animated: “it is caused by”, “it happened” is used to explain how but not the why behind the disease. Regardless of the logic behind how my disease was created, however, I doubled-down on the reason why the doctor simply could not condemn me with such a serious illness. I told him frankly, “Listen, I’m a Yoga teacher; I’ll never have the money to pay for the medication the rest of my life.”

It may be out of solidarity that he confessed that he really didn’t actually know what I had.

Even more complicated was that it was hardly the worst of my helath problems – or of my understanding of my obstacles at the time.

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My encounter with this man who saved my life happened soon after an even more serious problem, which occurred during my work stay on the paradisiacal island of Palma de Mallorca. It was when I was just about to return to Brazil that I ended up in the emergency room. After three days in the hospital, the doctor released me and said I was free to travel, which was a real surprise considering the size of my leg. It looked like that of an elephant.

I had almost kicked the bucket twice: from a serious thrombosis in my right leg that would have easily taken me out if it had reached my heart, lung or brain; then there was the acute loss of protein in the body that was discovered while trying to sort the reason for such a serious thrombosis. The levels were so low the slightest hospital infection or cold could have sent me to the next dimension.

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Mallorca had been just another of the many journeys in my life of over 30 years in traffic between classes I have administered in the United States, Mexico and Brazil. Spain happened after hanging yet another left, and then a right, going the wrong way down a one-way street to get there in 2008. It was a time of so many comings and goings, as well as attempts to finally park my life back in Brazil for good. With so much relocation, it might seem that I have spent my life trying to find the right place for me, and it was in Spain where I thought I had finally found just the right fit – except that the Universe that had another plan for me.

And that plan included four more hospital admissions over a period of three months, once I had returned back to Brazil, shipwrecked. Although I had the best team of doctors in São Paulo – one of which was my student – they couldn’t quite manage to diagnose me. It was a passage in which I had to deal with many harsh realities, one of the most pressing was the loss of the quality of movement in my practice. My legs had become two tree trunks, since the other one had also swollen due to the lack of protein in my body. From the waist up, I looked like anorexic. With no more strength in my arms, I fell from the postures. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror: from the waist down, I was a person; from the waist up, I was another. That person who had always been divided between the countries manifested in living flesh.

It was a period of darkness for me, especially considering that the long-standing symptom, a chronic diarrhea I had always ignored, was still there. I had always thought it was simply a part of my crazy life of so many changes, relocating among several countries, carrying with me two cats and an Akita dog of 40 kg.

I had no choice but to continue working between hospital stays, since I did not have the financial support necessary for time to rest and allow my body to recover faster.

At any rate, I had always found the Wacky Races normal.

It seems that my health found nothing normal about it. Despite the excellent care of the doctors, my health only worsened. It was a moment of desperation in which I had no other choice but to put Yoga in practice another way, and at another intensity that had previously been unknown to me.   Not only did I have to discover what disease I had, I also had to find out how I had created my own illness.

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It may be that my story with Yoga is not much different from many people around the world. At age 17, a hippie phase incited me to change my eating habits. I became a vegetarian, simply removing the animal protein I had eaten every day at lunch and dinner all my life until then, and with no regard for nutritional information – at a time when there was not so much anyway. I am part of a generation who made this change incautiously. It was a basic mistake, aggravated by eleven years of a New York life in which I taught too many classes that were fueled by bagels and muffins. A chronic anemia set in quietly, which got worse with my horrible eating habits, to say nothing of the cold and my crazy work schedule.

These were seeds of karma from the past that had not yet been revealed to either me or my doctor. But I had begun to look for them in that moment when I found myself stuck in a hospital bed, reviewing everything I thought I had ever known.

After so many years of study of Yoga and the scriptures of Vedanta – where we listen to our masters instruct us that we are neither our body, nor our thoughts and nor our emotions – how to practice such a profound non-identification, looking for the Greater Self while stuck in a situation like that?

It was there that I learned through the flesh that we have to embody more than just an intellectual understanding that Yoga is a practical philosophy of life, an ancestral science and art that unifies and integrates our being, body-mind-spirit. It is much more. It is the tradition that helps us in the process of self-knowledge and consequently influences the quality of our lives and relationships, making us more aware, proactive and connected with the All That There Is. Since we develop our maximum potential in this process, and this includes being more intuitive and perceptive, we naturally begin to question our habits and observe patterns.

However, when we ignore the red lights – and the green ones – and we embark on a process of non-alignment and incongruency, inevitably the body will speak up, or rather, it will scream. You can count on the fact that some health problem will surely appear to remind us of our mortality and impermanence.

Let’s just say I had already run enough red lights and the Universe arrived with infractions.

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When we are on the path of Yoga, not only as student seekers but also as teachers who care for and guide others, we must walk the talk – that is to say that our steps, our actions, must represent our words of teaching. While that is very easy to say, trying do it when corralled by obstacles in a hospital bed.

It is no use; there are times when we need help. And it would almost be amusing to discover that the very help we need has been with us whole time. It has never been missing, accompanying us at every step, although we never notice.

That is why, for me, there was nothing more suiting when stuck and with nowhere to go than to speak directly to the Lord of Obstacles.

Ganesha is the most worshiped and celebrated god in the Hindu Tradition. He is known as the god of knowledge and action and his results, master of logical solutions, and above all because He is not only the remover of obstacles, but the One who puts them there – especially those that we most need to learn some lessons. And He is greatly loved by me!

It was in that darkest of moments for me that my practice became nothing more than talking to Ganesha, asking him for the answers and the reasons why I had been subjected to that challenge. While in the hospital, I limited visitations to the afternoon and did not want anyone to accompany me at night in the hospital. I did not want to keep talking about what was happening to me all the time; I took my stay as a moment of meditation and silence. With an attitude of acceptance, I also began to talk with my body in my meditations and asking it to state the reason for its suffering. I asked for the cause to appear in order for the body to return to its normal function. I asked to comprehend my lessons, especially for what was to be learned from that lesson. From the perspective of a Yoga teacher, my request was to see where was the misalignment.

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I felt like an 80-year-old. And like all those who are old, I went back to pick up my footsteps.

I had returned to Brazil in 1997, and for 5 years the situation of anemia and diarrhea worsened. I no longer knew what to do; it was a busy time of my life, one in which I was teaching 30 classes a week. I had my own Yoga studio in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, and I still had to give private lessons in other districts of the city to supplement my income.

It was also the time that I began my studies of Vedanta with Gloria Arieira, which was the greatest support in my practice, work and everyday life until today.

It was on September 11, 2001 that my plane was the last to have landed in New York during the terrorist attack. And, needless to say, I saw everything happen before my very eyes; I saw the Towers fall. To say that it was shocking is an understatement.  Life had just taken me back to the place I always considered my city, my home, after an 11-year story in New York; I was on my way to meet my teacher, Gloria, at Swami Dayananda’s ashram in Pennsylvania, and at the very first puja I attended at the ashram, it was as if lightning struck my head: I discovered I was not happy. That September 11 catastrophe to me was a sign that the world was ending and there I was, once again in the wrong direction, wanting to go back to the place where the world would end first!

I undid everything. I returned to Rio de Janeiro and three months later I went to Los Angeles to start all over again. I had left behind not only Brazil, but quite a set-up: secretary, Yoga studio, house, car, etc.

I started sleeping on the couch of friends of friends. I had to buy a car because it is more important than having a home for life in Los Angeles. It was a new beginning – again!

The diarrhea and anemia followed me not only to Los Angeles, but until my return to Rio de Janeiro in 2004, after having spent one year in Mexico City. Then, at the end of 2004, I decided to go to São Paulo, since I had already given classes for the entire Rio de Janeiro and was looking for a greater and more lucrative challenge for a Yoga teacher.

That was when I began to suffer greater peer pressure from family and friends saying that I had to settle down once and for all to bring some stability to my life. I ended up giving in, beginning to question myself and working to stay in Brazil.

Do you think I stopped there?

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I continued to travel for work, teaching Yoga courses in the United States, the place where I began to teach, the place that has always been my reference in Hatha Yoga. Then it was in 2007 that a friend from Los Angeles instructed me to teach at a Yoga studio in Palma de Mallorca. I knew Mallorca was in Spain, but I did not know it was an island paradise right next to Ibiza. I thought, I cannot go to Mallorca because if I do, I will not come back.

There were many, many obstacles until the very last moment before leaving. I thought I would not be able to, but at each obstacle Ganesha was there, removing it, again and again – if only to get me right around the next corner!

With a life in the traffic – running reds and the wrong way down one-way streets – it was in the middle of the European economic crisis in May 2008 when I had this gut feeling, pushing a cart full of suitcases without even having left the airport, when I felt for sure that Mallorca was going to be the place.

And was it ever! The perfect place for me to die in the hospital from thrombosis. Nevertheless, even that obstacle had been removed by Ganesha.

Back in Brazil, it was my brother who works in the pharmaceutical industry and who had explained to me that the first diagnosis, Crohn’s disease, was an autoimmune disease that would require a very expensive medication for the rest of my life.

“No way, I don’t have that!”

My doctor was not really sure of my diagnosis because my symptoms were pieces of a puzzle that did not seem to fit together:  anemia, diarrhea and the thrombosis that I suffered; I did not use contraceptive pills; I did not smoke; I had never been sedentary (quite the contrary!);  and I did not test positive for the gene of thrombosis. How on Earth did I get one at age 44?

After another batch of exams and one last hospitalization, my student who was my gastroenterologist said: “Get rid of the gluten!”

It was like magic! The diarrhea went away immediately and finally after other tests I was diagnosed as celiac, allergic to gluten. While we may be intolerant or allergic, in the case of allergy, one is already born with it, but it took me 44 years to discover this allergy.

Despite the food discovery, I still had a bigger and much more unpleasant challenge. The bagels and muffins of my twenties in New York had finally caught up with me – not only for the gluten they had, but what they had not.

The truth is that this looming part of my health problems had already been announced for years, and I had turned a blind eye to it for many more. The moment finally arrived to for me to comprehend that I would not be able to recover my body without protein, without consuming animals. And it took eight months to regulate my blood on a super-protein diet, with its comings and goings to the hospital for injected supplements. At the time, if any friend or relative told me to go to reiki, acupuncture, church – anything – I did it! My faith took on another dimension and everything helped me in some way to my recovery.

I became very clear to me that the reasons for disease are much more than physical; our system is an integrated one, body-mind-spirit; it cannot be looked at one-dimensionally.

I understood even more that the practice of Yoga is not separate from our life. It is present in every moment. It’s not just on the mat for an hour and a half, three times a week. It is also in constant self-observation and presence in the here and now. It is in our relationship to ourselves and others.

There was a realignment of everything in my life: of values, of self-care, and of the importance of self-study and the study of the Scriptures that give us meaning in our lives. I understood the value of health and caring for our “home” consciously and organically.

It was eleven years ago that my life changed after that episode.  I have more energy today than I had twenty-five, thirty years ago, not only because I stopped eating my “poison”, gluten. I am quite certain it was getting such a close-up view of death that changed my vision.

It was not my time.

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And I had the opportunity to be reborn and continue to do my best, to honor my desires and needs and to distance myself from the fruits of my actions in order to focus on their quality, with a new attention to the mind-body. It was the blessing of the Universe that sent not only the obstacles, but also the support of a team and the tools to overcome these obstacles with the opportunity to learn to do better with them.

I learned to honor our desires and to know that they are different for each of us. It is not for all of us to have the desire to stay in one place all our lives. Many choose to be on the move and plant new seeds wherever we go; we have the freedom to make our choices, and decide how we want to create and live our lives.

There is no right or wrong, only what we want and need at that moment, with full acceptance of diversity and the infinite possibilities of living.

At the moment, I’m undergoing yet another deconstruction after almost eight years living in Mexico City. I decided that I want to be closer to Nature and not in big urban cities anymore. And to tell you the truth, I really do not know where I want to be, but the “recreate me” movement has begun, and this time it will be without guilt, without social or family pressure, free and aware of the present.

Although it is said that the home is where the heart lives, mine is in many places. But know that my body, our bodies, is the utmost home of this life, no matter who you are and where you decide to do.

May our talk on the mat, be the walk we do in the world.

Acknowledgements

to my doctor, Samir Kalil, for saving my life.

to Gloria Arieira, whose teaching of Vedanta saves me every day.

to Yoga that saves me daily from my own madness.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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