At age 51, I was at the height of my professional career as a Registered Health Information Administrator. Living in Houston with my family, I commuted weekly to my job in Salt Lake City and even lectured nationally about a bill-coding system for hospitals. My mobile ways changed quickly, however, when I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. Think of it as an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories.
I experienced just about all the known symptoms (like simple complex and partial complex seizures) along with unrelenting pain throughout my nervous system. Since my epilepsy is located in the area of the brain dealing with memory, extreme stress could prompt a seizure, sending my mind into the past, at some other point in my life.
My doctors and I realized a few years into my treatment that I was in the minority of individuals who are “drug-resistant” to anticonvulsant medication. In my case, the drugs even increased the amount of seizures. Fated to live without anti-seizure medication, I retired and went on disability to spend my days in seclusion, attempting to manage the seizures and the pain through avoidance of anything that triggered them, such as stress, noise, crowds, fatigue, and flickering or fluorescent lights—all things that make simply entering a grocery store an ambitious task.
I tried everything from acupuncture to Pilates to relieve my pain. And then I returned to yoga. I have practiced yoga on some level since I was a teenager. My first yoga teacher was a pilot in the Vietnam war who used yoga to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. They didn’t call it that back in the ’60s, but clearly it was the driving force behind his work to master the practice, and then share it with the community in classes.
Prior to my diagnosis, school, family, or work kept me from concentrating on yoga. I would start with good intentions, but drift away when life became too busy. However, it was to yoga I instinctively turned when my health was in crisis and my life was upside down.
I restarted my yoga practice at home with books and yoga programs on TV, but found it difficult without an instructor to work with directly. I much preferred a class, but there was none close by. So when I had the chance to attend yoga classes while visiting a friend, I jumped on the opportunity.
The classes were full each day, but once the session started, I forgot about the others and concentrated on my positions. The quiet and movement allowed me to slow down and focus on the moment rather than having my mind rush ahead to where I was going to be in an hour.
I realized my lack of earlier success had a lot to do with how I was approaching yoga. After years of working out at a gym, I was used to pushing myself further and faster. It was hard for me to understand how holding a position for long moments could actually be better than short, quick movements. In this class, hearing the inhales and exhales around me, I was able to slow down and concentrate on the positions rather than what I should or should not be doing. Finally I was able to let the asanas flow and let my mind and body remain in peace.
At the end of my visit, I discovered a surprising benefit: I had gone two weeks without a serious seizure.
When I realized what had happened, I did researched yoga’s effect on seizures and found I wasn’t the only one who gained these amazing benefits. There’s something to this, I thought. I found that forward-folding poses help positively impact the chemicals in the brain, possibly reducing the likelihood and magnitude of the seizures.
Today I practice mostly hatha yoga, integrating a wide variety of forward folds. However, I make sure to have a complete practice in order to slow down my breathing and thinking. The relaxation and forward bending, along with the breathing and meditation, lower my seizure threshold and work to strengthen and repair my body.
While they are less frequent, I still experience seizures and probably always will. When a seizure hits, I am thrown into a cycle of nerve pain and muscle strain. I feel physically beaten down, weak, and sometimes spend days recovering. I am still unable to go out in the world as I used to because I cannot control lights, noises, and other variables around me. But with my yoga practice, I have begun healing physically and emotionally. After a seizure, yoga helps me to unclench my muscles, unwind my gut, and clear my head. I am also able to extend the time between my seizures, allowing my body to rest and heal. But, most importantly, yoga has given me a sense of self-compassion over the changes in my life. I no longer experience the self-hatred and sadness, and instead feel more at peace and hopeful.
Today yoga is a lifeline, just as it was to my first yoga instructor, the pilot. It has become an important tool in reducing my seizures while strengthening my body and relieving pain. It is the time of the day I jealously guard and joyously celebrate. To me, yoga is a gift.
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