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Health, Hope and HIV

With the help of yoga, a growing number of HIV patients are living longer and healthier lives.

By Stacie Stukin

In 1990 River Huston was a kick-ass fitness trainer in New York City. Her workouts were about pain, tight buns, and thousands of stomach crunches. Pushing herself beyond physical limits was her modus operandi. "I was mainly into having the perfect body, and it became an obsession," she says. "I had to work out every day, and my clients were the same. They were people who cared about their bodies and not about their spirits."

That same year, Huston, now 40, found out she was HIV positive. That news flooding her with emotion, she shed her in-your-face abs, butt, and thighs philosophy and embraced a more mellow approach that incorporated yoga and meditation. Soon she lost her hard-core clients. "It was so funny—when I tested positive, my classes really changed," she says. "That time in my life was really the beginning of my journey of love, forgiveness, and service."

Huston is now an AIDS activist, published poet, and author of the photography book A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living with HIV (Running Press, 1997). She is one of thousands of HIV positive people around the country who have incorporated yoga into their wellness program. While there is only preliminary research stateside that suggests yoga improves the health and quality of life for people with AIDS (PWAs), studies in Spain, India, Germany, and Africa have shown yoga can slow disease progression, improve mental health, body image, and even help prevent spread of the virus, encouraging a more pro-active approach to care and treatment. There are, however, dozens of published studies in America that show yoga benefits the ailments some PWAs experience, such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar, headaches, and chronic pain.

Huston has used yoga during the course of her illness to subdue the panic during emergency room visits, ease the pain of a hysterectomy, and most recently, to combat fatigue, headaches, and nausea from a weekly dose of intravaneous drug treatment (similar to chemotherapy) that treats an AIDS-related auto-immune condition attacking her bone marrow. But ultimately she feels the value of yoga goes well beyond the physical benefits. "It's about going deep under the waves—the hurricane that's HIV—and finding a stillness. As debilitating and emotional as HIV is, yoga helps me transcend it so that I can rediscover myself. Then I remember I am not HIV; I am not the face of AIDS. I am me."

Complementary Treatments

Like many in the aids community, Huston is a survivor. During the 10 years she has known her positive status, she has lost friends to the disease and endured her own bouts of illness. And she is far from alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 800,000 U.S. residents are living with HIV and approximately 40,000 new HIV infections occur in the country each year. The epidemic is spreading most rapidly among minority populations, and one-half of the newly infected are under 25 years old. AIDS is now the fifth leading cause of death among people aged 25 to 44.

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