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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

It seems quite obvious that a less anxious person is a healthier person, but achieving a stress-free life is easier said than done. For Gurudas Phillips it took yoga to drive that point home. Yoga, he says, gives him the peace of mind to endure the anxiety of chronic health challenges. He discovered this a year ago when he enrolled in an HIV class at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco at a time in his life when complications from hepatitis C were causing him emotional distress and physical ailing. "On some level, I knew my overall anxiety would be more detrimental to me than the virus," says Phillips, who now teaches yoga to others with HIV. "Beyond the physical benefits have been the raja benefits—not identifying with the mind—and learning not to live in absolute fear of when my viral load will come back. Instead, yoga has been a real gift that has forced me to live my life in a more meaningful way."

At Stanford, Koopman is part of a group that has conducted studies about the possible health-enhancing benefits for PWAs who have experienced the spiritual shift Phillips talks about. While she has yet to publish her findings, her preliminary impressions indicate that peaceful states of mind do indeed enhance well-being. "People who endorsed more spiritual actions and views were associated with more active coping and less resignation or passivity," she says. "A worldview that incorporates a spiritual component creates balance and harmony and improves mental health. The principles of yoga practice should help enhance access to those positive states of mind more frequently."

In Chicago, Michael McColly turned to yoga because he felt it was something that would help him deal with the spiritual crisis he faced living with a potentially fatal disease. It also became a positive way for him to reconnect to the body he had given over to doctors and drugs once he was diagnosed with HIV five years ago. Yoga's breath work, stretching, muscle strengthening, and meditation not only helped him work through his depression, it also opened his eyes to the idea that his body was, indeed, his temple. He has since begun teaching yoga to PWAs at Illinois Masonic Hospital's alternative clinic. "We need to be in charge of our own health," he says. "In yoga, you automatically take charge. It changes the whole way you look at your body, and it makes you more invested and conscious of your health. It's also a great way to do something to manage HIV drug toxicity."

Relief for Side Effects

The side effects of HIV drug treatment have become a necessary evil in the AIDS community. While the drugs are literally saving lives—enabling PWAs to go back to work and resume normal lives—they are also wreaking havoc on bodies taxed by side effects like diarrhea, neuropathy, liver dysfunction, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, nausea, digestive problems, and fat redistribution disorders that sometimes cause limb wasting, obesity in the torso, and fatty humps on the back of the neck.

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