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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

Global statistics are perhaps the most daunting. It's estimated that approximately 36 million people are infected around the world, and nearly half of the adults are women—and around 70 percent of these are living in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2000, more than 6,500 people worldwide aged 15 to 24 became infected with HIV every day—that's about five every minute.

Despite these staggering numbers, estimated AIDS-related deaths in the United States dropped about 68 percent from 1995 to 1999—from 50,610 to 16,273—according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Increased survival in the developing world is directly related to the advent of—and access to—new AIDS drugs called "protease inhibitors," which interrupt late stage HIV virus replication. These drugs were introduced in 1996, and when used in conjunction with other AIDS medications, this treatment called "combination therapy" can make HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, virtually undetectable in most positive people. Subsequently, blood T-cell counts stabilize and ensure the immune system is up and running. The result? Improved health and quality of life.

While this success cannot be belittled, people who work and live with HIV never forget these drugs are not a cure. In fact, researchers know the virus has not been eradicated from its host; instead, it's just hiding in hard-to-find places like the lymph nodes, testes, brain, and the retina of the eye. And perhaps the greatest rub of all—these drugs are, in and of themselves, toxic solutions with side effects that can be at the least uncomfortable and in the worst cases even deadly; some of the more serious side effects include increased blood pressure and/or cholesterol levels, which have led to fatal heart attacks.

Western medical conventions continue to dictate AIDS research and treatment protocols, but because of the insidious nature of the virus and the chronic illness it causes, in the United States more than 70 percent of people with HIV have used some kind of alternative therapy to enhance their treatment. One of the increasingly popular methods is yoga.

"Healing does not come only out of little bottles, as many people want it to," says Jon Kaiser, M.D., a San Francisco HIV specialist and author of Healing HIV: How to Rebuild Your Immune System (HealthFirst Press, 1998). "Healing comes from inside. That's why I strongly recommend that patients with HIV take time each day to practice deep relaxation. Yoga quiets the mind, improves breathing and circulation, and reduces stress. Daily practice can help support the immune system in conjunction with a comprehensive HIV treatment program."

Treatment of HIV/AIDS has come a long way since the epidemic surfaced in the late 1980s. During that time, Denise Johnson was a new yoga teacher working in Denver, Colorado. As more and more students came to class suffering from AIDS, Johnson and a group of dedicated teachers formed a nonprofit organization called the Yoga Group, which has continued to teach free classes to students with HIV and AIDS since 1992. "When we first started teaching, people were coming to class in wheelchairs," says Johnson. "We had to lift them out of their chairs onto the floor, and we were losing students all the time. They were dying, and it became almost a support group atmosphere." Johnson and other Yoga Group teachers—with recommendations and supervision from B.K.S. Iyengar—developed a regimen for HIV/AIDS designed specifically to stabilize and boost the immune system. The practice focuses on inversions and supported backbends like Sirsasana (Headstand), Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), as well as backbends like Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose) and Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose).

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