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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 fact, this past February federal health officials recommended that treatment for the AIDS virus begin later in the course of the disease rather than sooner in patients who show no symptoms. The revised guidelines acknowledge the "hit early, hit hard" philosophy risks creating toxic situations for HIV positive people who may be required to take the drugs for the rest of their lives. This is particularly disturbing because when drug therapy is stopped, the virus spreads rapidly, and long-term use can result in virus drug resistance. However, these new guidelines only affect positive people with no signs of opportunistic AIDS-related infections.

Steve McCeney intimately knows the downside of HIV medication. He has been practicing yoga with the Yoga Group since 1993, and for the past year yoga has been instrumental in helping him manage some of his chronic drug side effects. "Sometimes I don't know what it's like to feel normal anymore," he says. "But I do know that after an hour of restorative poses, I feel like a new person mentally, spiritually, and physically."

McCeney's trouble began when chronic digestive problems he blamed on drug side effects evolved into an insidious gastro-intestinal crisis that caused excruciating pain, bloating, and terrible constipation. After medication adjustments, he ended up in the hospital with severe diarrhea. He lost 30 pounds, and even small amounts of food made him feel full. Whether his colon trauma is attributed to HIV or damage from the medication is hard to pinpoint by even his physicians—though, intuitively, McCeney believes the medication probably triggered the problem. "We're not going to survive if we stay on these meds the rest of our lives," he says. "They are harsh on the body, though I know they have stopped the virus's progression. Even with all I've been through, I would be fearful of going off medication altogether."

Yoga is an oasis that McCeney can go to even when he's feeling lousy. His practice is primarily dictated by his physical condition. If he's fatigued, McCeney does rejuvenating poses like Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), Supported Downward-Facing Dog, Headstand, and Shoulderstand with a chair. For immediate relief from digestive pain, he does Supta Baddha Konasana with a strap, Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), and Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose). Standing poses are reserved for times when he feels stronger and more energetic.

In addition to yoga, McCeney sees a Chinese medicine practitioner. This multi-faceted approach is becoming more and more prevalent among progressive AIDS treatment providers. "Ten years ago we were doing yoga to help stabilize and boost the immune function," says Kaiser. "Now we're trying a holistic approach. We can no longer use drug therapy at the exclusion of other natural therapies. The best programs are combination programs."

There's no question that, anecdotally, PWAs who practice yoga feel tremendous relief from various ailments. Dennis Israelski, M.D., chief research officer and chief of Infectious Diseases and AIDS at San Mateo County Health Center in northern California, says a good scientific case can be made to conduct yoga and HIV research, though he admits getting the funding is a challenge. "After all , yoga does not sell drugs," he says. Nonetheless, he believes yoga is a superb practice. "Medicine doesn't have all the answers, and I'm convinced by practicing pPranayama, meditation, and asanas, PWAs will survive longer. Even though we don't have the hard data, I believe that when people believe in a system that is spiritual and physical, there is power. The path is as important as the end result."

Stacie Stukin is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.

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