Yoga: The Silent Killer?
When the Buddha (who I didn’t know personally) left his father’s palace for the first time, he saw three things: An old man, a sick man, and a dead body. This formed the basis for enlightenment, which, in typically torturous Buddhist fashion, didn’t occur until more than a decade later. Still, the foundation had been poured for the Buddha’s teachings: Across the human tapestry, suffering is the lone universal constant. You’re going to get sick, you’re going to get old, and you’re going to die, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the moment. Only by accepting your true, impermanent nature can you begin to find some sort of peace. That Buddha. He was a real comedy marathon.
Yes, yes, you think, my hair has grayed. People I’ve known have died, some quite suddenly. Sickness, age, death, and impermanence: Got it. But while it’s great to intellectually understand the Buddha’s teachings, experiencing them viscerally is quite another order of business. My recent dance with impermanence taught me a lot more than any amount of reading and meditation could, and not just that you don’t ever want to go to a certain emergency room in Encino because their doctors are incompetent and they’ll overcharge you.
It started about five weeks ago, at my sister’s house in the San Fernando Valley. We’d gone there for the fourth night of Chanukah. Already, this paragraph is sounding too Jewish for my tastes, but gird yourself, because it’s about to go mega-Jew. After we lit the candles and drank the wine and ate the brisket, I sat down on the couch to complain to my uncle about my financial problems. I began to feel some discomfort on the upper right side of my chest, like I’d swallowed a couple of pieces out of a weights and measures set. A different order of complaining followed. My sister gave me some Gas-X. It didn’t help. I slumped on the couch, moaning with discomfort. Finally, my sister rolled her eyes, as she’s been doing at me for more than 30 years, and said,
“Do you need to use my toilet?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do not tell me it was my brisket.”
“It probably was.”
But when I got to the bathroom, I began to eliminate brisket from the risk of culprits. My chest hurt, a lot. I feared that I was going to die there, my pants around my ankles, reading a three-week-old issue of Rolling Stone. After managing to pull up my pants, I staggered around the back end of my sister’s house like Bruce Banner in the early stages of hulking out, huffing, sweating, deep pressure in my chest, my pulse through the roof, my chest pressing with pain.
Maybe yoga could save me, I thought. If only I could just see the present moment for what it was, as something temporary. If I could neither avoid reality or become attached to my perception of reality, then…Oh my god, I realized. I can’t do my ujayii breath!
“Somebody…help…me…” I moaned.
Four hours, one ambulance ride, two squirts of nitroglycerine, two EKG’s, one IV, one public jug-urination, a raft of bills and one unforgivable non-diagnosis later, I was home in bed, thinking that maybe I’d just strained a pectoral muscle or something. I’d been hitting the mat pretty hard lately, and I’d injured pretty much every other part of my body doing yoga in the last seven years. Why not the pec, too? But I had full range of motion, not to mention chills, aches, a 100-degree fever, and the general feeling that something was slowly sucking away my soul. In my experience, those aren’t the symptoms of a muscle strain.
First thing Monday morning, I went to the clinic. Within a minute, they’d diagnosed me with pneumonia. How I’d contracted it, no one could be sure. I hadn’t been sick lately, but the air here is nothing but toxic gunk. I could have inhaled a spore. Regardless, there it sat in my lung, the sinister bacterial infection that my doctor buddy calls “the old man’s friend.” Sure enough, as I lay on the couch for a week, unable to do much more than watch Turner Classic Movies and shuffle my fantasy-football roster, both Leslie Nielsen and Blake Edwards, together responsible for a decent percentage of my life’s laughter, died in their 80s from pneumonia-related complications.
I sit here today healthy and fully functional, the episode already fading, other than the ER bills, into the occasional reminiscence. Remember when I had pneumonia? That was gnarly.
I’ll remember well. It was the sickest I’ve been in nearly 30 years. Though I’ve suffered my share of minor biomechanical problems as an adult, I rarely get a cold or the flu, and never for more than 24 hours. Before the old man’s friend paid me a visit, I’d taken to cockily trumpeting my sound constitution and judging everyone, adult or child, who seemed to be sick all the time. I considered it a kind of weakness, or a feeble excuse.
But now I’ve experienced impermanence, first-hand, and it was no fun. I’m going to get sick, I’m going to get old, and I’m going to die. And when those things finally happen, no amount of pranayama practice will save me.
None of which means I should stop the yoga. Practicing has helped me see reality clearly, or at least more clearly than I would have otherwise. The activity, or at least the discipline attached to it, serves as its own reward. Besides, I’m probably going to go ahead and blame my sister’s brisket for making me sick. Just because I know it pisses her off so much.
Neal Pollack is the author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude
Photo by lululemon athletica
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