I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) over seventeen years ago. I was fortunate to discover hatha yoga soon after when my body demanded attention and was no longer one I could take for granted. I started to learn the virtues of taking control of a body that seemed to have its own agenda. Then in 2007 I had the unique opportunity to learn to be a yoga teacher in a program designed for accessibility that was newly developed by the Integral Yoga Institute. This program was specifically for a teacher who wanted to go through a 200-hour training but could not imagine doing this in the 30 day intensive that this program was usually offered. I was absorbed in the teachings of yoga for 9 months. Here I was given the gift of understanding the true meaning of yoga. I discovered that distractions, doubts, and fears are makings of the mind. Those won’t go away, but I can witness them and stay afloat. I uncovered what lies beneath the layers that I have spent a life covering over, my true self. Graduating from this first program and as a person with a chronic disability I naturally began by teaching others with disabilities. This led me to continue my training to better serve this community. Eventually this led me to completing the training necessary to be a yoga therapist.
I continue to teach to those who can also benefit from these teachings, physically and spiritually, who may feel uncomfortable in an average yoga class. Many of my students also have MS. I welcome them into this practice without promises of reversing or stopping the progression of their disease. It certainly has not done that for me. This past year I have witnessed increasing loss of ability, both mentally and physically. But yoga has taught me that I don’t have to be at war with my body or this disease. I can witness the changes with compassion and embrace those things I still can do well. And I keep yoga as a close companion, even as my practice becomes more and more subtle to the onlooker. My movements may be smaller, but the impact is still the same as I nudge my abilities to the surface. Maybe it is just feeling my feet grounded on the floor and a sense of lifting from the spine. I can still slow down my breathing and watch it move slowly through the body, subtly controlling it. I can sense the prana moving through the body and into areas that may not have much sensory awareness. And when I am too fatigued for movement I can guide my mind through the hatha practice, slowly and deliberately, so my body feels it from inside. I continue to let go of the attachment of my body performing as it should and just witness where it is without judgment.
I continue to learn from the sutras so when I face my own mortality I know that my consciousness is part of a vast ocean, and I let go of attachment to bodily life (sutra 2.9). Kriya yoga is my companion where painful experiences are my teachers. Surrender (Ishwara Pranidhana) is about letting go of the fight, but this is not the same as giving in. It is just not adding unnecessary pain. Surrender allows me to be open to the journey into liberation. That’s how I “sell” yoga to new students: yoga doesn’t remove the pain but helps you navigate these experiences with a little more ease and grace. Maybe in this practice they will experience santosha. Contented to be in their body at this moment, and at the same time learning to savor the moment. I see the smiles spreading on their faces while in matsyasana, and the deep sense of calm that spreads through the room during yoga nidra. They leave class with shanti emanating from their hearts.
This is the secret power of yoga that we can spread as teachers. Bring them in for an increase in flexibility and strength, and the hope of increasing their physical ability, but let them leave with a deep and pervading inner peace. Our wish is that they will let go of the struggle and see their true Selves.
Credit: This has been authored by Shakti Bell. She has been teaching yoga and living in Santa Cruz, California since 2009. All her classes are designed to bring yoga to populations that may have had difficulties accessing yoga. Shakti helps people uncover their own healing power, just as she learned for herself. Shakti is on the planning committee for the first Accessible Yoga Conference scheduled for September 12th and 13th of 2015, in Santa Barbara, Ca.