The Human Herpesviruses (HHV) that Lurks, Waits, and Replicates in You

2015 Virus familyThe virus lurks in the dorsal root ganglion like a terrorist waiting.  Blindsided and forgotten like chickenpox, when it surfaces, the shingles’ rash can look like an alien reptile has left its imprint on your skin and is sometimes referred to as “the devil’s grip.”  The varicella-zoster virus has shadowed the human race for thousands of years causing chickenpox and later in life shingles.  Although researchers are investigating the phenomenon of the herpes virus’s unique ability to replicate itself, as of yet, no known cure exists to oust it from the body, where it dwells in the ganglia and, along with other unwanted guests, in the liver.  The best solution, like dealing with a difficult mother-in-law, is to coexist.

Shingles has increased and is four times as common now as it was sixty years ago.  “It’s increased across all age groups,” says Dr. Barbara Yawn, Chief Scientific Officer at COPD Foundation.

Doctors still don’t know the reason for the increase.  “We’ve done studies, and we just don’t know,” Dr. Yawn says.  “The increase is not due to greater rates of immuno-suppression in the population, not due to lack of boostering, not due to introduction of the chickenpox or varicella vaccine, not due to more doctor’s visits, and not due to access to anti-viral meds.”

The viruses herpes-zoster (VZV) and herpes simplex (HSV), the one that causes cold sores, are neurotropic alpha viruses that live in clusters of nerve cells near the spine called the dorsal root ganglion;  the ganglia is the connection between the nerves coming out of the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.

There’s some indication VZV thrives on stress.  “I suppose some of it could be due to more widespread stress,” Dr. Yawn says.  “We know that there’s  increased risk of shingles in people who have had adverse life events.”

In fact, Dr. Yawn’s study Risk Factors for Herpes Zoster revealed that female sex, race/ethnicity, family history, and co-morbidities such as asthma, diabetes, and COPD, are risk factors for HZ.

“The herpes zoster and the herpes simplex is a fascinating family of viruses,” says Dr. Yawn.  “They all act in a similar way that they stay dormant for years and don’t cause any symptoms but then can reactivate.”  The viruses hide in the nerve tissues, replicating, surviving, waiting, until the right time, when the immune system is weakened, to spring into action.

Viruses can also sleep in the liver.  Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, Chief of the Medical Virology Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Dieseases, in Bethesda, Md.  says, “The latent VZV along the spine should be the same as VZV that’s sometimes detected in the liver as far as we know.  Hepatitis viruses (A,B,C) infect the liver, and other viruses less commonly infect the liver.  The vertebra of the spine can also be infected by bacteria including tuberculosis, and some fungi can occasionally infect the vertebra and cause abscesses.”

Another member of the family is the cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common virus most people don’t know they have, because it rarely causes symptoms.  Once CMV is in the body, like all herpes, it takes cover in the ganglia. According to the CDC, “Among every 100 adults in the United States, 50–80 are infected with CMV by the time they are 40 years old.”  Yet another relative is the Epstein-Barr virus, that causes infectious mononucleosis or mono as it’s known.  Dr. Cohen says that, “CMV can occasionally infect the spine,” too.

There is not a definitive association of EBV and COVID-19 or zoster and COVID-19.  While there are anecdotes of persons with both infections at or near the same time, this does not prove there is a direct association between them.  The possibility of COVID’s link to herpes is under the microscope. New studies prove that Long Covid variants can live in the body for up to a year and impact the overall immune system. Additional reports with similar features are needed for a true association, experts say.

It’s essential to keep VZV  from reactivating.  “The only way is the shingles’ vaccine,” says Dr. Yawn. “But the vaccine hasn’t been studied in people younger than fifty and so does not have FDA approval.  Shingles and complications like postherpetic neuralgia are less common in people under fifty and many people would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case or one complication.”

How can we supercharge our immune system to fight off the enemy?  “There’s no magic potion,” says Dr. Yawn.  “Some people need to use immuno-suppressive medications for cancer, to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, or to treat some chronic diseases like moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.  But for people without these needs, avoiding stress, treating depression, having a healthy, well-balanced diet, activity, and maintaining a normal weight can help.”

Alternative options can strengthen the immune system, too.  Dr. Mary Claire H. Wise, Integrative Family Physician, recommends milk thistle supplements to support the liver and the metabolic detox pathways in the liver.  “When you’re not holding on to toxins, your immune system is able to function better,” says Dr. Wise.  “For herpes viruses, what I have found works best is L-lysine three grams daily, St. John’s Wart 450mg twice a day, and echinacea one gram three times a day to prevent a recurrence.”

Kiki Flynn, the popular YouTube Wellness Guru and Lifestyle Coach, recommends neem supplements, because neem is anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial. Neem mitigates parasites, eczema, and viruses like shingles.  In India, neem trees grow up to fifty feet high, a symbol of health, wealth, and community well-being.  But, advises Kiki, “Check with your doctor and do not take if pregnant or nursing. Take according to label and do not exceed two weeks.”

To detox the liver, Kiki recommends her castor oil deep cleanse pack at Kiki Says.


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Yes, Yoga 3x a Week Can Help Prevent Spinal Surgery

Yoga can prevent surgeryYoga may not alter the trajectory of family genetics in a lifetime, but it can prevent the need for spinal surgery.

Renowned orthopedic surgeon Gary Michelson, MD and founder of the Gary Michelson Medical Research Foundation (MMRF) says that, “In essence, being in good shape, having good core strength, and good flexibility is protective against many of the conditions that would have otherwise gone on to lead to spinal surgery. That having been said, there are those conditions which arise from structural defects in the spinal column that are probably not amenable to relief by exercise.”

But a person can “. . .fight heavy genetic issues with yoga and keep spinal surgery at bay,” says Vijay Vad MD, a sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery and faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College.   He’s also the author of Back RX: A 15-Minute-a-Day Yoga- and Pilates-Based Program to End Low Back Pain (Penguin 2004) and PBS national television special “Stop Back Pain Now.”

For example, within a family, if a brother suffers from genetic spinal stenosis and chooses a complex surgery such as cervical laminoplasty to cure his symptoms like progressive numbness and immobility, it’s possible his sibling, who may suffer from the same condition, can prevent surgery by starting and maintaining a yoga practice early in life.

Loren Fishman, MD., Managing Partner of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, concurs that “Yes, sometimes, yoga can help with even congenital conditions. The best poses are gentle flexion of the entire spine, and if ability permits, extension of the lumbar spine with flexion of the cervical spine, such as Paschimottasana (Figure 8. p. 246) with head elevated.  These gently move the spinal canal within the canal and may help the cord find the path of least compression.  “When it comes to spinal stenosis, yoga can certainly relieve pain and improve function, though this is more studied in the lumbar than the cervical spine,” says Dr. Fishman.  It does not change the anatomical fact of stenosis, but it does significantly improve people’s ability to function highly with the condition they have, often avoiding surgery for considerable periods of time.

Dr. Vad’s study, “The Role of the Back Rx Exericse Program in Diskogenic Low Back Pain:  A Prospective Randomized Trial”  showed that when practiced regularly, yoga reduces back pain and symptoms, recurring back pain and the chance of surgery, as well as narcotics use.

But yoga can be a double-edged sword.  Dr. Vad emphasizes the need to begin yoga slowly and to not jump into it. “If you jump into it too quickly you can blow your discs,” he says.  “You have to ease into it. You have to start as a beginner or have a modified practice.”

When Dr. Fishman’s spinal patients complain that they simply “can’t” do yoga, he troubleshoots.  First, he asks, “Have you tried?”  If his patient had a negative experience with yoga, he’ll find out why.  In general, Dr. Fishman tries to show the array of yoga available, such as, who (instructor), what kind of yoga (Kundalini, Iyengar, Ashtanga), what kind of setup (class, private), and then find a match for the student (state of mind, body, and goals then and now).

Yoga is the ultimate mind body connection therapy, because of the breathing.  “It isn’t breath that helps the spine, it’s the breathing” says Dr. Fishman.  Certainly, breathing helps posture and self-awareness, because “There’s a feedback loop, and better breathing makes for better alignment, which enhances breathing, which improves alignment and so on.”   To build and maintain a healthy spine, it’s essential to learn the correct technique of  breathing or prana from an expert instructor like Kiki Flynn and combine  it with the physical postures.  Most critically, says Dr. Fishman, “The breathing process focuses one on the apparatus of breathing, and the ribs and spine are the heart of the torso.”

In fact, Dr. Fishman’s study “Yoga for Osteoporosis: A Pilot Study” showed that “Eighty percent of the people who did yoga for two years according to the protocol improved their bone mineral density, even though most were losing bone before the study.”  Yoga strengthened the bones of their hips, spines, and thighs.

Yoga prompts better alignment, better coordination, and moves the spinal cord and cauda equina in the spinal canal, enabling it to settle in the position of least resistance.  The better alignment puts less pressure by reducing twists and turns, however slight they may be, and the better coordination enables multiple levels of the spine to bend smoothly and share tensions, thus reducing tension on the cord itself.  And by putting people in touch with their bodies, that is, mindfulness, it prompts earlier awareness of just how far they can go with reaching, bending, twisting, lifting, and just about everything else.

It also provides better proprioception, how the body senses itself in space, and this perception of balance prevents fewer back injuries, hip fractures, and ankle sprains.  Doctors at the American College of Sports Medicine recommend the YogaForce A-Line Mat to help with proper body alignment and proprioception.

According to Dr. Vad, “Proper exercise that increases the back’s flexibility, strength, and endurance makes good balance and posture possible and can dramatically retard these natural aging processes and moderate their effects.”

He focuses on three goals to maintain a healthy spine.  The first is to gain flexibility.  Lifelong yogi’s, for example, frequently retain well-hydrated discs into advanced old age.  Like the rest of the body, the discs depend on the circulatory system to bring them oxygen, so yoga like walking hydrates the discs of the spine.  Exercising the back prevents the discs’ loss of water, keeping it flexible and resilient.  “I’ve seen seventy-five and eighty-year-old yogi’s whose spines look great,” says Dr. Vad.

Second is the strength to move.  Dr. Vad states that, “The stronger the core trunk muscles [from knee to midsection] the less pressure there will be on the spine’s intervertebral discs and facet joints and the more resistant a person will be to disc herniations, facet arthritis, and other back problems.”

And third, yoga builds endurance to withstand stress, that “Over time, the slow, steady, moderate stresses and focused breathing can build very healthy levels of endurance along with core strength.”

To prevent spinal surgery, Dr. Vad’s prescription is to do yoga three times a week using his DVD Back Rx and implement aerobic training and walking every other day.


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Consciousness, Cooperation, and Communication: Healing DID

Mental Health

It wasn’t until after Karin’s fourth suicide attempt that the mental illness she’d battled her whole life finally began to make sense.

Seated in a hospital conference room with a psychiatrist, the doctor asked her if she understood bipolar disorder, which she knew she had. She told him yes and that she understood why she took meds for it. Then he asked if she realized there was a name for the other symptoms she was experiencing. She told him no, that she thought it was all part of being bipolar. He explained to her that her memory lapses and the loss of time could be accounted for by another very complex disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder and that she would need to work with her outpatient therapist to deal more deeply with it.

When Karin left the room, she felt relieved that there was a name for what she was experiencing but also scared to death. Not until many years later, after much therapy, did she begin to realize that she did have multiple personalities living inside of her and that it could be traced back to the abuse she endured as a child.

To this day, she’s still trying to map out who she is.

“I could take drive four hours from Virginia to Maryland and have no memory how I got from point A to point B,” she says.

But once the doctor asked about her symptoms, focusing on memory lapses and loss of time, she began to understand the mysterious gaps in her history.

“I was a kid who always daydreamed a lot and never really thought about the time I missed,” she says, now forty-one and in therapy to treat DID. “When he told me I was surprised and a little angry at myself for not putting the pieces of the puzzle together myself. I spent the next couple of days asking a lot of questions and trying to figure out how I was going to deal with this revelation.”

According to Sidran Institute, an organization dedicated to educating and helping people survive trauma, DID may affect one percent of the American population. That’s one in one hundred people, putting DID in the same category as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety as one of the four major mental health problems today. In fact, the documentary Busy Inside on public television’s World Channel: America ReFramed, explores DID. In the film, a therapist helps her patients to confront past trauma and to embrace their different personalities.

According to J.B. Foote, M.D., a psychiatrist diagnosing DID for fifteen years, patients who suffer from DID have endured an average of seven years of psychiatric treatment, including multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, before being correctly diagnosed. And when they are given a diagnosis whether it’s bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia or depression, or combinations, it’s wrong. Many people with DID suffer added dangers of being prescribed wrong meds and enduring medical environments not conducive to health.

“I’d been hospitalized many times before,” says Karin. “The hospitals I had been to always told me I was just manic and having psychotic symptoms. I didn’t know any better so I just took the meds they gave me and once I felt safe again they released me.”

“There’s a widespread lack of education about this, combined with controversy and skepticism,” says Dr. Foote.

The numbers may be even higher as DID may affect five to twenty percent of people in psychiatric hospitals, many who have received other diagnoses. The incidence rates are even higher among sexual-abuse survivors, the majority women, and among individuals with chemical dependencies.

“Many people who have DID may function extremely well as mothers and wives, and even in high-level professions – so well so that no one around them may suspect their problem,” says Dr. Foote.

“It’s weird,” says Karin. “But to people who don’t know me, I look like a person who really has it together. I have worked hard over the years to hide my DID because I knew that few people understood it and I did not want to be ostracized.”

Veronica D. Abney, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker in the field for twenty-five years, agrees with Foote that DID is an illness not fully recognized.

DID is a disorder that develops in childhood between the ages of five and seven. Most people when they think of DID, known as multiple personality disorder until 1994 when the American Psychiatric Association’s manual changed the name to dissociative identity disorder, are reminded of the terrifying 1970’s novel Sybil that depicts the illness. The disorder begins with a horrific childhood history not diagnosed until adulthood. To develop DID, a person must have suffered severe, horrific child abuse whether physical, sexual, or emotional.

“DID develops in childhood” says Dr. Abney, “because a child doesn’t have a caretaker to soothe them. Kids have a limited repertoire of defense mechanisms. They “make believe” they’re different people.”

These “make believe” people become what is known as alters, insiders, or parts.

An adult coping and going through life carrying these experiences, these painful memories, may suddenly find “something” triggers the abuse. For example, a mother may first experience DID when she has a child the same age she was when she suffered such horrendous abuse.

Dissociative Disorder is the larger umbrella diagnosis that includes the full spectrum of dissociative illness. Complex and wide-ranging, the disorder itself can be gauged using the Dissociative Experiences Scale, a screening test made up of twenty-eight questions. DID is just one of many dissociative disorders ranging from depersonalization to post-traumatic stress disorder. But DID patients who have suffered horrific childhood abuse consistently score high on the test, and most are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as well.

Understanding the finer lines of the disorder in our popular culture can be tricky. Pop-star Beyonce is famous for her “alter ego,” Sasha Fierce, whom Beyonce claims is more fashionable, daring, crazy and impulsive than the “real” Beyonce, and so is Christina Aguilera’s, Xtina, who lets her push sexual boundaries on stage. Tila Tequila has claimed she has DID and her alter, Jane Cordovez, filmed herself on Ustream webcam with a shotgun in her mouth. And the Emmy Award winning Showtime series The United States of Tara  starring actress Toni Collette deals respectfully with Tara, a mother suffering from DID and trying to raise a family.  In Suicide Squad, the DC comic character known as Harley Quinn, best known as the former girlfriend of the Joker, suffers from multiple personalities.  Now, teenagers are self-diagnosing themselves with the complicated disorder of DID on social media sites like TikTok.

All human beings experience some level of dissociation whether losing themselves in a good novel, film or daydreaming on the train. Everyone scores somewhere on the DES test. Everybody has parts and parts of themselves they don’t like, but being accountable for personal behavior is what matters.

So where do Beyonce and Christina fall on the dissociative scale?

“It’s a coping device, dealing with stress,” says Abney. “They are conscious of what they’re doing. Everyone dissociates to a certain degree. We all have moments of dissociation. The criteria for DID diagnosis is amnesia or ‘Is it Live or is it Memorex?’”

For DID patients, the question is, is reality filled with awareness and consciousness or is it altered?

It’s possible for DID to be cured through psychotherapy with the long-term goal to integrate the alters and parts. But the treatment experience can be extremely painful, as the patient must remember and accept traumatic memories. Healing can take many, many years. But it’s possible for the alters or parts to merge into a single whole personality and reclaim the awareness, identity, and history previously held by the individual parts according to Sidran.

“Most people think of Sybil when they think of DID,” Karin says. “But people who have DID can have normal lives and function very well.”

For more information, visit The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation


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Yoga Cures:  Surviving the Here and Now

Can a daily dose of yoga cure a life-threatening illness?

“One of the underlying powers of yoga is a balancing of the autonomic nervous system,” says Dr. David Riley, editor-in-chief, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and clinical associate professor, University of New Mexico Medical School and medical research director, Integrative Medicine. “Yoga with its flowing rhythm of postures and deep breathing can reset the point of balance in the ANS, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and stimulate the overall immune function.” For women living life in today’s world, the responsibility of balancing job and family, the pressure to eat right and look good on top of concern about hereditary illness can trigger an ANS imbalance manifesting itself in a variety of diseases.

The nerve fibers of the ANS and its two divisions, the sympathetic “fight or flight” response and the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, exist in a constant state of dynamic balance. “The sympathetic nervous system is like the gas pedal of a car and the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake,” says Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, medical director of the Preventative and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Too much of one and not enough of the other can create an imbalance. In fact, accurate measurement of heart rate variability through sophisticated ECG devices and computer analysis can be a definitive marker of an ANS imbalance.

“Ten years ago” says Dr. Merz “we didn’t have computers, cell phones and fax machines.  Now, women can shop online, make dinner and catch up on last minute phone calls all at once.”  As Dr. Merz explains yoga can add some of the brake when we’re speeding too fast down life’s fast lane by creating the kind of training effect a runner gets when preparing for a marathon. While biofeedback, meditation and relaxation response training are techniques that, when combined with aerobic exercise, viably reduce stress, yoga offers that elusive all in one cure. Through yoga and focusing inward we can control heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol and rebalance the ANS to help prevent and even cure illness.

Yoga helps Tammy survive intense reality of heart surgery

At 29, Tammy Moore was diagnosed with a defective congenital aortic valve. All her life she suffered from dizziness and fainting episodes and in the last few years she experienced difficulty breathing and was so exhausted she gained more than fifty pounds.  Tammy was quickly admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center for open-heart surgery the very same day she had an appointment with her cardiologist.  Her surgery revealed a unicuspid valve, a dangerous condition that inhibits blood flow.  A normal valve has three parts, leaflets or cusps, but a stenotic valve may have only one cusp making it a unicuspid.

As part of her rehab, Tammy attended the state-of-the-art Cedars-Sinai Integral Yoga Hatha cardiac class based upon Dr. Dean Ornish’s clinical trials and research in reversing heart disease with certified yoga therapist, Nirmala Heriza.  Also director of the Los Angeles Integral Yoga Institute, founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Heriza teaches a traditional form of hatha yoga, a system of physical postures over 3,000 years old that includes relaxation and breathing techniques to promote optimal health and reversal of disease.  Heriza is author of Dr. Yoga.   More and more, Heriza sees physical breakdowns in people in the early to mid-thirties related to heart problems, the nervous system and chronic fatigue.  She believes yoga embodies a specific science that rebuilds the central nervous system, stimulates the liver and the kidneys which supports the immune system and reverses the aging process.  In her first one-hour class with Heriza, Tammy’s blood pressure dropped to 134/70 from 146/90.

The first six weeks after open-heart surgery Tammy found herself focused on basic self-care issues like breathing into her Tri-Flo and keeping her seven-inch incision clean.  She was not allowed to push or pull more than ten pounds and soon found herself bored with routine walking.  Now that her physical recovery is progressing Tammy feels yoga helps with the deeper fears and intense reality of having survived open-heart surgery. “There’s so much activity inside the hospital getting ready for a surgery this major. You’re so engrossed in the process — logistics, recovery, visiting friends, doctors, nurses, medication, breathing exercises. I felt like the doctors owned my body instead of me. I slept very little the entire time and I never had time to meditate on the whole experience. All of a sudden I realized how vulnerable and dramatic and serious my condition was. Yoga helps me to be quiet and to accept and process what happened to me.”

Two weeks after her surgery, lying in bed late one night dozing to a movie on cable, Tammy’s eyes flew open with the sudden realization of what had happened to her. “It takes a long time for the mind to catch up with the body,” Tammy says. “Even though you have all these caregivers in the hospital, they’re concerned about your clinical recovery. Nirmala was the first one to ask about my overall well-being. In the hospital, you’re focused on what you can’t do like breathing and walking and in my yoga class I focus on what I can do. Yoga allows the thoughts and issues of what you’ve been through to surface. It helps me to be still and to continue my healing process.”

In Tammy’s first cardiac yoga class with Nirmala, she learned shoulder stand affects the pineal gland, the sound center, of the brain; in Eastern medicine, it is widely held that chanting OM does as well. In the weeks following surgery, Tammy lost 22 pounds and happily discovered Cobra pose and shoulder stand, which stimulates the thyroid gland, increases circulation into the heart and helps with body weight. Head to knee pose stimulates the sympathetic nervous symptom increasing circulation of blood into the coronary arteries helping to reduce plaque and lower cholesterol. Modified shoulder stand brings fresh blood supply to the heart and the cranial viscera. Yoga nidra, the hatha yoga pose known as guided meditation, is comparable to approximately three hours of sleep in its clinical affect on the nervous system. “Combined,” Heriza says, “all these poses have a cumulative rehabilitative affect for patients who have undergone surgery.”

Yogic breathing techniques bring vital energy into the system, revitalize all the primary organs, oxygenate the blood and system and enhance circulation. Breathing stabilizes the central nervous system and as a result reduces stress, critical for a heart patient like Tammy. “When you wake up from heart surgery your chest feels so tight,” Tammy says. “You have to wear an oxygen mask and breathing tubes until you can breathe on your own. The first time I stood up two days after my surgery I almost collapsed while they were untangling all the wires on me.” Her doctors told her the more breathing exercises she performed the quicker her condition would improve. “The day after I began to truly concentrate on my breathing exercises the way my doctor said,” she says. “I felt so much better. It was amazing. I turned the corner.”

Yoga helps Renée survive painful symptoms of anorexia nervosa

Yoga rescued Renée M. who at age 26 was 5”6 and 80 pounds. After five months on and off a Dallas cardiac unit and suffering from anorexia nervosa for almost ten years, she enrolled for inpatient treatment at  Monte Nido Eating Disorders Center in Malibu, CA. “By the time I got to Monte Nido other programs wouldn’t even take me. No one thought I’d ever survive,” Renée admits. “I was dying.”  Peer pressure, feeling like a “nerd,” an alcoholic parent, and feeling as if she’d never be enough formed the beginning of an eating disorder.  Now fully recovered from anorexia, Renée credits yoga as a big part of her journey. “Yoga was an integral part of my full and complete recovery from an illness that nearly cost me my life.”

When Renée was first admitted into treatment her muscles were so atrophied and her joints so stressed she barely had the strength to hold up her frame.  Muscle constriction exacerbated her breathing and asthma.  Physically, her body was so depleted she had little strength for strenuous exercise. But she felt desperate to move her body and basic yoga meditation, deep breathing and simple stretching was the only form of exercise the doctors allowed.  To her surprise, Renée discovered yoga helped to stretch and strengthen her new, developing muscles. “It’s hard for me to explain but I know as I learned to create space for breathing in my body, I also began to create space for myself in the world. Yoga allows me to move, breathe and feel. For the first time I was sitting still with myself and just being inside a body I had long before discarded and disengaged from,” she says.

For Renée, high impact cardio exercise felt too harsh on a body so weathered having run at least three to five miles a day and often farther when she was sick. Yoga gave her a gentle way to acknowledge her body and a pace that could be eased into with simple stretching. Child’s pose, tree pose, pigeon pose and sun salutations, some of her favorites, began to take away the painful, arthritic strain that had developed in her joints from running so hard during the years of her illness, allowing her to breathe in more air with better expansion and capacity. Both Renée’s internist and chiropractor agree yoga was critical to her recovery.  “I went from bed rest years ago to standing beside Hillary Clinton at the National Eating Disorders Coalition,” says Renée, now a successful healthy 32-year-old therapist. “Having come from a near death place to being fully alive is a wonderful thing.”

Cancer diagnosis affects body, mind and spirit

At 26, Elizabeth, a pediatric registered nurse, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy on her right breast.  A competitive swimmer since childhood, Elizabeth quickly returned to swimming on her own after surgery. Bald and sick, one year after she completed her chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she joined a master’s swim team. At her first practice Nike happened to be scouting a swimmer for a commercial. Elizabeth scored as one of several featured female athletes and was impressed by the woman practicing yoga in the same commercial. It wasn’t long before Elizabeth checked out a level one yoga class. “I wish I had known about yoga earlier in my illness,” she says. “Yoga teaches you how to relax in the midst of intensity, which is an essential skill for a cancer patient. You have to be able to take hold and let go at the same time.”  Yoga was a different mindset for her and a real departure from competitive swimming.  For Elizabeth, yoga, with its focus on self-awareness, is more about what you get out of it and not about getting every pose. The class she now attends at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, CA teaches relaxing hatha poses beginning with meditation, sun salutations, standing poses and finishing up with a simple savasana.

Last summer Elizabeth had reconstructive surgery, a procedure called superior gluteal free flap breast reconstruction, where the buttock is used as donor tissue to reconstruct the breast.  For the first two weeks she could not lift her right arm more than 45 degrees. Yoga has been beneficial in regaining her sense of motion.  Where swimming came easily to her, yoga offers her a challenge to stretch her shoulder, chest and right arm. One of her favorite poses is apanasana, knee to chest pose, because it stretches the shoulders and arms when you lie on your back with your knees bent.  After being diagnosed with cancer, Elizabeth felt her body had betrayed her. “Yoga engages the body, mind and spirit all of which are affected by a cancer diagnosis,” she says. “I find yoga very therapeutic in this way.”  Over time she has begun to see herself as a survivor and has found renewed faith in her body.  Elizabeth finds yoga helps her to acknowledge, appreciate and respect her body as a gift.

Lisa chooses yoga as an alternative to spinal surgery

In the nineties, actress Lisa Edelstein, well known for her role in “House” underwent a C4-C5 spinal fusion in her neck.  What had been an optional surgery for a herniated disc turned into an emergency when four days before her scheduled fusion she was rear-ended in a car.  In surgery, the doctors took a bone from her hip and put it into her neck. Two years later, Lisa experienced a spasm in her neck that was so painful her hand went numb. She couldn’t lift her head up all the way, turn it to the right or straighten her arm without excruciating pain; her arm was lined with black bruises from constantly massaging it in an effort to try and stop the ever-present pain shooting down from her shoulder. Exhausted, miserable and depressed on painkillers and anti-inflammatory, she cried non-stop. Her doctor told her C5-C6 was now herniated and would need fusion, a second surgery, and that this domino effect would continue because each fusion would put more pressure on the vertebra around it.  Lisa felt that if surgery had been a solution another wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, she turned to Dr. John Sarno’s book  Healing Back Pain and realized his description of the type of person who might experience this kind of back pain — a perfectionist, ambitious, high energy, goal-oriented — fit her. Dr. Sarno’s book prescribed exercise and inward emotional exploration, saying that stress, not a herniated disc, caused such pain.

After reading Dr. Sarno’s life-altering book, Lisa committed herself to a different future than the bleak one her doctor had prescribed.  She gave Bikram yoga a try, a form of yoga where the room is heated to 90–105 degrees, allowing muscles to quickly warm and stretch. She never discussed her decision with her doctor and never went back to him. Although Lisa believes her doctor might have suggested yoga would be a good way to stretch and possibly reduce the number of surgeries she might need, she doesn’t think he could even begin to imagine the extent of the change that has occurred.  In the stressful world of show business, Lisa says her battle was more emotional than physical. “Thanks to a daily yoga practice I handle stress differently in mind and body. Now, I’m so strong physically that what stress I do have can be tolerated to a much greater degree.”

Within months she went from feeling completely disabled to feeling almost one hundred percent. “It was amazing.  I had my life back,” she says.  After rehabilitating in Bikram yoga for nine months, Lisa started Ashtanga, a more strenuous form of yoga, for strength and meditation doing poses she thought she’d never be able to physically manage again. “I feel incredible. I’m much more flexible than I thought mathematically possible. Sure, I get a stiff neck from time to time like anybody, but I have never fallen back into the state I was way back when.  I feel so strong and powerful.  I have arms and shoulders to support me that I never dreamed imaginable. And I have a practice that helps me quiet my mind and keep me from ever having to take life out on myself again.”

How does yoga, available cost-efficient medical therapy that doesn’t concern itself with preexisting condition, help in curing debilitating and even life-threatening illness?  “We know the autonomic nervous system plays a role in all diseases,” says Dr. Riley. “Yoga postures, deep breathing and inward reflection have the power to put the ANS back in balance. Our ANS is a dynamic system that balances our ability to relax with taking action. In today’s fast paced culture, a discipline like yoga can have profound effects on self-healing.”

published in SELF magazine, 2002


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