It’s not a surprise that my energy levels were getting lower and lower. I was often so fatigued I didn’t even want to talk to my friends on the phone. My doctors thought that the culprit was the hepatitis C virus which I had also been living with for several years. At the time of my HIV diagnosis, I had been told not to worry about it, because hepatitis C would have not had the time to affect me. Generally it takes 20 or 30 years for the liver to be severely damaged by this virus. I was told that HIV would kill me first.
With the advent of successful anti-retroviral therapy my liver had fast become my most important organ. It was my liver which processed my HIV medication and stored energy and nutrients from my food. Research was showing that the leading cause of death for HIV positive people in the West had become liver-related disease. Fatigue and lack of energy are typical symptoms of a poor liver.
My doctors started suggesting that I considered treatment for hepatitis C. One year on Pegylated Interferon. I knew that this treatment could potentially clear the hepatitis C virus. I also knew that it had some awful side effects (including severe depression) and because of my personal struggles with mental health I was terrified by the idea.
It was at this time that I started Ashtanga Yoga. I am not sure it was love at first sight. Initially I just thought that most of the postures were out of my reach. I couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees (unlike most people in my class). I would look around and think: I will never in a million years be able to do any of this! The initial sun salutations were so hard for me that by the end of them I was in a pool of sweat and catching my breath, thinking of a way of leaving the class without being noticed, but I always felt so much better after a class than before.
Something kept me going back to the classes: the sound of the breath; my body awakening. My body that had been under the shadow of imminent illness and death since my diagnosis but now was getting stronger and more supple.
I started attending self-practice sessions. I had to wake up before 6 in order to fit my yoga practice before work. My morning practice has become very special to me. It is a moment of freedom in which I try to totally focus in the present, experience my internal world. It connects me to the ‘source’. My practice is a moving prayer for health and stability. It starts my day with a positive intention.A side effect of yoga has also been that my diet started changing. If I eat too much heavy food or drink too much alcohol, I feel it immediately while I practice: I am heavier and sluggish. So eating, fresh nutritious foods and not over-indulging supports my yoga practice and makes me feel more energetic. Though I still fall for chocolate and a glass of wine now and then, overall my good diet has also really supports my health.
Six years have passed and I am now practicing Ashtanga yoga 6 days a week. I am amazed at how healthy and strong I feel. I cannot believe that, in spite of all the viruses I have, all the tablets I swallow, I have never felt so healthy in my life. I feel healthier then when I was HIV and HCV negative, and I can do things with my body now at 41 then I didn’t dream of doing in my 20’s. Most of the time I am full of energy. Sometimes I am also knackered, but who isn’t in London?!
I have been refusing treatment for HCV. Few weeks ago I went for a liver check up at my hospital. The woman doing the liver scan was surprised – knowing my diagnosis – how good my liver was: ‘Very good shape and size … excellent blood supply’ she kept saying with her eyebrows raised. My liver exams have been getting better and better. Even my doctor – who has been trying to convince me to go on Interferon for the past 6 years – told me: ‘Whatever you are doing, keep doing it!’
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.