Jul 7, 2014

Positively Ashtanga by Silvia

[One person's personal account originally published in 2008 in my magazine, Living Mysore.]

As you all know, Ashtanga yoga is a highly dynamic form of yoga requiring a good dose of stamina, strength and sweat. So why do I: a middle age woman living with two life-threatening viruses (hepatitis C and HIV) and taking a heavy cocktail of anti-retrovirals, practice ashtanga yoga? Why am I attracted to and greatly benefiting from such a demanding and strenuous form of yoga?

Let me tell you: When I was diagnosed with HIV, my life felt completely broken. I thought all I had ahead of me was disease and death. I had never felt so lonely and disconnected from myself and the world. Looking at death as a reality and not just as a remote possibility made me feel an urgency to act and do something with my life that was meaningful. All of a sudden, all I had was the present. The future looked too uncertain. The diagnosis gave me such an intense shock that the only way was to find a new way: change. HIV was going to be my first yoga teacher.

My life was quite a mess before HIV's arrival. I had been working on and off as an independent film/documentary writer since I left college, but at the moment of my diagnosis I didn't have job. I had also been suffering from depression and chronic low self-esteem since my teens: taking drugs, being wild, and getting involved in harmful and impossible relationships.

After the initial paralysis and despair, I set myself on a healing path. My first step was to act upon my external world. I made a short-term plan. I decided that I wanted a socially valuable job, which would make me feel I was living a worthwhile life, something that was of service to others. Because of my extensive travel both in Africa and India, I knew that even as an HIV positive person I was in a privileged position having access to high quality health care. After not much thought, I decided that my aim was to work for an NGO that supported people living with HIV in Africa and I found a postgraduate course in Development Studies, which would give me the qualifications to do such a job.

I started to work harder at improving my relationship with my family. Since my mother had died when I was 20, there was only my father – who was very ill with Alzheimer's – and my brother who I had a very difficult relationship with. It took me a long time and also a lot of counselling, but this was definitely an essential part of becoming a healthier me!

Fast-forward a few years and in 2001 my dream of working for a voluntary organisation supporting people with HIV had finally come true. I started working in the case work team here at Positively Women. It wasn't an NGO in Africa, as per my initial plan, but I realised that there were a lot of needy HIV positive people on my door-step.

Starting work full-time was a real challenge. The job was emotionally demanding: providing support to other positive women, including women in prison and drug-users. It was my first 9 to 5 job ever and I had been through some difficult years struggling to pay for my degree and moving to London. I was also bereaved by the death of my father. On top of all of this I had started antiviral therapy in 1998: my first regime included nearly 20 tablets a day and some pretty weird side effects! It has improved a lot over the years and nowadays I am 'only' taking 7 pills a day.

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!'

The moral of my story is that to live healthily with HIV it is vital to have a deep connection with the internal and external world. I express my connection to the external, especially in the work I do. My work now focuses on healing our society: aiming to make it more accepting of people living with HIV. On the other side my practice heals me and strengthens my 'Inner World', therefore allowing me to do my work with passion. Ashtanga yoga allows me to experience – maybe only for a few moments – that no matter what happens in the 'Outer World' deep within me there is a place of peace where I can just 'be', where HIV, pain, disappointment and the limitations and conditioning I daily experience can all disappear.

Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute
Ashtanga Yoga London

Silvia is an Italian HIV+ woman and activist. She has been involved with Positively Women, a UK based, national charity offering support to women with HIV by women living with HIV since 2000 and she is also a member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV. She is committed to challenge stigma and discrimination directed towards women living with HIV and has contributed by speaking at national and international conferences. Silvia's work and health have been supported by a committed Ashtanga practice since 2001.


Silvia would really love to meet other HIV positive people who practice Ashtanga. Thunderlightnow at yahoo dot co dot uk.

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