Fancy gyms of steel and glass. Fitness buffs perched on intimidating machines. Crossfit studios where you’re told to push, push, push, through the pain, to the point of total fatigue. Sports, where the win is the be-all end-all, where one-upping your opponent is the ultimate measure of success. Be better than someone else. Be faster, be stronger, be leaner; what you are is not enough.
These spaces and places that pervade the fitness world cater to a personality type that’s motivated, competitive, ambitious. For some, it’s perfect. But the messaging underlying the advertisements, posters, and motivational phrases is that whatever you do, it will never be enough. You will never be enough. There is always someone else who is faster, stronger, leaner, someone you must one-up. Maybe it’s just yourself — you must shame the “yesterday you” by becoming a better version of yourself, the “tomorrow you.” It’s a dangerous perversion of the honest, wholesome goal of getting healthier by becoming more fit.
I found myself one day recently running on the treadmill at the gym. By most people’s standards, it was a slow jog, broken up by a minute of walking for every couple minutes of running. My lungs were searing, and not in a good way. My music was blasting, so I was able to ignore how fast my breath was quickening, how erratically my heart was beating. As I slowed to a walk and turned the music down, I felt the spurting feeling I know all too well; like the moment a sprinkler goes off, a blood vessel burst in my lungs, and the blood sprayed out, collecting in my airways and gurgling upward to be coughed out.
Staggering off the treadmill, I made my way to the trashcan. I hid behind the half-wall, not wanting other gym patrons to think I had tuberculosis (or any kind of contagious illness). I coughed and coughed and spit fire-engine red blood into the towels and promptly discarded them. Then I gathered my water bottle and phone and left the gym, rattled in more ways than one.
For the chronically ill, the never-enough atmosphere doesn’t work. Exercise is vitally important for people with many types of chronic illness, but for those of us fighting for our health every day, we can’t compare ourselves to the perfectly healthy people pumping iron next to us at the gym. We don’t want to be told to push past pain in a crossfit studio when that pain is a very real, very important signal that something in the body is not right. Some of us can’t hope for an endless upward trajectory of fitness; we can hope for stability; we can hope to feel well enough to get out there and move, whatever that may look like; we can hope for an exercise session that restores a sense of well-being.
Yoga is the antithesis of exercise programs that try to force insecurity on people and make them feel they are not enough. Yoga urges us to take a deep breath, to be grateful for exactly what our bodies can do on this day, each and every day. Yoga reminds us that whatever health we do have is a miracle not to be taken for granted. Yoga restores peace, confidence, and a sense of spaciousness for those who are claustrophobic from the trap of disease. Most of all, it gives us hope.
As a former competitive(ish) athlete, I grew up defining success and failure in terms of the win-lose binary. If I wasn’t getting better, I was failing. The only way forward was up. Stagnation was betrayal. But moving backward was inevitable when I was hospitalized multiple times a year, forced to sit on the sidelines throughout lengthy courses of IV drug courses. This meant that beyond battling my disease within the walls of those hospitals, I also battled a belittling inner voice guiding me toward the conclusion that my athletic efforts were doomed.
As a person with cystic fibrosis, this kind of thought pattern provokes a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. Cystic fibrosis is a progressive, life-threatening lung disease; while it can be managed with medications, there is no cure, and the median life expectancy is under 40. As I’ve gotten older, my lung function and exercise abilities have declined in parallel.
But exercise remains one of the most important ways to manage cystic fibrosis, as it expands the lung capacity, clears sticky mucus (preventing infections), and increases cardiovascular fitness (which helps improve oxygen saturation and delivery).
There was a period of time, as my identity transitioned from “athletic person” to “sick person,” when exercise was no longer enjoyable. And that’s when I knew something had gone wrong. I felt astray, and yoga helped me find my way back.
My first attempt at yoga was a ridiculous haze of movements that felt wrong, positions that felt awkward, stretches that felt painful. I was seventeen then, just out of high school and riding the high of being named one of my high school’s athletes of the year all four years of school. But then there was yoga, which thrust me into the beginner mode when I hadn’t attempted anything unfamiliar in years.
And then college came. And then perpetual sickness came. Like clockwork, many women with cystic fibrosis experience a worsening of disease symptoms in their late teens and early twenties. My lung function, which had hovered between 70 and 80 percent in high school, lost percentage points with each passing month: down to 60, down to 50, down to 40, into the 30’s, each decile lost representing a corresponding loss of vitality. A few years of life shaved. Far too much energy and willpower consumed in the effort to go through daily motions most take for granted, like making coffee in the morning without slouching over and panting like one would after running a 100 yard sprint.
One or two hospitalizations a year turned into five or six. Friends got used to me popping pills and pushing injections, in the dining hall, in lecture, at parties. They got used to me being missing, and did their best to keep me in the loop about life outside of my hospital-home. Acquaintances tended toward confusion at the mismatch between my outward appearance and the sickness all the evidence pointed to: the needles in my biohazard bin, the catheter in my arm, the syringes sticking out of my purse, the machines filling up my dorm room.
During that horrific period of change and doubt and fear and humility, I was still on a club volleyball team through my college. The girls were wonderful, and the team was competitive. But I could not stand that my coach didn’t respect me, that he viewed my inability to breathe as a shortcoming in skill. I couldn’t stand that my shrinking lung capacity was shrinking my options, on and off the court.
So I found my way into the studio. One of my favorite doctors joined me for a yoga class one night, and for the first time in a long time, I could experience the joy of movement. I shed the self-loathing because in yoga, we are all on our own journey. There are no expectations. We move at our pace. The “coach” guides with gentle suggestions, not commands. Child’s pose is always there for us. And in that particular class, reared back in child’s pose while my doctor pumped out chaturangas, I saw myself in the mirror and realized that there is beauty in rest. Endless beauty in not feeling the need to progress. There is a time and a place for progress, but there’s a time and a place to yield to the idea of just simply existing.
I also realized that no one gave a fuck what I was doing, unless they were cheering me on for doing something awesome. Not a single person begrudged me my rest, and that is one of the most therapeutic qualities of a yoga studio. In a world where we constantly (and most of the time, rightfully) push our boundaries, yoga lets me recognize the chains that bind me, and lets me see that even so-chained, life is okay.
Too often, we compare our lives to others. It’s ubiquitous, so ubiquitous that a grassroots backlash against social media is spreading in millenials. For those of us with chronic illness, it’s often even more pronounced. We watch our peers doing the things we want to do, living their lives, moving forward in a progression towards dreams and achievements. Meanwhile, we’re stuck inside, burning daylight, sick of being sick. Yoga teaches us that to compare ourselves to others is a driver of unhappiness and a source of anxiety. All of us must shed the illusion that there is a standard of perfection we must reach. And those of us with illness would find greater happiness if we stopped thinking about all the life minutes we could have lived, and start thinking about all those we have lived and have yet to live.
In the five years since that first yoga session, I’ve had months where I’m on the mat four times a week, and months where I don’t practice at all. But it’s a safe space, one that I will always be grateful to for showing me self-love, for showing me peace, for showing me the magic in stillness. When I’m too sick to walk a block, I can still get into the studio, as yoga is not about the physical postures; if I enter the room, become present in my physical body, notice the hurts and the sadness and the love and the beauty, and control my breath in what little way I’m able to, it’s a success. Yoga shattered the old parameters, and built new ones that I’m loving.
Yoga will not judge you for your absence, or belittle you for reduced performance. For those of us living in the cold world of the sick, we could all use a little more cheering-on, and a little less comparison to the healthy folks. I can’t say the struggle isn’t still really real, but I have learned through yoga to be soft and malleable, resilient to the hardships that come my way.
And, by the way, the unnecessary modifiers are gone. I now just identify as “person.”