From Despair to Gratitude: How Yoga Transformed One Mother’s Life
Several years ago, I set out to interview people who had undergone major challenges in their lives. In particular, I wanted to know if there were people who had been able to create a deep and lasting shift towards the positive not only in their external lives but also in their internal happiness levels. And if such people did exist, I wanted to know what conditions, tools, and practices had allowed them to make such changes. I was interested, too, in how their inner and outer worlds interacted to help create transformation not only for them as individuals but also for the society as a whole.
One of the people I interviewed was Biliana Angelova.
Biliana was one of my yoga teachers, and I made it a point not to miss her class each week. Only five feet three inches, Biliana is stately. Her slender body radiates strength and goodwill. Her small dark eyes sparkle and a big smile spreads across her face when she speaks. “Come on, keep it up,” she’d say, and I’d hold my position a little longer. “This is between you and you,” she’d say. Whereas some other yoga teachers made me feel like I was in boot camp, and others never really pushed me, Biliana allowed me to meet and to challenge myself on my own terms. She helped me to ask, “What are my own internal barriers that are holding me back?” She brought her full grace, power, and humor to her classes.
Biliana’s presence didn’t suggest to me that she had any difficulties in life. But, of course, I should have known better. Over the course of interviewing people, I came to see — and expect — that the people who seem strongest and most centered are often the very people who have been challenged most profoundly.
Biliana is the mother of a severely disabled child; hers is a story of trauma and upset expectations and of the power of a deep yoga practice that brought her to grounded wisdom and strength. The easy way to tell the story is to break it up into two parts: her charmed, optimistic life before her baby was born and the difficult, crushing reality of being the mother of a severely disabled child. For many years, that was the before-and-after story she was living in.
But over time, she has come to see a deeper story, one focused less on the emotional pain and the extraordinary practical demands of having a disabled child and more on the more gradual, internal transmutation of coming to deeper acceptance and understanding of the sacred nature of life. In order to understand this second story, however, we need to understand the first.
Biliana had a relatively easy life as a child in Bulgaria. There were challenges, of course, in living behind the iron curtain, and her family, like most families, had its own struggles, but for the most part, Biliana met life with optimism and a sense that the whole world was open for her to explore, enjoy and transform. She knew that she wanted to work with children, and at the University of Sofia, she trained to be a teacher. Once she was in the classroom, however, she realized that she cared more about the emotional and physical well being of children than about their test scores. There were no child psychology programs in Bulgaria, so she came to the United States, where she worked first as a nanny and then was accepted into Boston University’s graduate program in psychotherapy.
The first few years of Biliana’s life in the United States felt charmed. She was accepted into graduate school. She fell in love with a fellow graduate student. They decided to get married. Life was good, full of possibility. When Biliana found herself pregnant at the age of twenty-six, only a few months into her marriage, she was surprised but not fazed. She was young and healthy and in love. They would have a baby, finish their degrees, and build a life together.
Nine months and a smooth natural delivery later, the baby was born. But she knew, almost immediately, that something was wrong. Rather than giving Biliana her baby to hold, the doctors took him from the room. A long time passed, and then Biliana saw three doctors walking back into the room towards her, without her baby. In one telling of Biliana’s story, that moment was the end of the blissful first part of her life.
There were three separate birth defects, affecting the baby’s spine, heart, and brain. There was a gaping hole on the baby’s back, and a portion of his spinal nerves was protruding from his body. His heart was so injured that the doctors thought he was going to die that day. He also had hydrocephalus, a significant build-up of fluid around the brain.
The doctors had never seen even two of these birth defects in one baby before, let alone all three. It was unlikely the baby would live. They rushed him to Boston Children’s Hospital, and Biliana was left to recover from her birth.
The next day, Biliana checked herself out and went across town to Children’s Hospital, where she would spend most of the next month and a half.
After making the decision to try to save Nico’s life, Biliana and her husband, Dan, would wait as Nico had surgeries on his heart, brain, and spine. Biliana and Dan slept head to foot on a single mattress next to Nico’s incubator, where he was hooked up to different machines and could not be touched for fear of infection. It was as if the couple had entered a whole new reality.
After forty days, the baby was released. Life in the hospital had been hard, but when they went back home, life was even harder. There was no end in sight. There was no support team. The young couple quickly felt themselves at their limits.
Nico needed more or less around-the-clock care. He never slept for more than two hours at a time and was often in pain. By the time he was six months old, he had had four major surgeries; by the time he was a year, he had had seven. He had huge red scars all over his body. Each day, Biliana feared he would die.
Being around Nico in pain made Biliana’s whole body contract. Her back ached. Her periods, when they came back, were painful, and her cramps were debilitating. Her eyes hurt. Her skin broke out. She had terrible headaches. And she was tired all the time.
Biliana found herself in a reality that she could never have imagined. Biliana was getting through — putting one foot in front the other as so many do during hard times — but her inner life was struggling to keep up. She was lost in her questions: “Why me? Why my child? What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?”
Months, and then years, passed with little relief. There were times during those years, Biliana recalls, when she found herself fantasizing about ending it all as she rocked Nico in the middle of a long night. Scared by these fantasies, Biliana sought support and went on medication, but the side effects of the medications she tried were themselves debilitating.
Biliana made increasing efforts to care for herself and to broaden the scope of her daily life. When Nico was three, she found childcare that would accept Nico and got a job as a therapist in Boston public schools. The work was meaningful and helped her find some purpose outside of her home and family life, but, even with this external change, Biliana’s life continued to feel to her as if it would always be a constant struggle with no relief in sight.
Sometimes narratives about positive growth and inner transformation from difficult situations make it sound like change occurs in direct response to suffering and happens rapidly. I have found that this is rarely the case. Biliana felt like she was living at her bottom for a long time. The change that came, when it came, was unexpected and hardly even recognizable as an opportunity for transformation.
One evening at a party, Biliana met a neighbor who invited her to join an early morning yoga practice. The next day, to Biliana’s own surprise, she rang her neighbor’s door at 5 am.
Biliana had done yoga on and off her whole life, but as she and her neighbor had started to warm up their spines, Biliana felt the terrible energy of her despair begin to move. Later that morning, as she meditated, she experienced a brief respite from her life. After a few seconds, she was back in her own train of thoughts, but for a few seconds, she entered a state of peaceful calm that seemed to be bigger and more expansive than anything she had felt in a long time.
Biliana went back to her neighbor’s house the next morning. Mostly, it was a way to get out of the house and interact with someone else. She had mixed feelings about the practice and about her body in the beginning. But the more she did the yoga, the more she realized that, in order to be there for Nico, she needed also to be there for herself. She began to believe that she would be a better parent if she didn’t have as much pain stored in her own body.
The yoga and the meditation often weren’t enjoyable; they brought up feelings of nausea and severe limitation. But Biliana also discovered that as she acknowledged and engaged the feelings that arose, something deep within her was moving after being stuck for a long time.
After ninety days of a regular yoga and meditation practice, Biliana notice that the painful PMS and cramps she had experienced since Nico’s birth were better. Her insomnia also was improving, and her eating patterns became more regular. Even the “Why me?” questions that Biliana had been plagued by quieted. She was able to be with her reality in a new way — she was no longer questioning or fighting it all the time. The yoga was something that seemed simply to work for her, and the more she practiced, the more committed she became.
“As I practiced ong namo guru dev namo, which means, ‘I bow to the infinite and the divine teacher within myself,’ or sa ta na ma, ‘the sounds of infinity, life, birth and rebirth,’ the chants started to make sense on a visceral level to me,” Biliana recalled, “I felt part of something larger than myself and larger than my story of being the mother of a disabled child. I could touch the larger reality of life and death, coming and going, spiritual energy that flows through us at all times.”
Biliana had grown up behind the iron curtain in a house without religion or spirituality where democracy and rational thought were held in the highest esteem; now a new spiritual side of her was awakening.
She learned there was a Kundalini Yoga teacher training coming up, and she signed up. She threw herself into the practice even more and connected with a whole new community of people who were open, supportive, inspiring, and also on a spiritual path. And when she had her credentials, Biliana began to teach, strengthening her commitment to the practice and sharing it with others in a new way.
Looking back, Biliana sees the change in her life and her spiritual growth as gradual: at first, it was the promise of change, more than change itself, that kept her going. Not until Nico was five or six did she feel the shift on a regular basis and come to really accept her life as it was. By then, Biliana’s marriage with Dan had fallen apart. The yoga, in part, had given Biliana enough agency to get herself out of what had become a very toxic relationship.
The practice became the cornerstone of Biliana’s life. Even in her very busy, complex life, Biliana continued to practice diligently. How did she do it, I wanted to know. How did she find the time? I asked her.
“I made it a regular practice to wake up at 5 am and practice for two hours before Nico went to school. I slept less, but I noticed that with the meditation and yoga practice I needed less sleep.
“On the days I meditated, I felt an inner reserve and was rarely thrown off balance. I could go to work and help the kids I needed to help and not feel completely weighed down by all the kids I just could not help. I could stay centered and calm when dealing with Nico. On cold snowy days, when other kids were out playing, I had the inner resources to stay inside with him all day when the streets were too snowy for wheelchairs. I had the patience to smile through Nico’s temper tantrums when his own patience broke and he got frustrated because he could not do what other kids could do.”
Biliana felt that meditation and the yoga asanas cleared out the negative energy that would get caught in her body. The practices helped her come to more clarity about who she is and about what conditions she does and does not have control over. It taught her that she could change her attitude towards the things around her. And on the few days she could not wake up early, she would try to instill everything she did with practice and gratitude; making breakfast, brushing her teeth, and driving in her car became sacred acts.
While Biliana had always been a footloose person, the practice gave her discipline, and the discipline of the practice gave her a window into a higher purpose. “I could see,” Biliana told me, “that I really wasn’t in charge. I never had been and never would be. The discipline of the yoga allowed me to surrender to the spiritual journey.”
For Biliana that journey, though it at first felt constricted, has in fact been one of opening. “When you have a really hard situation in your life, it is natural to close against it. We all want to protect ourselves,” Biliana reflected one day. “I certainly closed myself for a long time. But as Nico got older, I began also to see the ways in which my situation had also opened me.”
Being Nico’s mother also opened Biliana to her own — and the world’s — dark sides, to shadows, fears, anger, frustration, and despair. While this opening was often painful, it ultimately led Biliana onto the spiritual journey that helped her accept not only the world, but also herself more fully. And by accepting herself more fully, Biliana, already a compassionate person, tapped into an even deeper well of compassion that helped her be of service to the people around her. Biliana credits her practice with making her not only more understanding of her son, but also of the clients — children and parents of children, often with severe and complex trauma — that she worked within the Boston city schools. Because she had faced her own worst fears, Biliana was able to listen without being reactive as children and parents expressed their own worst fantasies. “I’ve been able to help children and parents get those dark feelings out of themselves so that they didn’t fester,” she said, “and didn’t lead to their feeling like they had no options and no support, which makes people much more likely to act out of their most hidden places.”
Biliana has come to see her struggles in fact, as blessings. If someone had told Biliana when Nico was a baby that his disability, with all of his physical suffering and with all of her emotional suffering, was a blessing, she might have laughed in his face and been offended. But she has come to see the many ways in which her life has been enriched by her experiences, by her son, and by the ways in which her life is richer, more open, more accepting, and more able to help others as a result of being Nico’s mother.
“Blessings come in disguises,” she told me. “I had no idea that Nico was a blessing in my life. It took me a long time to understand that. I guess that’s why we say blessings are in disguise, because they don’t look like what they are. Now, I know not to trust appearances so much, not to judge. I try to remember, when I feel a really strong emotion — as I felt for so many of those first years of Nico’s life — that I really don’t know. I don’t know what the universe is doing.
“When Nico was born it was as if I had come running full force into the brick wall of my own ego. Mostly we expect the child to be better than we are. Our ego attaches on to this. And when that doesn’t happen, we think there is something wrong with us, as if we are being judged. We feel small. We contract.
“Now I am able to see, in fact, all the ways in which Nico is a kind of higher being; there are ways in which he really is an amazing being, and even is ‘better’ than I am — but I’m looking at it now in a different way. These comparisons don’t really mean anything anymore. It took me such a long time to get to this point. I had so many expectations for my life, for myself, for what it would mean to be a mother — expectations I’d carried since I was a child — expectations for my child. And life taught me, really brutally, that all those expectations were misplaced. I had other life lessons to learn. And it’s been a privilege, really, to learn them.
“Nico has been my greatest teacher — not just his situation but Nico the person. He has taught me about unconditional love. He has taught me about patience, perseverance. Here is this little guy with a partly artificial heart, but he has the biggest heart of anyone I know.”
Recently, I had dinner with Biliana and Nico. Nico told us about a science experiment he was doing at school. Later, when Nico was picked up to spend the weekend at his father’s house, Biliana and I sat in her living room and talked.
“Last night, Nico was asking me what would happen if he died,” Biliana said. It was the third time he had brought it up in the past month, and Biliana reflected on her own reactions to his questions — her surprise, fear, and sense of preemptive grief.
Biliana then remembered the birthday present she had given Nico a few years ago, a book she had made about the story of his birth as a celebration. In the book, she retold the yogic story of conception, in which a spirit decides on its human parents before birth and a spirit comes to earth in various forms after death across many lifetimes. She gave him this book as one way, among other possible ways, of making sense of and celebrating his life.
“I thought about that story I had given him. I thought that maybe he already has learned that lesson, and I now need to learn it. Can I really trust that he is a spirit here in human form? And that his birth and his death are both miracles?
“Anyway, last night, the third time he asked me the question, I just listened. I listened, and he talked. I think what he was trying to tell me and tell himself was that it’s all okay. Everything is okay. And that we’ll always be together.”
Biliana got up to make some peppermint tea with freshly dried leaves her mother had given her. Then we talked about other things.
When I got home, I thought of how lucky I was to know Biliana and Nico. I realized how lucky I was for my health, my husband’s health, and for the health of our children. I considered also how unexpectedly life can suddenly turn — I could just as easily have given birth to a disabled child. Any of us can pass on without warning. But with spiritual practice and with discipline, we are able to quiet the more unruly, despairing, ego-driven parts of ourselves and listen to the larger spiritual lessons that life, at every moment, has to teach us.
Biliana moved to the United States because she wanted to help children. Little did she know where her life would take her. Now, reflecting on the past thirteen years, she can see that being Nico’s mother and primary caregiver has shaped her and her vocation. Motherhood has helped her become an agent of compassion for her son, for the children and parents she works with as a therapist, and for all of us in her yoga classes. §