Yogis ‘work’ to have an open heart. This is a story of how yoga helped keep me calm when I discovered I had a heart more open than most.
Through several spells of dedicated morning sadhana, my yoga mat and blanket have greeted me as I walk into the living room. I’ve found the easiest way to build commitment is to place my mat where I have to make a conscious detour to avoid it, or get on.
For the past four months, hopping on has been the last thing I wanted to do. On that mat there has been no place to hide. It asks me to face up to life with so much honesty, vulnerability, and rawness; yet I also know it’s the very place that restores peace and comfort.
Last summer I was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition: a 3.5cm hole in my heart. Even though I was born with it and have experienced symptoms throughout my life, it was undiagnosed. It was discovered after an incidental trip to a medical walk-in centre because I’d pulled a muscle.
The options? A non-invasive catheter procedure to close the atrial septal defect (ASD) using a small device, or open heart surgery (OHS). Choosing to do neither was guaranteed to lead to heart failure, arrhythmia and respiratory issues.
In December 2016, preliminary tests ruled out the catheter as an option. Instead, here I was at 40 years old, a fit and healthy vegetarian yogi facing open heart surgery. I didn’t feel angry. I felt confused, vulnerable, and on very shaky ground.
I shared my news with family, friends, clients, and my online community. It felt somewhat ironic to have built a coaching business on (w)holehearted living and living with an open heart, only to find that this is EXACTLY what I have been doing my entire life without the conscious knowledge of my own physicality.
My yoga mat acted as a magnifying glass to my intense emotions. It showed them to me as heat, cold, shaking instability, irritability, tension and tears. Triangles became a cat fight.
I’m disciplined when it comes to thought management, but facing open heart surgery commanded a whole new level. Waiting for a date was excruciating. Each day I stepped onto my mat the not knowing thumped me again. I felt each stretch like it could be my last. The present moment was too painful, the future too uncertain.
As I raised my sternum to the sun in tadasana I’d feel the emotion surge through every cell: how will I do this when my sternum is spread (broken) to allow surgical access? How will my body move into bhujagasana or utkatasana when it has suffered the trauma of a five-hour operation? How can I ever lead postures with my heart when it has been so exposed and vulnerable? I’ve spent my life teaching others to live with an open heart, and now here I am having mine medically closed.
Depending on the infamous monkey in my mind, the answer would be different. I’d hear a voice telling me it would all be ok, I’d adapt and I’d work with where I was at. Or I’d hear the tiny crowd inside my mind jeer that nothing was certain and I had to live with that.
Either way I found myself not wanting to be alone with these thoughts on that mat. The mat became the enemy. Yet I knew that taking my place on that mat meant I was never alone, and the vice-like grip these thoughts had on my mind lessened with every second I stood my ground.
My presence was always required somewhere; at times the red wine won at 10pm, sometimes my mat won at 8am. Gradually, my mat dominated the leader board and the uncertainty of dates and timings and the healing process (assuming the worst didn’t happen) was replaced with the certainty of breath, calm, resilience, and acceptance of being present with what is.
Allowing my sadhana to remain a loyal companion squeezed out the not knowing. I decided instead to choose the certainty that I would deal with whatever happened.
Being with the breath, observing the body as it was in that moment, noticing the monkey acrobatics and gently soothing their hyper bodies and high pitched shrieks supported me through a tough few months.
Every day, I’d be waiting for a phone call to give me a date for major surgery and I expected that date to be at least three weeks ahead. When the call finally came I had less than 24 hours notice and was 400 miles away from the hospital. I accepted the cancellation and I made it happen. And now, here I am, three weeks after successful open heart surgery and thriving. I’ve already found my way back to my mat for loving, gentle movement and pranayama to soothe and heal. I know that whatever happens on my mat, whatever feelings arise, I will face them with the same courage that has carried me here.
As American author Brene Brown explains: “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”
If you find yourself avoiding your yoga mat, trust that it is the very place you need to be.