Right and Left sides of the body

I remember my first private client.  It is almost time to start thinking of graduating from my 500 hour advanced teacher training, and a paper is part of the process, and my thoughts turn to Alex.  He was born with a congenital condition, called Glutathione Synthtase Deficiency, which affects the central nervous system in a way similar to cerebral palsy.  The deficiency causes severe metabolic acidosis.  The body becomes so acidic, that damage occurs to the brain and nerves, causing in some cases mental retardation, loss of vision, spasticity, and can potentially be life-threatening.  Alex has a brother, who has a milder form of this condition, but who lives in a special facility, whereas Alex at the time that I worked with him lived at home, with his parents.  On these pages I will relay my experiences working with Alex as his private Yoga teacher.  I want to take some of the ideas I had while working with Alex and develop them further, make them applicable to some of the issues we all face now and then in our Yoga practice, and in life.  His issues were so extreme that I was able to see some things that often go unnoticed if they are expressed more subtly in healthier people.

This inborn error of metabolism is extremely rare, it was hard to diagnose, and the first case was diagnosed in 1970.  Alex is one of ten (twenty?)-some people in the world with this diagnosis.  And he was to be my first private client, taking Yoga classes from me once a week.  I would come to his house for an hour every week for a year, and the things I learned about Yoga, about what it means to be a teacher, and about myself are worth sharing, in my mind, because the lessons I took away from this experience can be illuminating on many levels.  I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to meet Alex and to work with him, and the strength and joy of his spirit will forever inspire me.

When I first met him, I must admit I was concerned for his safety, because he had many, many injuries.  He had such severe scoliosis as a child that his body was growing in a circle, to the point that he had one (or two?) of his right ribs removed, his spine surgically fused together, every vertebra screwed in to make him straight.  That's when his problem with balance started, causing many falls and broken bones.  He was only 29.  He could not walk unassisted, could not stand up by himself - after they set him straight!  He used a walker or assistance from another person to move about.  His body was constantly in a state of tension, so spastic at all times that he never knew what it felt like to be relaxed to any degree.  The only time his spasticity went away was when he was asleep, but then he was not aware of it.  His coordination was very impaired, his speech was hard to understand, but when his father translated for him, the things he said were funny, smart, friendly.  He had a very confident, open, and social personality.  It was only later that I learned about his older brother, whose symptoms were not as severe, but who had a much harder time mentally adjusting to his handicap.  Alex, on the other hand, had a job!  He worked at a movie theater.  He really made me appreciate the effect one's outlook and attitude can have in one's life.

My first order of business was to determine what he could do on his own.  I have studied Yoga in a tradition that emphasizes one's own participation.  His mobility was very limited, but there were some things he could do, and that's where I started, cautiously.  My second order of business was to investigate his breath, mind, and the connection he had to his body, to use pranayama and meditation to help with his constant state of tension.  Getting him to do things turned out to be easier than getting him to relax and surrender.  Does that sound familiar?  I often hear people say that relaxing is the hardest thing they ever had to do.  I wondered if his whole brahmana (active, tense, verbal) state of mind was connected to the presence of so much acid in his blood, his Pitta (fire/water) nature almost in its purest expression.  He talked a lot.  He was too much in his head, with his words, always interacting with something or someone, and I wanted him to turn inward, a concept new to him, it seemed.  I soon noticed that one side of his body was very warm to the touch, while the other was rather cool.  The difference in temperature was very noticeable!  Talk about Ida and Pingala (masculine/feminite, hot/cold) imbalance!

His breath, probably due to the tension in his body, was also extremely shallow and rapid.  For the whole year I tried to get him to relax enough to take a deep breath, and towards the end he was able to take one or two, but never several consecutive deep breaths.  His inbreath was to the count of one or two, and the same could be determined of his outbreath.  To compare, a healthy person of his age, not exposed to Yoga, would have the inhale and exhale both to a count of 3 or 4.  A well-practiced Yogi at rest, without engaging in pranayama, would have the breath even longer, and when sitting down to actually do the breathwork, could lengthen the inhale and exhale to the count of 10 or even 20-24.

Another thing I learned about Alex when talking him through a visualization was that he did not see color.  I was trying to paint a beautiful journey through the chakras, using the colors, and after the class his father said to me: "You know, Alex is actually color-blind..."

In any case, once a week I came to his house, and taught Alex Yoga.  We were always on the floor.  I would start him on his back with some breathing, trying to get him to slow down his breath.  Then I would have him pull his knees into the chest and do apanasana, and eka pada apanasana.  I soon noticed that every time he had to move by himself, the tension in his body would only increase.  So, after a few weeks I decided to use a little Thai massage approach and would hold his legs and do the movement for him, because that would be the only way he would be somewhat relaxed.  Then he would transition to all fours, and in a few weeks he was doing a simplified version of the Suria Namaskar, or Sun Salute, which I called the "Yoga Dance."  Alex was very eager to practice on his own, and he improved very quickly, even faster than my regular Yoga students.  Some very mild twists would help him release some of the knots in his low back. 

I did in the beginning get a bit ahead of myself and tried some standing poses with him.  I think I rushed into it, and tried it too soon, because it was a miserable failure.  He was so nervous that he stiffened immediately with fear and it did not work.  At all.  I gave up after a couple of attempts, and we stayed close to the floor where his comfort with his own body grew, and his ability to control his body improved every week.  By the end of the year he was able to do a complete hour-long practice all by himself, with just a little bit of Thai Yoga assists from me.

Then after months of practice Alex started going to a new physical therapist, and I learned that he was able to stand up by himself - for the first time in many years!  I think that his Yoga practice made his physical therapy successful - his control over his body and his ability to understand direction and instruction was wonderfully advanced in a year's time. If one with such enormous handicap could do it - just think what a healthier person can achieve with the same amount of discipline.

My greatest difficulty came with the breathing, or pranayama.  The tension (spasticity) in his body restricted his chest and the diaphragm so much that he only cold take short, shallow breaths.  We would spend a lot of time on learning relaxing techniques, however his progress seemed very, very slow to me.  I think as a new teacher I haven't developed the patience yet to see that he was all the while making enormous progress.  I was greatly surprised to learn that later that year he decided to move out of the family house into an assisted living community five hours away, and to be more independent.  Only then did I realize how successful his Yoga practice has been, and I am still in awe of its healing power.  Deep and full diaphragmatic breaths had a wonderful balancing effect on his Third Chakra, giving him new confidence.  As I write this two years later - he is still on his own, doing wonderfully, still committed to doing Yoga.  I wish him all the best!