I tell everyone who asks that yoga has been a healing miracle for me.
In 2007, I had reconstructive foot surgery. Something – no one knows quite what – went wrong during the surgery and I was left in increasingly excruciating, chronic pain, eventually unable to leave the couch, for more than three years. It was awful. I'm on the other side of that pain now and it's hard to describe exactly how terrible it was. Let me just say that I was so desperate for relief that I looked into elective amputation, among other things. (It turns out that we don't do elective amputation in this country. I'm pretty glad of that now, but at the time I was distraught.)
It's not that my doctors weren't trying to find something to give me relief. I had so many steroid shots that I developed a bleeding hole in my retina. "I'm afraid this may just be as a good as it gets," said my podiatrist as he handed me a form to submit for a handicapped parking permit. On it, he had checked the box for "permanent disability."
And then, I'm still not sure why, I got off the couch and made my way to a Dharma I class taught at the martial arts studio where my daughter took taekwondo. It seems an unlikely setting for a miracle, but that's exactly what it was. It wasn't just that the physical asana practice allowed me to regain the suppleness in my foot that was necessary in order to walk without pain. It was also that, for the first time in my life, I had found something that allowed me to live in my body, in my brain, and in my spirit all at the same time.
Some changes in my life were immediate. As soon as I began to have stretches of time without pain, I began to notice and eliminate anything that took the edge off of my joy. So I stopped drinking alcohol and weaned off of the lobotomizing anti-depressants I was taking. I grew stronger. I lost weight. Eventually, I needed harder and more yoga classes than I could find at the martial arts studio, so my teacher took me to HIS local yoga teacher, who was also trained by Sri Dharma Mittra. (This one act epitomizes the generosity and love I have found pervasive in the yogis I have met who are associated with Sri Dharma Mittra.) At the new studio, I found my current practice. I stopped eating meat and then became a vegan, and eventually went through the Life of a Yogi 200-Hour teacher training at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City. I'm now finishing up my requirements to be certified as a teacher, because I'm pretty sure that when you are given a miracle, you're supposed to share it.
Yoga has transformed my life in ways I never thought possible. It has not only healed me physically, but it has given me a new way of being in the world.
I'm not the only one. Recently, the International Journal of Yoga published a paper compiling research on the therapeutic benefits of yoga on various conditions, both mental and physical.
"Therapeutic yoga is defined as the application of yoga postures and practice to the treatment of health conditions and involves instruction in yogic practices and teachings to prevent, reduce, or alleviate structural, physiological, emotional and spiritual pain, suffering or limitations. Results from this study show that yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life."
In another article published in Yoga Journal, medical editor Timothy McCall, MD, compiled 38 ways that yoga can positively affect one's health, concluding:
"This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected—your hipbone to your anklebone, you to your community, your community to the world. This interconnection is vital to understanding yoga. This holistic system simultaneously taps into many mechanisms that have additive and even multiplicative effects. This synergy may be the most important way of all that yoga heals."
Studies providing scientific evidence of the healing power of yoga have been around for decades, but our Western culture has been slow to embrace them.
"There's a common perception in the minds of conventional scientists: Yoga is either trivialized as something for cosmetic purposes to slim your butt, or it's perceived as a goofy, New Agey, 'out there' kind of practice," says Sat Bir Khalsa, assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. "If you can find a pill that fixes something, that's golden. Everybody wants that. What's not sexy is the stuff that makes the most sense—lifestyle research. And yoga is really all about changing your lifestyle." Although progress is being made, he says, it is slow. Of the 46,000 large projects currently funded by the National Institutes of Health, fewer than 10 involve yoga.
While Western science isn't rushing to prove the healing benefits of yoga, yoga practitioners are reaching out for the information on their own. A significant number of the attendees at the recent Life of a Yogi 200-Hour teacher training weren't there in order to become teachers - many were already certified in other styles and had been teaching for years - but instead, had enrolled in the program to deepen their own practices and to understand the lifestyle and yogic rituals of Sri Dharma Mittra. Sri Dharma is a very humble, gentle man with an essence of something much larger, of a purpose bigger than he is. Inner peace is his default way of being in the world. People gravitate to that naturally as an antidote to their current frenetic lifestyles.
I see it in the Dharma I classes that I am teaching, too. People are finding their way to yoga almost instinctively, a number of them hoping that they will find healing for their physical issues, and an even greater number seeking respite from the increasingly chaotic and stressful world in which we live. The lack of inner turmoil and ego, and the connectedness to a deeply spiritual practice, are things that attract seekers of a different way of life to the traditions of Dharma Yoga.
As for me, yoga healed my body and continues to heal my spirit. Which, in the end, may be the true miracle in my life.
Barb Cooper is a 48-year-old mother of two girls, a Texas-to-New York transplant, and a writer by nature and training. She completed the Dharma Yoga Life of a Yogi Teacher Training program with Sri Dharma Mittra in February 2013, and is currently working on fulfilling the requirements for certification. She is healthier, and happier, than at any other time in her life.