When doctors say, “Hmmmmm, I don’t want to worry you but. . .” it’s pretty much certain that the next thing they say will be worrisome. And when a surgeon said it to me last month, it was.
“I want you to be checked out by a specialist for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” he said.
I said, “ALS?”
“Yes,” he said.
He didn’t want to WORRY ME? What I said next wasn’t pretty.
For the first time in 61 years, a sense of my mortality slugged me directly and squarely in the gut. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has a definite expiration date. And the process to getting there is pretty gruesome — degeneration of the brain’s motor neurons that slowly rob you of movement and speech and life while leaving your brain aware of everything you’re losing. The news didn’t exactly put me in the holiday spirit.
I went home and told Maren. It took all she could muster not to break down (she saved the tears for a more private time.) As we talked about it, we vowed not to let it spoil all the upcoming Festivus activities. But ALS lurked and sometimes loomed large. I was bummed by the possibility and the “not knowing” was almost as bad.
I wish I had a yogic secret to divulge here, some amazing technique that miraculously dissipated the fear and anxiety. I wish I could tell you that my practices kept my head from running to the darkest of places. What I can report is that immediately after my reactive expletives in the doctors office, I instinctively focused on my breath – inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 4, exhale 1-2-3-4. After a few repetitions, at least my head cleared and my heart rate returned to normal.
Over the next few weeks, I used this breathing technique many times to slow my thoughts and regain equanimity. I also was drawn back to a more conscious meditation practice. I have been meditating since 1972, and it had become a bit like breathing – automatic. Now I used the practice with purpose to calm the physical anxiety and quiet my mind.
I have realized yoga is useful on two fronts. Long-term yoga practices create long-term effects — a quieter mind, a peaceful outlook, and physical strength and flexibility. It also can provide a sort of triage process in life’s circumstantial emergencies, such as dealing with a stressful period or coping with unwanted changes.
Three weeks after hearing “ALS,” I saw the specialist who could confirm that I did not, in fact, have the disease. I thanked him like he gave me a gift — and in a sense he had. But the real gift of the situation was a reconnection to two important aspects of my yoga practice – controlling my breath and meditation.
Now I can get on with trying to avoid neck surgery by hitting physical therapy hard and working with my physical trainer, which suddenly seems a much more manageable set of circumstances with which to deal.