My Yoga Journey: Nearly Dying, And Ignoring It
The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that it's taken me a year to write the next post in this series (check back here for the last one - on how I decided on yoga teacher training, or here for the entire group of posts).
Truth be told, this is a part of the story, my story, that I didn't feel like I could skip over.
But at the same time, couldn't actually write about.
So here it goes...
Where were we?
October 2016... I had just booked myself onto a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training with Dylan Werner for May 2017. Looking back at my Instagram posts from that time and my practice looks simple but strong. My flows contained lots of chaturangas and strength work, but virtually no arm balances or inversions. Those were saved for one-off insta pictures, mostly because I could only hold them for a second or two at best!
I was still managing to fit in multiple yoga classes a week as well as the beginnings of a more regular self-practice. But despite plenty of time on my mat, my flexibility was much, much more limited. For example, I was only just managing to get my face to my knees in a forward fold (with a horribly arched back which you can see here!)
I was still cycling my 5 mile mad-dash-sprint to and from work, with the top-ten Strava times to prove it. While the weekends were occasionally sprinkled with longer rides with the husband.
And I was loving my job more and more with each passing day having changed roles around 18 months previously.
Life was, in short, good.
And I was, in classic RAD form, living it at warp speed.
Until I Wasn't
Let me set the scene... I was walking to a yoga workshop with a friend. The workshop was with the one and only Jessica Olie and was all about back-bends, something that I knew I could excel at, but needed to focus on. So this was an exciting first step of that new path. The class itself was wonderful, but I distinctly remember saying to my friend as we walked from the tube station how strange it was that I was a bit out of breath as we strolled and chatted. I put it down to an unseasonably cold day; I think I even said the cold was quite literally taking my breath away.
That evening, when I started to feel a sharp pain in my lower right ribs, which I put that down to all the back-bending in a large and rather cold warehouse. I must have pulled a muscle.
Even though it hurt so much I was drawing only the shallowest of breaths in order to not expand my ribcage, and couldn't sleep on one side.
Because fit, busy 30 year-olds don't have serious health issues. Right?!
Over the next few days the sharp pain started to resolve itself, conveniently just one day before my self-imposed "if it's not fixed by Friday then go to the doctor” deadline. What was less convenient was the fact the creeping breathlessness was lingering... not consistently, but enough to make me think that week of not breathing properly is a week too long. The solution to which, of course, was getting back to my yoga and my cycling (I had taken a break from both) quick time.
So I did.
Ignoring the fact I seemed to be losing rather a lot of weight: because I always lose weight in the autumn - a side effect of coming off summers of drinking too much rosé, and long busy days at work once everyone is back in the office where lunch seems to become a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. Ignoring the fact my bike times to-and-from work were getting slower and slower: the weather turning wet and windy has that impact of course. Ignoring the fact I needed to lay down to catch my breath when I climbed the three sets of stairs to our bedroom in the loft too quickly: I was just tired after long days at my desk and hard yoga classes.
Then came a weekend away in Rome with my husband. Despite scarfing down inhuman amounts of pasta (and wine!), I came home even skinnier, and even more breathless. [Side note: flying with embolisms will do that. In fact, this is the part of the story where medical professionals really freak out. It’s fun to watch. Now I know there is a happy ending to this anyway!]
A couple of days after we got home, I couldn't finish my cycle ride to work, or face any food, or continue a conversation while walking. And I finally went to the doctor. Who quickly sent me to a cardiologist.
Within a week, via a frantic call to get to the hospital IMMEDIATELY and an emergency CT scan, I was diagnosed with multiple bilateral pulmonary embolisms and a partially collapsed lung.
The wonders of modern medicine
If this had happened to me but a year or two earlier I would have been instantly hospitalised. Intravenous blood thinners would have taken several days to calibrate to my needs and lots of general monitoring was recommended.
However, with the advent of an amazing, and expensive, range of new drugs I could simply take orally, I was sent home with a prescription, an order to rest, and instructions to come back on Monday for heart scans and more investigations.
Which lead to one of the stranger weekends of my life...
The dangers of Google
I had heard of pulmonary embolisms before: a long-standing love of American medical dramas (I’m looking at you E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy!) ensured that. But everything had happened so quickly with my diagnosis, and the lovely medical staff had been so keen to reassure me, that I left hospital with only the vaguest idea of how serious a situation I had been in.
Until I got home to an empty house (cats are soothing but not full of too many opinions on such topics) and started googling.
Two things leapt out at me. A statistic and a phrase. Both of which stay with me to this day. That untreated pulmonary embolisms have a 30% mortality rate, and that the first symptom for many sufferers is “sudden death”. At this point for reference, we were some 6 weeks beyond those first symptoms.
I’m still undecided as to whether sudden death is a technically a symptom, but hey, no matter what you call it it’s definitely in the ‘not good’ category.
Thankfully my husband soon arrived home and peeled the laptop out of my quivering hands. And helped me write a list of questions to ask the cardiologist on Monday.
After which we floated through the next two days. Not really being able to believe this was happening inside my body, while having an all too real and new appreciation that we, that I, had come way to close to something truly unspeakable.
And then come the why’s
After the initial shock of a diagnosis like this subsides, the obvious next questions are all “why” based. Why me, why now, just plain old why?
Well, it turns out there are 3 primary reasons young and otherwise healthy women get pulmonary embolisms. In reverse order of how easy it is to work out which you have, they are: cancer, a blood clotting disorder, and as a side effect of being on the combined contraceptive pill.
Cue a fun several weeks working out which one(s) applied to me. I ticked the last box, but had done for over 10 years, hence asking ‘why now’.
Thankfully, after a good few more tests and scans we ruled out the big C. And ticked the blood clotting disorder box: I had, have, Factor V Leiden. The most common blood disorder for Caucasian people. Which meant I never should have been on the combined contraceptive pill (as the risks multiply massively when you mix them), forget about dashing about on multiple long-haul flights without taking extra care of my fluid intake and movement quota, and generally not paying attention to all the risk factors.
So now we had an answer at least. Which at least made dealing with the recovery process slightly easier.
The biggest part of which was dealing with the residual lung and heart damage. The quick version of this is that because I had been running around with so many embolisms for so many weeks, at least, my lung capacity was reducing all the time. The “muscle” pain I felt in early October was likely my lung partially collapsing due to some of the clots cutting off blood supply to the lower lobe of my right lung... Which in turn all meant my heart was having to work overtime to compensate. And it couldn’t quite cope.
But this is a yoga journey story right?
I would love to say at this point I finally started listening to my body. That I stopped pushing and striving and that the physicality of my asana practice no longer mattered so much to me.
But truth be told, aside from an initial few days of rest, I can’t.
The day after I started on what would turn out to be 6 months of blood thinners, I immediately felt better. My breathing returned virtually to normal, or so it felt on a relative basis, and there is nothing more life-giving than that.
My fancy-schamcy roadbike was put away on m cardiologists orders... London roads and blood thinners don't really mix. But no longer pounding out circa 40 miles a week, at a sprint, through the central London traffic, meant I had a lot more energy floating around to allocate elsewhere. Or at least that’s what it felt like.
I’m also sure there was an added element of trying to prove to myself, and to others, that I was OK. That this experience hadn’t shaken me too much, that I didn’t need to change my life or lifestyle in any meaningful way, that I was still the same invincible person I was before.
Which is all a long winded way of saying that I was back at regular, strong, dynamic classes within a few weeks. And I barely skipped a beat on my own mat at home in my kitchen.
Writing this 18 months later is a cringe worthy exercise, but this is the truth.
Yoga is a tool like no other when it comes to connecting to your body and ultimately your mind. And to reach a place where what you do on your mat is less and less about what it looks like and more and more and more about the quiet that comes over the internal chatter in your head.
But at the start especially, it’s easy to get carried away with the physicality of the practice.
To push for progress and to strive for the next pose, that becomes the purpose. And being not even two years into my yoga journey meant I was very much in that place. Even with the broken-collarbone incident just 6 months earlier (read about that here if you missed it). And having my teacher training booked in probably added to all of that. I needed to be “ready”. Whatever that means!
Another lucky escape
I am extremely fortunate to be able to say here that there is no “and then the other shoe dropped” part of this story.
My body continued to heal, I continued to practice, and I continued to “progress” in that practice. Getting stronger, getting more flexible, getting more and more adept at flowing by myself.
Through December I tried a bunch of new classes - mainly Ashtanga and Rocket. I even, hilariously, went to a cross-fit taster session. Which swiftly reminded me why I hate ‘exercise’, but that’s a whole different conversation!
I was still banned from flying, so a long-planned dream trip to New Zealand with my husband was sadly cancelled. And I made up for it by getting sick - with colds and the flu - more times than seemed fair. Until I realised I had barely put back on any of the copious amounts of weight I had lost while nearly dying. So I started to make some effort to fix that too.
I tell you all of this to be brutally honest about a few things...
- Even big wake up calls will count for nothing unless you listen to them. I was exceptionally lucky to get through both what happened to me, and the recovery, with such a blasé attitude. Looking back now, I realise there is such a difference to approaching situations and life positively (which I hope I never stop doing), and blithely ignoring reality.
- That I was not then, nor am now, a “good” yogi. I am merely a dedicated yoga practitioner. Listening to my body and actually acting on what I hear was then (and was before!) a lesson that I will likely have to learn again. Because I am really shit at it, clearly!! But I continue to strive to learn from my mistakes. And that is all I can ever ask of myself.
- If your breathing ever doesn’t feel 100% right, GO TO THE DOCTOR!
2017 rolled around.
Which is both a Yoga Teacher Training story, and one I will tell on another day...