We are told that yoga has the ability to change our lives not only on the mat but off the mat as well. Through the cultivation of focus, breath, and calm, we can find ease and strength in our practice and in our daily lives.
I was surprised when the instructor said it. I was at my first Baptiste-style class in ten years and I hadn’t remembered it from previous experience. “Thumb-knuckles to third-eye center. Set an intention. It can be a word, a phrase, a goal for yourself, someone you’d like to dedicate this practice to. A person. Deep breath in…”. A person. That was why I was here. I felt like I was finally doing something to help us both.
My twin sister was sick. She was losing weight, feeling run-down, not acting like herself. But it was difficult to ask her what was wrong. Melissa is deaf, visually impaired, and severely developmentally delayed. She and I don’t look much alike; she is over a foot shorter, fair-skinned, and doesn’t look a day over fifteen. I was an overweight, bearded man, who looked older than I should. What we did share was our sense of humor, our care-free laughter, a joy of cooking together, and our happiness when we were with our family.
I had been working a physically demanding job for the last eight years in a kitchen, and the sixty-hour-plus work weeks had taken a toll. I couldn’t bend over without pain. I knew I needed to make a change and create a space where I could help my sister and heal myself. So with the support of my husband and family, I quit my job.
My sister was diagnosed with a trapped lung, congenital heart defects leading to heart failure, and worsening anemia. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t take a deep breath. Melissa had surgery on her lung and spent several difficult weeks in the hospital. Our family took shifts being by her side. She was never alone. I would stay with her overnight, helping her to learn to breathe again.
I realized that I hadn’t taken a deep breath in many years either. During my working too much, eating too poorly, and the anxiety over my sister’s health, I had forgotten how to breathe. Through it all, I knew I needed to make a change for myself if I was truly going to support my sister the way she needed. Leaving my job was the first step, but I needed to find a calm, a peace, and a way toward health again.
This was how my yoga practice was going to change my life. Not only my life but my twin sister’s life, too. I would spend the night in the hospital with her, catch a few hours of sleep at home, before going to the morning Heated Flow classes in Brookline. It was incredibly difficult at first, physically painful, mentally challenging. And I always doubted if I wanted to be there, just until the instructor told us to set an intention. At which point I knew that my mat, in this room, was the only place I needed to be. With my thumb-knuckles pressed to my forehead, I thought only of my twin. With each deep breath, I was helping her to take a deep breath. My strength would become her strength, my calm would become hers. We had shared nearly everything we could our entire lives, and now we came upon the most important shared experience we had ever had.
The intention helped me through every class. Reminded me to return to my breath when the flow and the heat were challenging. Reminded me that I needed to find the healing property of each pose as my body at that moment required it. Reminded me that with breath and humility, I could push myself to work at each pose, each breath. However hard the flow was for me, however punishing the heat, my twin was struggling infinitely more in hospital, and still when she returned home to our mother’s house.
There is a strange connection between twins. Identical or fraternal, there is a bond, a shared experience that resonates in a way that is difficult to explain to non-twins. Melissa and I had been close since birth. We shared a language and form of communication that others didn’t understand. And I hoped that as I stood on my mat, every cycle of breath, every moment of strength, every sense of calm could be transferred to her.
While my practice was dedicated to my sister’s life, it had a profound effect on my life, too. I lost forty pounds. My back pain left. I looked healthier. But I didn’t just go to yoga class for that. Melissa’s illness and prognosis were terrifying and psychologically difficult for the entire family to handle. It was not uncommon for me to suddenly start crying at the beginning of a class, forehead on the mat, easing into child’s pose. But I used the breath to put those negative thoughts, those fears, that terrified energy into a place where I could wash it with the inhale, and send it out with the exhale. I listened to the instructor as they encouraged me to let the breath and the pose quiet the mind. Never had finding my drishti meant so much. If I could let my eyes settle onto one point, perhaps I could prevent myself from sobbing uncontrollably in public.
Most importantly, my practice gave me the grace and strength to approach each day’s challenges with calm. In my previous eight years as a chef, I was known for my intensity and command. And I longed to put that kind of persona behind me. I needed to maintain my inner peace and calm so that I could support my sister through the continuing onslaught of medical challenges. Sitting by her hospital bed in the middle of the night, panicking about what might come next, I reminded myself to focus on my breath. Relax the muscles in my face, find ease wherever possible, and let the breath bring energy to where it was needed. I found that my regular, daily yoga practice was the best way to maintain that peace.
My practice was the beginning of a series of life changes. I believe my practice allowed for these life changes to happen. I found a new job in a kitchen, working with a great team, helping all of us to focus on a balance for our work, health, and families. My husband and I bought a new house, one where there is a room for Melissa to live. While our new home means I don’t go to my beloved Brookline studio five times a week anymore, I’ve found a way to enjoy less frequent classes at the Cambridge studio. My yoga practice has given me the strength to try other forms of exercise, using what I’ve learned about breath and intention to propel me forward.
My sister’s health continues to be a challenge. She is in and out of the hospital. But there are times when she feels better when she can walk and laugh again. She and I spend more time together. And while she has never been in Down Dog or a Forward Lunge, yoga has changed her life, just as it changed mine. And we both breathe easier.