“Well, it’s easy enough to breathe and stretch and be healthy when everything is fine,” said the nurse practitioner through her N-95 mask “but this is what you’ve been practicing for. Now you need to use the tools you have been given.”
A breakthrough COVID diagnosis alone wasn’t enough to slow me down, and it even took some time to surrender to the symptoms. The fever and chills, the chest compression and coughing fits – I plowed through them, horizontal in my bed, continuing to answer emails and meet deadlines. After all, with so many people older than me, more vulnerable than me, proclaiming it “nothing more than a bad cold,” what right did I have to put the brakes on my life?
When I was jerked awake in the night by a seizure of the brain however, my breath stuck in my throat and my whole body froze in traction. I pressed the back of my head into the pillow and one phrase echoed in my mind: “Find your breath”.
After 13 years as a yoga teacher, the mandate to listen to my body was ingrained in the grooves of my mind. I gave that mandate to people by the spoonful, but as a mother and a freelance worker, who always had six different pots on the fire, I just wasn’t practicing it. All I seemed to find time for were the 30-second spaces in the mental gridlock: fleeting glimpses of calm.
A ten day lockdown could have been just the opportunity I needed to go inward, except for the seven year old firecracker who was my roommate. Processing the fact that my role in that bed was, not to mother my child, nor was it to meet my deadlines, or fold my laundry, or do any of the zillion other things that needed doing, took all ten days of quarantine. I would lie, staring at the ceiling for hours, breathing deeply and gathering my strength, only to get up at the first moment I could manage and spend all my precious energy focused outward.
I’d challenge my girl to a game of rummy tile, or clean up the piles of tissues and tea bags accumulating on my bedside table. At that point, the energy would drain within a matter of minutes, and I’d be back in bed again, breathing deeply, trying to refill my reservoir.
There was a mismatch between the mental and the physical, which was forever jarring for my yogic senses. Yoga, after all, is all about uniting the body, mind and spirit. So, to feel my mind awake, while my body lay like a dead shell, was frustrating and created anxiety. In bed, in my tiny bedroom, I would think about my life as things accumulated around me. I started to judge myself harshly: I was sick, and the sickness was seeping into my thoughts. In that fog, which was punctuated by brain-shaking headaches and heart-stopping sensory issues, I was unkind to myself, and it was damaging to my healing process.
I had always reminded people at their most vulnerable, to have compassion, above all, for themselves. But in the moment when I was at my most vulnerable, I forgot the lesson. Perhaps it was because inside I felt so weak and broken. Maybe I was afraid that if I looked inside at that moment, I would have found nothing but discomfort and dis-ease.
I felt the virus attacking my lungs, causing a pitiful weakness in my chest and mid-back. My breath was strained, and the attempts to deepen it sometimes triggered a sense of fear. What if the next breath doesn’t come?
The layers of damage go far beyond the physical, and it is difficult to decipher where one ends and the next begins. For nearly two years, COVID has been the boogeyman lurking around every corner. When you get a positive test, it’s like he just stepped in front of you, and you face him, and you wonder how bad it’s going to be.
You pray you’re one of the ones that everyone talks about – the one who says it’s just a bad cold, or the lucky asymptomatic one. You think you should be one of those, because you followed the rules and got vaccinated, and you’re generally a healthy person, young-ish and strong.
I wasn’t one of those. I liked to pretend I was.
The day I emerged from quarantine, I waded through piles of laundry and the mess of my own home. With Herculean effort, I tackled load after load of laundry, moved furniture, pulled out Christmas decorations. I kissed my tired husband and sent him off surfing, decorated Christmas cookies with my kids, and listened to holiday music. By the end of the day, our home looked lovely and was filled with holiday cheer. I was on my back, silent tears wetting the pillow. I wasn’t up for being myself.
“This is what you’ve been practicing for.”
I placed one hand on my belly and the other hand on my heart. It was day eleven, so I should be good to go. And yet, here I was, still staring at the ceiling. I had spent the entire quarantine trying to be productive in this unique moment, trying to find ways to be creative and contribute from my isolation. But what I hadn’t made time for, even when it was the only thing in front of me, was my own healing.
On Day 14, since the onset of symptoms, I woke up and unrolled my yoga mat. I crawled my way into a child’s pose. I listened to the sound of my precious breath. I could hear the strain I had been carrying, as air limped its way into my lungs. And I kept listening. I lengthened my exhale. I deepened my inhale. I let the feeling of the steady floor beneath me be a reassurance, and I stayed there a long time.
By Day 32 since the onset of symptoms, I had seen most of the people I loved most. However, most of those people didn’t know that I was still struggling. It wasn’t easy to talk about, because my boogeyman was also their boogeyman. I had been forced to face him, and I needed to talk about what he had done to me, but it was too connected to them. This isn’t like any other illness, where you come out the other side and share the story as your unique story, because it’s all of our stories. We are all living with this boogeyman, whether we’ve faced him or not.
I find a quiet place. I discover a comfortable seat. I notice the earth beneath me, and the breath moving through my trembling lungs. I listen to the thoughts that rise up in my mind, and I watch them float away like wispy cirrus clouds in a winter sky. I notice fears, and how they cramp up my shoulders and cause a heavy ball to throb in my chest. I let out an exhale. I give it time. I practice, as I’ve learned to practice. I am practicing for my life.
Simple Practices for Post COVID Support
To Calm Anxiety: Ujjayi Breathing
Come to a comfortable seat. Connect to your natural breath, and feel it filling and emptying the belly. Try opening your mouth and exhaling, as if you were trying to fog up a window in front of you. Notice how that feels in your throat. Bring that sensation into the inhale as well. Now close your mouth, whilst breathing in and out through the nose, feel the breath moving down the back of the throat and oxygenating the whole body.
To Combat Exhaustion: Legs up the Wall
Come to lie on your back and swing your legs up a wall, as vertical as possible. Relax your arms by your sides, or with your hands on your belly. Take at least 10 deep, slow breaths, noticing the blood flooding down from the feet, down the legs, to oxygenate the vital organs. NOTE: for extra rejuvenation, apply the Dual Exfoliating Clay Mask or the KB5 Eye Recovery Mask before coming to the restorative pose.
For Chest Compression: Exfoliate and Self-Massage
In the shower, use an exfoliating glove or a salt block, starting in circular motions and moving from the extremities to the heart. Follow with a moisturizing balm or an essential oil treatment, spending extra time massaging into the chest area and breathing deeply.
For Vertigo/ Dizziness: Child’s Pose
Come onto your knees and rest the forehead on the floor or a support. Wrap your arms around your body. Feel the support of the floor beneath you, and listen to the sound of your own breath. You are going to be okay.