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My Story: Part 2

Time is indeed a river, drawing us relentlessly forwards and onwards.  The Gita says that all paths lead to Krishna, and it is true. But the river moves in mysterious ways. The law of karma presents endless surprise. Our habit of projecting certainty onto the future brings comfort to daily experience, but it is delusional. Yes, celestial patterns can reveal a blueprint of possibility—a portrait of the karma of the soul—but we can never know for certain exactly how that karma will manifest. Krishna says, “Yoga is skill in action”, as true for life as it is for sadhana. Skill resides in the moment, a sail angled just so to catch a certain turn in the wind. It implies a total letting-go of expectation, an absolute trust in the wind.  Because no matter what maelstrom we find ourselves in, it too belongs to our path. How could it be otherwise? For Krishna is not only the goal, Krishna is the path too, the wind and the river and every ripple or eddy that pulls us into an undertow of seeming defeat.

The Ganges at Haridwar moves swiftly, sweeping puja candles, debris, monkeys and boys into its mighty current.  In late September 2012, I sat on its banks, watching the show, mesmerised by the incessant movement of this most sacred river, but overwhelmed too by feelings of profound sadness. I had not been in India since 2009, just before Ramesh and Pattabhi Jois passed away. And now after three short months I was leaving again.  I had come seeking healing for my broken body.  And though I was returning home just as broken as before, Ma India was not going to disappoint.

The “My Story” you can read in Part 1 saw its last revision in early 2010, a few months after Ramesh had left the physical body. On all levels my practice had never felt stronger. The gift of the guru had awakened the inner guru. Peace and acceptance characterised the flow of life. As I reread “My Story” now, I see it is finished. That chapter of life is closed. It culminated in both a yogic high and a casting adrift from the physical form of the guru. Silence was speaking to me with great eloquence, and I had never felt so free. Though it would not be long before something quite other would catapult me off the path I thought I was following, at that time I could not see it. I had no idea what was coming.  

With the discipline of Mysore over for me, with the teaching of Ramesh liberating me to embrace what is, not what “should” be, my asana practice was taking a new shape. Though an intuitive, experimental spirit had always characterised my approach to ashtanga, it was clear to me now that my practice had become something altogether different. And that felt OK; in fact, I was loving it! The many voices that had taught me so much over the years were within me, assimilated, and out of all that a synthesis was giving birth to something new.  

For about two years, exhilaration and expansion defined my practice. I was tuned in to what the yoga was teaching me and practising from the heart.  Because I have always taught out of the experience of my personal practice, I began to organise this new approach into a form I could teach to others.  I found language for its basic principles and developed sequences that could be strung together in different ways, modified and adapted to suit anyone. I called it Shakti Rasa. You can read more about it here. It has a circular rather than linear quality, with powerful use of breath and focus. Sitting practices of meditation and pranayama had taken me to a very deep place, and they are an essential part of Shakti Rasa practice. Though I missed the colour and light of India very much, the voice of my guru still spoke to my heart. Though his chair in this physical world was empty, his teaching was in me and that was enough. I was not inclined to seek a new teacher.  Ramesh had answered every question that arose, and sadhana was following the promptings of the inner guru. Three years passed without a trip to India.  

During that time, a different teacher altogether appeared, and study with him was taking on a life of its own. Svadyaya (study) had always been central to my path, and in these years it was focused upon Jyotish or Vedic Astrology. Jyotish is a Vedanga, one of the six limbs of the Vedas, traditionally considered an essential foundation for understanding the esoteric truths of the Vedas.  Here was insight into the mysterious ways of karma, and I was fascinated! Though I began on my own with books, it was not until my Jyotish mentor appeared that the study really took wings for me. In 2011 I began formal mentoring in Jyotish with Dennis Flaherty. In 2014, I qualified with the Council of Vedic Astrology as Jyotish Visharada, and in 2016 as Jyotish Kovid. You can read more here about How I came to Vedic Astrology and about Jyotish itself.

Thank God for Jyotish and for its appearance in my life just when I needed it the most! Though in those early days I hadn’t a clue where I was headed, something else was developing in parallel to all of the above, something sinister and frightening, something that was going to test my understanding of yoga to the limits.  In 2009, Saturn began his transit over my Moon, a sojourn that would last until autumn 2014. Known as the Sadi Sati, the seven of Saturn, this period comes every thirty years to everyone. In some way or other, it brings the hard lessons of Saturn to roost upon the life of the native, though its intensity and quality depend upon the unique karmic configuration of the individual.

Saturn teaches about the limits of life, about the reality of disease, death, and the ephemerality of all things physical. Saturn’s greatest lesson is that nothing in this world lasts. He tempers the soul, revealing the temporality of everything we cherish and the futility of attaching to transitory things.  And as everything in this world of change is impermanent, Saturn’s message can be bitter. Loss, disease, failure and death are a part of life that Saturn makes sure we remember.

Yet Saturn’s message can also be sweet, as truly understanding the ephemerality of everything clears the mind of avidya or spiritual ignorance. Saturn teaches that ultimately everything, including our bodies that feel so solid, will pass, for we are not the body, not the limited mind that attaches to the body either. And that realisation can open the door to pure, undifferentiated spirit that lies beyond.

So Saturn is also the Lord of Yoga, for the great lesson of yoga, as the Bhagavad Gita makes so clear, is that the body and mind belong to the transitory while the spirit that transcends it all is eternal and infinite.  The truth of Saturn is bittersweet; it all depends on our perspective, on the condition of the soul. Saturn brings worldly suffering, but out of that experience, the deepest wisdom can grow. That is why Saturn is a most spiritual planet. His energy can be indicative of vidya, the highest wisdom; but for those who resist his hard lessons, it remains suffering and defeat unredeemed.

Saturn’s methods can be cruel. Not only does he cut away the dead wood, but he can also prune back the living branches. Such was the case with me. My body, which had always been my instrument--vehicle for dance, for yoga asana, for running and jumping and climbing--was failing me.  In a very short time, I would be unable to walk without crutches.

I had known for many years that “something was wrong with my hips”.  The extreme flexibility I had had from my dancing days was a thing of the past. Pains would come and go. My asana practice helped a lot, as did physiotherapy, acupuncture, rolfing, massage, and the many other therapies I tried.  While in India in 2009, I went for an MRI of my hips, as the x-rays I had had in Ireland were not conclusive. The MRI showed avascular necrosis, a disease my sister had also had many years earlier, as well as severe secondary arthritic degeneration. It was a shocking diagnosis, clear evidence that something was seriously wrong. However, my symptoms were still very minor, and daily practice could still assuage them.

Then in late 2011, pain in my hips started that nothing could relieve. Asana practice was becoming a regular encounter with pain, and walking too felt uncomfortable.  My physiotherapist said I needed hip replacement surgery; in fact he had said that ten years previously!  I resisted. That road felt too final, the path of no return, invasive and permanent, with an artificial part replacing my living flesh and bone.  I needed to find something else. I trusted my body’s capacity to heal. And so I began to research alternatives, settling finally upon Ayurveda, natural healing in harmony with the cosmos and sister science to Yoga.  

In the summer of 2012, I travelled to India to spend six weeks at an authentic Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala. I was the only western patient in residence, as this was the real-deal, a hospital not a spa, with no frills and amenities catering to the western tourist. Hidden away in the lush green countryside of the Palakkad District about 100 km from Cochin was the Gurukripa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital. It was a beautiful but difficult six weeks. The treatments were tough, both physically and emotionally. But it was the rainy season and I had a lovely little balcony overlooking the jungle. With long days of solitude and restriction, I went deep into the study of Jyotish, writing my exam for the initial course work with Dennis. It extended to 85 pages! I read books on my Kindle too. When I wasn’t on a fasting regime, I looked forward to the little cup of tea that came every day, truly a highlight punctuating time and savoured to the last drop.

The doctor was a real yogi, dedicated to his patients and the practice of Ayurveda that he had learned in the traditional way from his guru. Many herbs were grown on site. The loveliest Indian ladies prepared and administered the treatments. But the cleansing of toxins went very deep, and unpleasant physical reactions drained my strength.

When it was time to leave, I felt a bit better perhaps, though I knew my hip was not cured. As soon as I started up regular practice and regular life, the old pain was back, as well as the restriction of movement. Nevertheless, I was in India.  Intense practice had always lifted me body and spirit. So I tried to forget about my hip and drink deep from the source. From Kerala I travelled to Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu to stay at the Ramana Maharshi Ashram. I climbed the sacred mountain of Arunachala to mediate in the cave where the great sage meditated many decades before. I walked the 14 kilometres round the holy mountain, a practice known as “Giri Pradaksini”. Worst thing you EVER could have done for your hip,” my sister who had avascular necrosis before said to me.  But I was there for pilgrimage, and circumambulation of Arunachala bestows profound spiritual boons.

Finally I travelled to the Himalayas and did a Sadhana Intensive at the Sivananda Ashram at Uttar Kashi. It was a powerful experience of intense pranayama and meditation, three long sessions a day by the rushing waters near the source of the Ganges. Snow-capped peaks pierced a deep-blue sky, and at nighttime the starlight dazzled.  First practice session started at 4.30 a.m., under that canopy of jewels. Every afternoon, for transformation both physical and spiritual, I bathed in that icy water where the river rapids rested in a still pool.  

But the pain in my hip made all things difficult, despite the purity of that fresh mountain air. One morning instead of pranayama we took a silent walk. I could not keep up with the others because my hip was killing me with every step. I struggled to get my yoga gear up and down the stairs to my room. In my asana practice, I felt more and more restricted. Once when I stood up to do a drop back, it felt like a knife had plunged my hip joint as I went back. That was the last drop back I ever did! When I recall everything I did in India that summer and how radically my condition would deteriorate just a few months later, I am amazed that I managed to do anything at all!

When I got back to Ireland, I began researching alternative treatments immediately. My physiotherapist reiterated that I needed surgery, but I still was not ready to submit to something so invasive. I trusted in the power of my body to heal, and experimental stem cell therapy seemed an option worth trying.  It was cutting-edge medicine, not yet mainstream but working for some people. The stem cells would be extracted from my own bone, cultured in a lab, and re-injected with precision into the damaged tissue.  I wanted to try it. The only risk was financial: if it worked, fabulous, if it didn’t, then I would be out a lot of money with still no solution for my hips. But I have a hopeful spirit, and perhaps a bit of the gambler in me as well. There was a possibility it would work, and I was banking on that hope.

This stem cell therapy required four visits to two clinics over a period of about six months. For these I travelled to Grand Cayman in the Caribbean and Colorado in the States. Coming up to my first journey to Cayman for the initial extraction, my hips hurt so much I could barely walk. Over these past few months, the pain was constant, and the new X-ray I had in Cayman showed just how bad my hips had become.  My case was severe, and things did not look good. The doctor said there were no guarantees: the treatment might work, yet it was also likely that it might not.  But I was there in Cayman. I wasn’t going to give up before trying. Forward was the way to go. I still wanted to try! 

When I got home from that first trip to Cayman, I started using crutches. The pain was worse than ever, and I literally could not take a step without support. I was hopeful my first injection of cultured cells would make a difference, but that was still a few months off. I needed to wait. I hobbled around on crutches. My wonderful family helped me with the day to day. Dear former students of mine who had become teachers themselves took over my classes for me when I could no longer teach. I was riding on hope, but not without an undercurrent of doubt as well. Then finally over the summer, I had the course of injections. With my attention scrutinising every sensation, at times I thought I felt an improvement. But as the summer progressed and the treatments were over, I knew that I was not cured. My hips were in fact too far-gone for this treatment.

Now I truly was at the end of the road, and the dreaded surgery was the only thing left for me. The quality of my life had deteriorated so drastically that this surgery could only make me better, though I still feared the long-term repercussions.  What would it be like to have new body parts??? I began to inform myself about hip replacement surgery. I talked to some who had had it. I researched on-line. I got advice from various medical experts. And then I found a wonderful website, made by a dancer as a support for dancers. Dancers who had undergone hip replacement surgery posted their stories, explaining in their own words their experiences with the surgery, before, during and after. In these stories, I found a community of friends. I read them all, because they spoke to me deeply on a heart level.

In terms of specifics, I learned through these stories that I wanted surgery through the anterior approach. This method is also called “mini-invasive”, as no muscles are cut. Recovery is faster and movement restrictions are close to nil. However, it requires specialised training and much experience on the part of the surgeon. Most of the recommended surgeons on this site were in the States, an option totally closed to me due to cost.

But through one of the stories I learned of a certain French surgeon skilled and practised in this method. In fact, many Americans were coming to him to train. I read his website through and through, then made an appointment to see him in Paris. I felt confident from all I read on his site that he was a surgeon I could trust. My initial meeting totally confirmed that conviction.

I came home from Paris with a date for surgery for both hips.  A scheme with the HSE allowing cross-border medical care was going to pay my expenses. However, arranging for this surgery and navigating my way through the health care bureaucracies required perseverance and stamina. It was not an easy time. The stem cell treatment had depleted my financial resources, and not until I had the OK from both the Clinique Paris V and the HSE did I feel relief that this surgery would be possible.

It was actually a very exciting time, with the prospect of relief like an impossible dream. My life had become so restricted. I could do little more with my body than hobble from my bed to the couch.  Jyotish was keeping me going, both the people who were coming now for readings and my daily peering into the celestial patterns that portended the change ahead.  I did feel trepidation going forward, but there was so much to do to prepare for the surgery in Paris. I just followed the steps, one by one. 

I spent two weeks in Paris. Surgery on the left happened first, then a week later surgery on the right. For three days in between I stayed in a hotel. It was springtime in Paris, with a touch of warmth in the air. Ever since my early youth, the City of Light has fed my soul. I lived there in the mid-seventies, and every return feels a kind of homecoming, its boulevards and monuments, its churches and cafes, its evocative smells and the quality of air in all seasons belonging profoundly to my mental landscape. Through the heart of Paris too flows a majestic river. That vitality would be given back to me in Paris had a storybook rightness to it, more food for the soul.

My surgeon, his staff and all the nurses were fantastic. I felt comfortable and safe in their hands, totally surrendered to the inevitable. And so the surgery that I had dreaded for so long turned out to be not so bad after all. In fact, it was a great success, like a miracle! Though afterwards I felt soreness from the surgery itself, the hip pain was immediately gone. For a while, the recovery period posed some challenges, particularly as my muscles had atrophied from being on crutches for nearly a year. But every day saw some improvement, and after about six weeks, the change was incredible.

Today I am ten months out of surgery, and almost forgetting what it felt like to be in such constant pain. Both flexibility and strength have returned. Though not back to my full practice of 2009-10, I am close. I never thought I’d do some of those poses again, but I am. Improvement is still happening, with both asana and sitting practice pain-free. After so many years of pain, it is hard to believe. But most of all, it is simply wonderful to experience the joy of walking, feeling the wind at my back and a bounce to my stride—also totally pain-free. It feels miraculous! 

Am I sorry I did not go for the surgery sooner? Do I regret the alternative therapies I tried? No, each episode taught me something; I accept that all followed a trajectory that had to be. Though naturally I do wish the money I spent on the stem cells was back in my bank account where I could certainly use it, I recognise the inevitability of what happened. At every step along the way, a decision was made based upon the vision of reality I saw before me at that time.  It could not have been otherwise, given who I am, given the karmic imprint I carry and the conditioning I have experienced so far. And so the saga unfolded as it did . . . an adventure to carry me into the future.

I am profoundly grateful for the life that has been returned to me. But the lessons of Saturn went deep. This I know: the life I have left is all on loan. My new French hips that are serving me so well belong to the ephemeral, as does my body and everything else that looks and feels so solid in this moment.  Everything in this world of change is impermanent. Everything belongs to the elements, will return to the elements, and will be reformed into something new. Life is precious, each moment a jewel to savour, but clinging to the jewels brings heartache.

The river moves relentlessly onwards. In India, rivers are revered as sacred. For the goddess takes shape as a river. She is at once movement through time and the timeless, both the wave and the water, the ephemeral and the transcendent. Yoga practice explores these boundaries. Beginning with the body, it can take us to the edge of the infinite. Saturn, planet of age, has marked me. It is this dimension of practice that is calling me now, no longer the mastery of asana, but the mastery of time. Limitation came to me so totally, the bittersweet gift of Saturn, but now I have a short reprieve.  I hope to make use of what time I have left, to accept the gifts Saturn still has in store for me without fear, and to trust in the timelessness they reveal.

Om Shanti 

Three months before my surgery, Ellen Whelan, film student and sister of one of my students, asked if she could make a short video documentary about my yoga practice and hip condition. Here it is: 

Read about my practice one year after surgery. Amazing how it came back! 



Meditation for the Month:

"Thoughts come and go.
Feelings come and go.
Find out what it is that remains."
Ramana Maharshi

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