Student Story Corner
HOW YOGA SAVED MY LIFE- TWICE
by Putu Davies
I begin by giving thanks to all yoga teachers, past and present. The system created by the great sages of ancient India, transmitted and developed by their spiritual descendants, and maintained until now by their disciples all over the world, is one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon humanity.
For me, the practice of yoga has literally been a life-saver. Without it, I doubt that I would be alive today, much less the sane and happy person I find myself to be. Yoga has rescued me on two separate occasions, once when I was a young teenager, and again quite recently, when I had entered my seventh decade. Let me explain:
When I was a child, I experienced trauma and violence in my home, from which I was unable to escape. Sixty years ago, there were no child protection agencies, no help-lines; no one was willing to admit that the word of a child had truth-value. I did seek help: I called the police, approached the minister of our church, talked to one or two approachable teachers at school. No one believed me: when the police came to the door, my parents (who moments before had been beating one another up) were suave and polite, and explained that I was a teller of tall tales. The local minister didn’t want to know: my parents were rich and generous parishioners, who appeared completely proper in public; he saw no sense in rocking the boat. One of my teachers was kind and sympathetic, and would at least listen to me and allow me to visit her at home, but beyond that there was nothing she could do. I was desperate: envious of children from ‘normal’ families; convinced that the world was a harsh place; embittered by a sense that there was no fairness, no justice.
I do not now remember how it came about, but in my early teens, after years of suffering and increasing feelings of hopelessness, I came across a book entitled Yoga and Health,by Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich (Unwin Books, London, 1953). I had never heard of yoga, and was somewhat repelled by the photograph of Yesudian on the front cover; he looked like a body-builder, someone who might hang out at Muscle Beach. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to begin to read, and Yesudian’s story of his childhood ill-health, and how he overcame it through the practice of yoga, caught my interest. There were physical positions described, breathing exercises, and discussions of the control of consciousness and the power of meditation. I began to experiment, following his simple directions, and before long, I was practising a little yoga everyday. Almost imperceptibly, my mood began to lighten: I could begin to believe that there was a way to help myself, young and isolated as I was.
At roughly the same time, after I had been experimenting with asana and pranayama for some months, I heard about a wise man who was visiting from India. This was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who came to California to test Western reactions to his system of Transcendental Meditation. This was early days: no one had yet heard of him; he had not yet met The Beatles.. He spoke in a small room, to a group of perhaps 30 people, inviting those who were interested to make an appointment to meet privately with him to receive initiation and a personal mantra. Having already tried meditating a little, but not too sure that I was achieving anything, I made an appointment, and had a private meeting with him. He placed his hands on my head, gave me a flower and a blessing in Sanskrit, and recited a simple two-syllable mantra, which he told me to keep private, and to use in a brief meditation practice everyday. I had never met such a man; never gazed into a pair of such deep and kind eyes. It was thrilling, humbling, deeply moving.
And so I began. Subsequently, my father committed suicide and my brother went mad. I am convinced that without the practice of yoga, I would most likely have gone the same way. My daily practice calmed my mind, gave me peace, encouraged me to dwell on things other than the misery around me.
I will skip over the middle of my life, at least for present purposes. Suffice it to say that after many years, I allowed my yoga practice to decrease, and finally to fall away. Middle-aged and increasingly overweight, I was working as an academic at the Australian National University, stressed, semi-depressed, surrounded by sedentary, overweight colleagues who regarded this state of things as natural and normal. “What do you expect, at your age?” they would ask, regarding my concerns about my lack of fitness as foolish at best.
I began to hobble, afflicted with arthritis in my feet, and suffered increasing shortness of breath. My GP sent me to heart and lung specialists, and another doctor told me to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle, as nothing could be done for the arthritis. Again, I was over 60; what did I expect? At this juncture, I began to take action.
I saw a Chinese physician who gave me acupuncture and Chinese herbs for 6 months, and told me to give up dairy. She wasn’t sure that she could reverse the damage, but felt that she could prevent it getting any worse. But it DID reverse: on my 65th birthday, while travelling in Western Australia, I hiked 25 kilometres on the Bibbulman Track, up and down cliffs, along a sandy beach, across a river.. It was the best present I could have given myself. The breathlessness, I decided, was probably due to being too fat; my lungs were just getting squished and over-crowded. So I put myself on a diet, and by the time it was my turn to see the heart and lung specialists, I had lost 15 kilos and was no longer breathless.
I began to feel increasingly alienated from my workmates and my surroundings. The final straw was when I lost my job, due to the economic rationalisation of the university. After indulging in anger and stewing for a while, I realised that all this was a sign: it was time for me to move on…
And I DID move, all the way to WA, which I had enjoyed so much on my visit six years ago. And this brings my story full circle, back to yoga. When I arrived here a year ago, I was 35 kilos lighter, but still fairly unfit. I suffered from chronic backache, tired easily, absolutely required a daily nap, couldn’t carry heavy loads, and had little endurance. I had tried getting back into yoga a few times over the intervening years, but it was always too hard for me, and I couldn’t seem to find the time for regular classes, or a daily practice at home.
I was in Denmark one day last spring, and saw a notice on the bulletin board at the Yoga Centre, announcing an all-day open house, offering a variety of classes, with payment by donation. I decided to sample a few, and ended up rediscovering what I had so nearly lost forever. I met several of the instructors, whose openness, generosity, patience, and unfailing encouragement have made it possible for me to gently work my way back to where I belong. I now attend six or seven classes a week (yoga and Qi Gong), and often manage to practice at home as well. I have regained my good health and fitness, and far from feeling old, I am getting younger..
I cannot adequately express the depth of my gratitude to the tradition, and to those who embody it in Denmark today. Hari OM Tat Sat