Yogis are not invulnerable . Yoga does not make you immortal. Yoga simply brings you in touch with yourself so that you can live your best life. It allows you to be more attentive to what is going on in mind and body and respond in a compassionate and intelligent way. My recent brush with death was in part a lesson in how such attentiveness to ones body can save ones life and in part how lack of such attentiveness and the cumulative affects of negligence and fear and ignorance can lead one to a early grave or to unwanted suffering. I recently suffered a significant heart attack in my LAD or left anterior descending coronary artery becoming 100% blocked almost killing me.
What Happened That Saturday
I was actually finishing up a hot power yoga class in Chatham , New Jersey, a wonderful class, with a wonderful dynamic instructor. Towards the cool down period I began feel a fullness in my chest which I first thought had to do with some poor eating choices I made prior to coming to class. ( I had eaten some potato chips and thought it might be heartburn from the greasy and salty chips.) I had a hard time getting up and moving off of my mat but at first I attributed it to being exhausted from the vigorous class. The feelings didn’t let up. I thought belching would help release the discomfort but it wasn’t really helping although I was making some pretty scary noises. I tried drinking some coconut water but that didn’t help either. I barely had energy to leave the studio but with the help of my friend I walked outside but immediately needed to sit on a bench. As the symptoms failed to subside and my weakness and discomfort grew I thought I should get to the nearby pharmacy and buy an antacid. I asked my friend to drive the car and we drove what was a few blocks and I went inside and with much difficulty bought the antacid and without even waiting to pay for it took the pill and drank some water. There was no impact! It was then that I decided that I need to get myself over to a doctor, settling on Morristown Medical Center Emergency Room as it was the closest place available.
I still did not know I was having a heart attack but my physical condition dictated that I take action which I was doing almost subconsciously. I’m not a person who rushes to hospitals or doctors nor did I think I would be having a heart attack but I was alert enough to the strange symptoms I was feeling that I knew I had to have it checked out. Driving myself while in the midst of a heart attack , in hindsight, may not have been the smartest of choices but given I did not know what was happening I probably saved myself some vital time by getting myself to a hospital as early as I did.
Upon arriving I had to go through triage which took some time (another drawback of driving oneself to the ER as opposed to calling 911). Once they determined at the intake that I was having a “stemi” I was helped very quickly into a room and within about 15 minutes I was attended to by a team of o doctors and staff.
The professionalism and skill of the doctors and staff without a doubt saved my life. I am eternally grateful and constantly amazed by the love and kindness of human beings.
I was then taken to a Cardiac Care Unit where I was held in observation for what turned out to be 4 night stay which was once again made tolerable by the kindness of those professional staff attending to me and the love and support of my family and friends who were there by side every day.
I had a history of heart disease in my family , which in hindsight, I should have taken more seriously. My father had open heart surgery at 61 years of age and has been dealing with heart disease ever since , quite successfully, but inexorably and meticulously. He is now 86 and doing very well.
- If you have risk factors like heart disease in your family , don’t wait , go to a doctor and have your blood checked and follow their recommendations regarding medication and lifestyle immediately.
I had a history of high cholesterol ever since I got some health coverage to go and get a Physical Check Up done. I did not want to take the statins that were recommended then and tried to adjust my numbers with diet and exercise . I was appalled that I had high cholesterol ( I was not heavy or overweight at all) and at the same time I felt that taking a pill everyday for the rest of my life was not a good solution. The diet and exercise did work at first , my numbers came down dramatically, but in order for it to really work I would have had to have been consistent with diet and exercise ever since then which I was not. I was not honest with myself about my ability to be on a very austere diet and a daily exercise regimen. My genetic history meant that I could not eat moderately like others and maintain proper heart and vascular health, I would have to be very extreme. This was not a reasonable plan for me. I can be extreme in indulgence but I was far less capable of being extreme in austerity. This was over 18 years ago and I had just begun the practice of yoga without really knowing much about it.
- Once again , go to your doctor regularly, if you are diagnosed with high cholesterol or any other condition talk to the doctor about treatment options and don’t be shy about taking the medications prescribed . The side affects can be dealt with better than one can deal with the impact of a sudden disaster which can kill you.
I used to handle my emotional problems through very negative means like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and smoking pot. The pot smoking eventually gave way to harder drugs. I’ll discuss this more in another blog entry. Given my family history, and my own high cholesterol numbers adding excessive drinking and drugging was not smart . Smoking and drinking to excess will never be anything but a temporary fix that in the medium term will cause you more problems than the ones you felt you were “fixing” in the immediate.
- Get help: If there are powerful urges you are dealing with to drink and drug and those have become your coping mechanisms for stress in life , don’t wait , get help immediately.
- There are many 12 steps based groups that do a wonderful job with peer to peer support.
- There are licensed counselors and psychiatrists that can offer both techniques to cope with your inner struggles as well as medication, if necessary, to help you get to a place of some stability from which you can build new ways of handling emotional stress. If you have risk factors like smoking and excessive drinking you need to stop them and believe me I know it’s not easy, but there is help, that works, go and get it , don’t wait. Your life is worth it.
Last but not least I was dealing with a huge amount of emotional stress stemming from an ongoing divorce proceeding and loss of employment both of which came around at the same time. This was the straw that broke the camels back. While I had given up drinking and drugs and smoking, while I had moved to a vegetarian diet, while I had taken on the practice of yoga as a lifestyle as opposed to a hobby , the cumulative impact of years of non-yogic behavior as well as the genetic risk factors had already created a very unstable foundation. They could not simply be erased. To have, on top of that , some extremely emotionally stressful events hit me was too much for my heart to take. It reached a tipping point. The experience of handling extreme emotional stress is also best dealt with in a separate blog entry where I can give it sufficient space. However some key lessons from my own current experience in brief is to:
1. Deal with whatever one is facing in life directly, that is, do not practice avoidance and procrastination which is rooted in FEAR.
- Also practice compassion towards oneself and towards others. Hatred begets hatred. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
- Also while you may have many family and friends who care about you and who advise you , follow your own truth. It is always good to talk about your problems with others but the actions you take towards solving YOUR problems should be YOUR OWN. Never allow your life to be hijacked even by the most well-intentioned of people .
This has already been a bit too long for a single reading. I thank you for your patience and I hope that my experience will be of some benefit to you in protecting your heart.
May you be healthy!
May you be happy!
May your achieve enlightenment !