MEET YOUR TEACHER
What Teaching Yoga Has Taught Me
By Katy Mena-Berkley
As a professional writer, I have been tasked with writing extensively about the value of minimizing stress and the impact that it can have on physical health.
And as someone living with relapsing multiple sclerosis, I have learned that this practice is not some flowery suggestion. It is a vital component of a healthier life.
In the 16 years since my diagnosis, I have had days when I couldn’t go for long walks like I wanted to. There were years when my mother, who also lived with relapsing MS, could not stand up to cook or put the dishes away. But “giving up” was never part of our vocabulary.
I was 20 years old when I was unable to flex my left toes as a result of my second MS relapse. And I was frustrated. I was a student at the University of Georgia at the time, and I loved taking long walks with my best friend in the afternoons around the city of Athens, wondering who we would bump into at Five Points or as we neared downtown. Plus, we got to stay in shape at the same time. And right after my relapse, those walks were not an option for me.
But not being able to take those walks led me to one of the greatest gifts of my life—the practice of yoga.
I was a ballerina for 12 years and spent another three as a member of my high school’s modern dance company. Creative movement was always one of my true passions. So when my relapsing MS began to limit the way I could move, my mom encouraged me to try yoga.
She sent me an inspirational article about a yogi named Eric. Eric had been diagnosed with relapsing MS years before and was virtually incapacitated by the condition. But like my mamma, he too refused to accept defeat. Instead, he dedicated himself to making the most of his abilities through the practice of yoga. As an avid student, this man reclaimed control of his life, beginning with his breath.
Inspired and moved to emulate his example, I began my yoga practice slowly. I started with videos in the morning before school and every evening before bed. I signed up for yoga classes at a studio in Athens and even saw a holistic practitioner to find additional ways to stay healthy. Yoga was not by any means a cure-all silver bullet for my relapsing MS. But the practice helped me develop a strong foundation and cultivate a mindset of awareness and gratefulness for every gift in my life—hardship included.
In the years since my discovery of this ancient form of exercise, I have grown exponentially stronger in body, mind, and spirit. It may sound cheesy, but it makes so much sense. Of course, they are all connected. When I allow myself to be overcome with fear or anxiety, my body reacts. And when my body is not functioning the way I expect, my heart breaks just a little.
It’s About the Breath
So what is the constant, the equalizer, the core that provides balance and the courage to move forward? It’s the breath. The breath is the center we all have inside. As human beings, we are instinctively connected with a desire to be calm and free. The breaths we take help us get there, but it doesn’t happen automatically. That nurturing, rich, life-sustaining breathing must be practiced.
To truly dial in, we have to commit to turning off all the noise, negativity, and dreaded “what ifs” in life. Instead, we dial in to the breath and connect with the higher power that guides us all. Whatever that power may look like to you, find it.
Through yoga, I have cultivated a stronger faith in my Orthodox Christianity. I am more empowered to face challenges, no matter what they may look like. Stillness is a gift. And it is the breath that helps us engage with the radiant energy that we may claim in sickness and in health.
Two summers ago, I took a leap of faith and immersed myself in a yoga teacher-training program in Ojai, California. I got there thinking I knew everything I needed to know about my yoga practice, my condition, and the boundaries I needed to set. I continue to be amazed at the unparalleled opportunities to grow through any challenge, by tuning in to breath and wisdom. And I am thankful for every one of my experiences in life. What a journey it continues to be.