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Navigating the Seas of Chronic Illness Through Integrative Healing Practices

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Well and good

have always been a relatively healthy person. I was never a big competitive sports buff, but I always ate my veggies and loved to exercise. In my 30s, I departed from a career in teaching and curatorial work, and became certified as a personal trainer. I also started boxing and competing in triathlons. At 39 years old I had become a mom and was working as a health blogger and personal training manager.

One day, I noticed a dark mole on my left arm. I pointed it out to my doctor. A biopsy revealed the terrible news — melanoma.

After having a sizable chunk of my upper arm and a few lymph nodes removed, I was cancer-free. As it turned out, that was the easy part. At first, I noticed that currents of electrical impulses seemed to be vibrating and sometimes surging through my body at night. Then, my ears began ringing incessantly, as if I had just walked out of a loud concert. I also had a deep pain behind my right leg, and the muscles of both legs often burned as if I had been stung by tiny bees. The moment I realized something was deeply wrong came the day after a flu shot, when I developed a feeling of pressure in my head and ears that stopped me in my tracks. I went to the ER, where a CT scan of my head and some blood tests were ordered. All came back normal.

riThe subsequent year was riddled with specialists, tests, more symptoms, tears and unanswered questions. In the end, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease and prescribed oral antibiotics — lots of them.

Fast-forward eight months: I had made some moderate improvements, but my hair was falling out and the inside of my teeth had turned brown. I was discouraged, and still sick. That’s when I decided to take a different tack, one in which I fortified my body so that it could once again fight for itself.

I began by altering my diet. I gave up sugar, alcohol and grains, and made daily green juices, ate cooked and raw vegetables, organic meat, beans, berries and low-glycemic fruits. I took probiotics and ate fermented foods to restore my depleted gut. I also saw an acupuncturist, a friend who graciously offered me discounts, as well as a naturopath who prescribed a daily cocktail of bitter herbs I had never heard of, including cat’s claw, ashwagandha and andrographis.

After about 10 more months, my debilitating symptoms began to subside. Again, I made some shifts; I started visiting a homeopath and swimming slowly for 15 minutes at a time. Little by little, I improved. At the age of 42, I was able to have a second child, a boy. Though my body had clearly been altered, I learned to live with manageable day-to-day discomforts.

Several years went by living in this fragile ecosystem — no longer “sick” but not entirely well either. I had changed mentally, too. Strange symptoms scared me. I looked at new situations according to risk factor for my health. I became depressed, and generally felt at odds with my body.

Last year, seven years after my melanoma surgery, I hit another bump in the road. After trying for more than a year to figure out the cause of swelling in the rib area under my left arm, I was diagnosed with secondary lymphedema, a backup of lymph fluid that can be painful, chronic, progressive and dangerous. Mine — like a lot of people’s — was predisposed by the removal of my lymph nodes, and probably brought on by air travel without compression. My diagnosis was upsetting, but it was also a catalyst for change. I became fed up with the feeling that my body was failing me. I also sensed that I needed to be more proactive. That is how I came to study yoga and ayurveda.

Like a lot of people, I have been an armchair yogi for many years. I probably took my first yoga class about 20 years ago, but somehow it had not occurred to me to turn to yoga during the darkest days of illness.

Since becoming pregnant with my son, yoga had become a semi-regular thing. That changed one Sunday during a yoga class not long after my diagnosis. I had a sudden realization — like a bolt of lighting — that I needed to do more than hit a yoga class at the YMCA once or twice a week.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that yoga therapy is an accessible and popular path of study. The certification process (which is more than 1,000 hours if completed in full) includes training in the spiritual underpinnings and philosophies governing postures, breathwork, meditation techniques, and the moral path of yoga. It also includes training in anatomy and physiology and assessment protocols specifically intended to combat physical challenges. The yoga teacher training program I ultimately enrolled in also included an introduction to ayurveda, which became a crucial piece of the puzzle I had been trying to assemble.

By now, you probably know a little something about yoga. Maybe you even have a daily yoga practice of your own, but relatively few people have much knowledge of yoga’s sister science, ayurveda. Like yoga, ayurveda originated as an oral tradition thousands of years ago in India. Yoga focuses on quieting the fluctuations of the mind as a means of “yoking,” or uniting, mind, body and spirit. Ayurveda is a medical system used for healing and sustaining the body.

While ayurvedic health counselors can focus on preventative care, diet and lifestyle, practitioners are also trained in pathology and disease management. Though the schooling is not the same as a Western M.D., ayurvedic doctors have extensive training and hands-on practice with clients. Their training includes some Western medical practices so that they can be informed of when to stay within their ayuvedic scope of practice and when to refer to allopathic care.

Working from the belief that the body has an abiding wisdom and capacity for healing, ayurvedic guidelines call for assessing each person to ascertain a constitutional type, or life force. Known as the “dosha,” it embodies combinations of elemental characteristics of ether, air, fire and water, and is affected by our inner states of mind and our outer environments.

The ayurvedic counselor, practitioner or doctor will look at an individual’s constitution and their particular physical and emotional environment to pinpoint routines and lifestyle choices that will promote detoxification and balance. To initiate an assessment, they will typically inquire about a broad array of factors such as diet, sleep practices, emotional stressors, and daily routines. They will also conduct a physical assessment that may include a look at the tongue, the pulse, and other corporeal indicators of health, such as the condition of lips and nails.

Jaya Daptardar, an ayurvedic doctor who offers wellness coaching in Weston, and ayurvedic therapies and counseling in New Canaan, says that her wellness assessment also includes “listening” to 12 different pulse points on the wrists according to the principles of ayurveda. She also conducts an eightfold review process. “It consists of reviewing eight areas of the body and bodily functions, all of which reveal places of balance and imbalance,” she says.

Once a professional has a clear picture of the needs of the individual, they will integrate their assessment within their scope of practice to make recommendations. These may include herbs or simple food recommendations. Advanced treatments can include detoxification in various forms, such as a warm-oil treatment used to calm the nervous system.

Whether you visit a health counselor, practitioner or doctor, you can expect to be offered ideas for lifestyle routines. For example, suggestions for my own dosha included minimizing spicy foods, keeping my exercise moderate in intensity, and some grounding yoga practices for the winter months.

Margaret Durbas, a health counselor who practices in Simsbury, says that most people can benefit from a few ayurvedic principles such as eating the largest meal at midday and adhering to a regular sleep schedule so that the organs and glands have sufficient time to recover. “Beginning the morning with a cup of warm water is a great way to help jumpstart the digestive tract,” she says.

Ultimately, the goal is to help the patient strike balance within their particular constitution.

Pawcatuck-based ayurvedic practitioner Jessica Ferrol says that while ayurveda may seem foreign, it is a common-sense system. “Ayurveda is a living science, so things can change as needed,” says Ferrol, who is also a master teacher in the California College of Ayurveda’s distance learning program. “We are an organism in constant contact with our environment. Ayurveda does this beautiful thing where it asks the body what it needs. We can then create a lifestyle that provides clients with tools they can actually use. What I have observed is if we listen, the body will respond.”

It’s a stark contrast to the cycle of fear and disappointment that so often accompanies Western approaches to illness. My own experience is that the symptoms of my lymphedema have been reduced, but not eliminated, since going through the initial 200-hour phase of training. I still struggle with the lingering effects of Lyme, but with the tools I have acquired through integrative therapies, I no longer feel the need to rely exclusively on doctors. Instead, a cup of tea, a 10-minute yoga practice or a slow, deep breath are the typical daily measures I take.

This sense of my own agency in maintaining good health has helped me to relinquish much fear. This may not be the “cure” in the sense that I once understood it, but it has empowered me. In this space, where acceptance and an active sense of fighting back meet, I have found my revised sense of wellness. I can finally, once again, describe myself as a relatively healthy person.


More on ayurveda

The National Ayurvedic Medical Association has standards of education, ethics, professional competency and licensing in the profession. The organization offers a state-by-state list of member professionals who are registered with them. For more information, go to ayurvedanama.org.


This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. 

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