How Asthma Forced A Type-A Yogi To Meet Her Yin Self  

Tired after a run in Central Park, I took a yin yoga workshop with Ulrica Norberg, Scandinavian Director of ISHTA Yoga.

Lulled by Norberg’s gentle manner and Swedish accent, I decided to skip the next morning’s recovery workout: a jog across Brooklyn Bridge and back. While I wanted to contain my runner’s high, I was exhausted from my goal-driven week. Lying on my side with my bottom leg in a lazy thigh stretch, “cat pulling its tail,” I knew I needed balance to complete my first marathon in November.

A recently diagnosed asthmatic, I reasoned I could cross the finish line, but only if I scheduled time for rest and regular checkups. My body called for yin yoga, sustained and softer versions of classic asana. Instead of contracting and stretching muscle, yin re-directed mind chatter and unwound tension in the fascia, connective tissue in and around each structure in the body.

At 39, I was fit. Yet mild asthma, in the form of occasional breathlessness, made me admit to being human. If I were to honor my daily yoga practice and its feedback — anxiousness and tightness in the chest — I had to train with compassion. Sometimes, I might have to trade a jog for a walk, but I could steadily complete 26.2 miles.

Kind-hearted training wouldn’t be easy. My ego registered toil as reward.

I began racing two years ago, after earning my master’s degree in Health Education. Retired from a dance-career in musical theater, I loved discipline. Concrete tasks, like grad school and arm balances, stoked my sense of accomplishment. Running was a natural choice, and being outside made me feel free while expelling nervous energy. My body switched to calm — every stimulus surrounded by a field of space. Subway dancers didn’t bother me because I was in a meditative state of mind.

At first I ran 5Ks, then 10Ks, then two half marathons. Last December, I finished my ninth race of the year, qualifying me for the 2014 New York City Marathon. Days later, I coughed all night, which was unusual. Yet I walked to work in the wind. My commute normally took 15 minutes, but the icy dry air triggered constriction in my airways, forcing me to stop every few steps. By the time I got to work, gasping and breaking out in hives, I was having my first full-blown asthma attack. “How can I have asthma?” I asked my quickly assembled medical team: my general practitioner, my allergist, and my pulmonologist. “I’m an ox.”

Without a family history, I thought asthma came out of no where, but when I talked to doctors, I realized I had mentally and physically pushed through a series of bronchial coughs and allergic reactions for more than a year. Now I was one of 25 million Americans with asthma, a chronic lung disease for which there is no cure. The good news was that my condition was manageable with allergy shots, a maintenance inhaler, and more moderate lifestyle. Running contributed to my overall health, but I had to be reasonable.

Like Norberg said in the workshop, yin energy is the opposite of a New Yorker’s yang impulse to be the doer. My secret fear was that if I didn’t “yang” enough, I wouldn’t be me. But my body knew I needed to pause. Who I was had nothing to do with how fast I ran or my form in chataranga. If I took time to truly listen, the real me would emerge with conviction and ease. I could say “yes” to my dream of running New York, if that was what I wanted. I could also say “no” to a fatiguing agenda, if that’s what I needed.

As Norberg’s workshop continued, I dropped more commitments. My after-class plan was to vacuum under my fridge, but in a reclining twist, I felt dust bunnies in my ribs. And I let my body have the treat it required.

–Ann Votaw

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2 comments

  1. […] I’m a newly diagnosed asthmatic who is learning to manage my condition with Eastern and Western medicine. Inspired by Ulrica Norberg’s yin workshop at ISHTA on June 6, I wrote this blog post for YogaCity NYC. […]

  2. I love getting a glimpse into your world – even from as far away as Vienna 🙂

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