Yogis Are Human: The Heart Sutra and the Heart Muscle
Article At A Glance
“You’re not supposed to have a cold,” a student said one night at the yoga studio.
“Oh?” I replied, eyebrow raised.
“You’re a yoga teacher,” she offered by way of explanation. I wish I’d had a witty comeback, but instead, I turned away to sneeze. Good thing, because I didn’t really know what to say. “Isn’t yoga supposed to make you healthy?” she asked.
“Yogis are human,” I replied. “We get sick. We get old. We die.”
“Then, why do yoga?”
“For those very reasons,” I said. Because we get sick. We get old. We die.
This conversation was years before the Covid pandemic struck. But the truth was, such questions—and their underlying assumption that yoga should somehow be a miracle cure—struck a chord. Hadn’t I felt that way, too, deep inside? I’d prided myself on staying healthy, and felt lucky that my practice had given me the gifts of stamina, energy, and health. I looked and felt youthful.
So I was surprised when a congenital heart issue surfaced after I turned the corner on 50. When I told fellow practitioners about it, their responses surprised me even more.
“What? There’s nothing wrong with your heart,” they said, “You do yoga!”
The Figurative Heart and the Heart Muscle
True, there was nothing wrong with my heart, in the figurative sense. I’d made it my practice to investigate, prod, and open this red planet inside me. I took refuge in the Heart Sutra and meditated on forgiveness. I sent compassion and lovingkindness to friends, strangers, and people I had difficulty with. I taught those practices, too.
Figuratively, my heart was strong. But the muscle itself was weak. In my childhood, the pediatrician would put the cold stethoscope to my chest, take a listen, and inevitably say: “You have an athlete’s heart.” Alas, I missed that boat, and a heart rate of 30 beats a minute was just something I had lived with my whole life. Fortunately, I never felt dizzy. I never felt faint, short of breath, or lacking in energy.
Only once did I realize how dangerous my situation was: when I’d had surgery, it took me a very long time to come out from the general anesthesia. The doctors warned me that my heart rate was slow and I should not have surgery again unless my life depended on it. I moved abroad, opened a yoga studio, and became a mother. I was too busy to worry about my slow heart rate. Since I never had symptoms, it was easy to forget.
That is, it was easy to forget until a few years ago, when I traveled up to sacred Mt. Koya in Japan to receive the Bodhisattva vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, helping a friend from Switzerland attend the transmission. Back in Tokyo, her well-meaning ex took me out to lunch to thank me, forcing me to drink a triple espresso. Afterward, I felt dizzy, saw double, then nothing. I thought I was having a stroke.
The neurologist sent me straight away to a cardiologist, who said my heart rate was 30 beats a minute. How was I still alive? I never felt weak, lethargic, and unable to function. I was lucky. He told me to call my friend and thank him for giving my heart a much-needed stress test. I called this very straight company president, thanked him, and asked him why he had forced me to drink the coffee. “No idea. There are always angels around me,” he said.
I needed to have a pacemaker put in.
The Yoga of Mechanical Miracles
“What? You’re a yoga teacher. You can’t have a ‘bad’ heart!” people said. Then the suggestions for remedies came in—biofeedback, acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy, and karmic clearing. Backtrack a decade, when I was tackling infertility. The same remedies had been suggested then—and tried, and tried, and tried.
Now I knew that my slow heart rate was most likely responsible for my inability to get—and stay—pregnant. I didn’t get pregnant, but yoga gave me the realization that what I really wanted was to be a mother. So I adopted and became a mother. And I’m grateful for the difficulty I went through to get here because I appreciate every day of being a mother—even the shitty ones. And I wanted more of those days—the good and the bad. I wanted to be alive if I could at all tilt the scales in that direction.
So this time, I went straight to a cardiac specialist. And I got a pacemaker. Because, as my yoga taught me, we really don’t know if we have tomorrow. And my yoga also taught me: pay attention to my body.
What Yoga Can Do
So, does yoga work? Absolutely.
In the end, yoga didn’t fix my heart, which, it turned out, was actually very strong to have kept me going all those years at such a slow rate. It gave me better medicine: the tools to be calm in the face of a potential crisis and the awareness to be grateful for the heart that worked so hard to keep me alive despite its challenges.
So now, when people say things like, “Yogis don’t get sick,” I tell them: “Yes, we do. We are human. We have pacemakers and artificial hips, and we take anti-depressants. We age. We get sick. We die.”
The body is our chariot, our rental car in this human incarnation. As the Heart Sutra says: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form. This form gives us valuable information. It’s our job—and our yoga practice—to listen to it. When it needs care, we care for it. When it needs rest, we rest. It’s our responsibility, or as Jack Kornfield would say, our “assignment,” to take the best care of this vehicle that we can. And it’s a privilege to honor and accept our human frailty and weakness, along with our strength and health. Our practice is to accept and love bodies that age, fall apart, and eventually die.
That’s why we roll out our mats and do our practice.
How blessed we are that yoga meets us there, where we are, every single time.