The day after I finished a major project (my new book, Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses), I came down with a fever. For a few days, it hurt my brain to do anything other than watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the third time through. After a week or so on antibiotics, the infection somehow got into my lungs, forcing me to take another, stronger round of antibiotics.
In the yoga and spirituality community, we like to tell stories about our illnesses and misfortunes. We like to think there’s a reason for everything, that our painful experiences are blessings in disguise, sent to teach us a lesson. We may hold grief in our lungs, for example, or discover that the pain in our back means that we feel emotionally unsupported. Sickness and injury, the theory goes, can act like signals to tell us there is something wrong in our lives that we need to fix. I had just finished a major project, sure, but I wasn’t sad or depressed or particularly stressed. What had I done to deserve this?
When we are sick, we feel weak and out of control. Imagining the illness came to us for a reason gives us back a sense of control, making our random misfortunes feel just a little bit more fathomable. The danger is that this also means that if we were living right, we wouldn’t need the signal that something is wrong. Getting sick becomes our fault, so we feel shame about it.
I try my best to take care of myself. I do yoga, sleep 8 hours, and meditate daily. When I feel under the weather, I take oil of oregano and try to slow down. I don’t repress my emotions (as much, anymore). When I get sick, I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed in some way, like I could have done something better.
When the doctor told me my sickness had progressed into my lungs, I burst into tears. I asked him what I had done to worsen the infection. He paused, then said, “Well, I’d shame you if there was something to shame you about. But it’s not your fault, these things just happen.”
It’s no secret that sleep, healthy food, and regular exercise help our immune systems, help us heal, and keep our nervous systems regulated, but they don’t make us bionic. We are still human beings, and viruses and bacteria want so much for us to be their hosts. Getting sick is just part of having a human body.
Still though, illness does have its hidden riches. It forces us to slow down and process whatever has been going on. It gives us a chance to prioritize the needs of our bodies over our desires for productivity. Serious sickness and injury can sometimes change our lives for the better, allowing us to grow and evolve in a new way in our lives. It can give us a chance to process and release whatever has been going on for us. And it can really let us catch up on our Buffy.
This doesn’t mean, however, that our illnesses have a plan for us. A virus is a virus, and blaming ourselves for our vulnerabilities only makes us feel worse. Creating stories about our misfortunes and learning from them is a beautiful practice, but we must also understand that life is fundamentally random, and what happens to us isn’t always about us. Listening to our bodies, taking care of ourselves, and staying open to the lessons our sicknesses may have for us without requiring those lessons to be there: that is the yoga of being sick.