Yoga literally helped me save my life

When your primary physician calls you up at 7:00AM to insist you to head to the Emergency Room as fast as possible, it’s pretty unsettling, to say the least!

Obviously, something very wrong had been revealed in the diagnostic tests she’d arranged at my last office visit. I saw her because I’d been experiencing dyspnea (shortness of breath) the previous three or four months while teaching yoga. Initially, I’d hoped it would pass – that I was tired, congested or something more convenient – but, because I was greatly delayed in speaking while struggling to catch my breath whenever I would hold a forward fold pose for 30 seconds or more, I became concerned enough to get a checkup.

Thank heavens. A quick, in-office EKG announced that my life was about to change dramatically; it revealed a left bundle branch block, an irregularity in my heart’s conduction system (the left ventricle was getting it’s jolt to contract a little later than the right ventricle), and so, being the dutiful D.O. that she is, she scheduled a chest x-ray and an echocardiogram/stress test at the hospital to find out why.

It could have been any number of things: a blockage, heredity, viral or worse (I don’t remember what else). Even though she said this is something that can be lived with, this news left me kind of freaked out and I was already projecting the worst.

The chest x-ray went fine (well, no one called me up to insist I head to the ER, at any rate). Three weeks later, the echocardiogram was barely underway when the technician murmured “there’s no way you’re getting on a treadmill” for the stress test.

I’m pretty sure these technicians are trained to keep their findings private during examinations; that she was that dismayed by what she was seeing only left me more concerned.

The cardiologist was summoned…murmur, murmur, murmur…and they abruptly sent me home. Pretty unnerving (and kind of wrong, based on the severity of what I would learn).

Then, the phone call. Of course, I followed her instructions – just with minor delay; I had classes to cancel and, wisely, I insisted I have breakfast first; I somehow sensed it was going to be a long time before I was to eat again – and was I ever correct.

Upon arrival at the ER, I was immediately ushered in. Within the first half an hour, staff who were attending were admitting that they were very surprised to see such a healthy-looking patient sitting before them (according to what they’d just read in my reports). Apparently, they were expecting someone [much] closer to death’s door, unable to sit up (I could walk across the room) and probably a disturbing shade of blue.

I learned I was dangerously sick due to an ejection fraction of 10%. This number refers to the percentage of oxygenated blood that gets pumped out of the left ventricle – the last stop in the heart – and into the body. We’re supposed to have an ef of about 65-75%! (If you could have seen the poorly concealed horror on the faces of the doctors and nurses when they were told this, you’d get a sense of how much trouble I appeared to be in!!!) Plus, and perhaps worse, the echocardiogram revealed that my left ventricle was badly misshapen and severely overstressed, increasing the likelihood that the ventricle would slip suddenly into an irregular and fatal arrhythmia.

Scary stuff to hear while looking so healthy.

The diagnosis: CHF – Congestive Heart Failure. (Can you imagine how hard it was to sleep that night, being told that your heart has failed?!!!) Plus, after being admitted and hooked up to a heart monitor, the nurse would regularly and urgently appear at my door, worriedly asking if I was OK; I learned that my heart was slipping into irregular heart rhythms regularly. I was officially freaked out…and very confused.

How could I have been teaching 16 yoga classes a week – physically active throughout them all – yet be so periously close to SCD – Sudden Cardiac Death? How could a few spells of shortness of breath be so close to calamity? Obviously, I was GREATLY surpassing what a 10% ejection fraction would allow me to do. How was I doing this?

It was the Yoga.

I deduced from this ordeal (which involved a second hospitalization and the implant of a pacemaker to keep my heart beating regularly and a defibrillator to shock me back to life if it didn’t) that Yoga has some nifty, built-in benefits for this kind of situation.

For one, yoga involves nasal breathing. Did you know that nasal breathing increases the amount of oxygen being absorbed into the bloodstream by up to 18%?! (Take one of my classes sometimes and you’ll likely hear how this works.)

Also, did you know the muscularity of deep breathing is known as a thoracic pump? Along with the skeletal muscles already contracting and pumping blood throughout the body due to the yoga poses, this combination (skeletal muscle pump and thoracic pump) returns de-oxygenated blood back to the heart fast enough to be sent to the lungs for replenishment – apparently quickly enough before the symptoms of shortness of breath become obvious (as in passing out)! Aside from those troublesome forward folds, I was virtually asymptomatic for the kind of predicament I was in.

I’m truly grateful that I picked up the practice of yoga 18 years prior; who knows how sick (or dead!) I could have become without the aid of these benefits? I’m also grateful that it was the self-awareness and honesty yoga builds that led me to investigate the situation further. Without such self-awareness and truth, I might have easily denied that there was a problem.

Lesson: do yoga! It might be better for you than you know. And, if you’re experiencing shortness of breath, see your doctor immediately! Knowledge is power, and it could mean the difference between life and death.