I recently had the misfortune of experiencing a severe allergic reaction. My skin erupted in all-over itching and burning, aggravated by all elements – heat, water, wind, and touch. Within a few days, my entire existence became intolerably irritated.
Up until that moment, my skin had been a guardian angel – a shield from external assaults, and a safe-keeper of my internal vitals. This time, however, the skin was being attacked from the inside, not the outside, and quite understandably, it reacted dramatically.
Once the reaction had downgraded from a potential life-threat of windpipe closure to just miserably uncomfortable, I knew all I could do was wait for my body to complete its stages of allergic response. I then reflected on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.30: “These are the obstacles that bring disturbance to the mind: disease, lack of effort, loss of interest, inapplication, attraction to things physical, false perceptions, lack of concentration, inability to maintain any achievements gained.” (Translation: Kofi Busia 1998)
Two things strike me as I read that sutra. The first is this: disease doesn’t allow one to be at rest mentally. When one is literally struggling to do basic activities like eat, breathe and sleep, it takes not only physical energy, but also immense mental concentration. The second insight from sutra 1.30, however, is this: disease can be defined as being generated from within the individual.
When I look at the long list Patanjali gives for disturbances to the mind, we usually attribute most of them to inner qualities like laziness, inability to focus, or lack of desire. Because these attitudes and behaviors come from within, we believe we can control them and create mental change. Physical disease, on the other hand, appears to come from outside of us – a foreign invasion of microbes and germs. We assume disease happens to us, and is not caused by us.
Yes, of course disease inflicts upon us from outside sources such as viruses and bacteria; but the outside sources are matched by inside sources, too. As many wise Yoga teachers say, “As below, so above.” Yoga is a blurring of the line between inside and outside, them and us. It is a unification of within and without, of yin with yang. And the more one studies Yoga, the more one realizes nothing needs to be done to create this unification. It is already here. All our physical and meditation practices are simply meant to make us aware of this fact.
My stresses at the moment of the allergic reaction were about trying to appease dissatisfied people, devoting considerable amounts of time and even some personal finance to help ensure success for those individuals. Quite honestly, I think my inner annoyance and irritation just decided to show itself through my skin, as I grew increasingly tired of working towards a goal that I believed would go unappreciated. Inflamed and impassable, my skin would no longer allow me to give any more of my internal energy away.
And so, how to heal?
At some point I remembered the strong connection between the skin and lungs. As the rash was always worst when I wanted to go to bed, I sat down for an evening meditation session. I watched the breath as it entered the nose, and felt it travel up the bridge into the sinuses. I focused on the cool sensation of the air as it entered, and worked its way into my lungs. I encouraged the lungs to keep expanding more and more, and as they inflated, I felt the lungs press down towards the floor, gently pressing against the abdominal cavity, like the roots of a tree fanning out into the ground. The deeper I breathed, and the more intent I focused on the cool air entering my lungs, the more my skin calmed down, and stopped angrily demanding my attention. I could then transition from the meditation cushion to the bed for some much-needed rest.
To completely heal, I’ll continue to practice the techniques taught to me by many amazing Yoga healers over the years. Because nothing will change outside, until I can change inside.