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Chron’s Disease

Billy, age 43, Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, Crohn’s Disease


So I’ve had Crohn’s disease all of my life, but I didn’t find out until I was twenty. For my whole childhood I was raised to do the whole biomedical thing, doctors and medications. But even so, I never got diagnosed. My mum remembers so many times when I was a kid my belly would get all big, and she would rush me to the doctor, but nobody knew what was wrong.

When I was twenty, I went in for an emergency surgery that was initially thought to be my appendix; but it wasn’t my appendix at all. Once they went in to do the surgery, they discovered a big blockage in my digestive tract that was the size of a grapefruit!

So the doctors were like, “oh, you have Crohn’s Disease. And this is why for the last twenty years everything has sucked and you didn’t know why. And this is what you do: you take this medicine.” Which is going to make it suck worse.

So I was finally diagnosed, but I had the same symptoms. Nothing really changed, except now there was a name for it. I spent thirty six days in the hospital post surgery trying to figure out how to spell Crohn’s disease, not being able to eat anything, and getting all my nutrition through an IV… and just trying to get through it.

Dealing with Crohn’s Disease, Before Bikram Yoga

The main medication I took is called Asacol. When I would get flare ups I would be put on the prednisone steroid for a while and that was rough. As the years went by, new medicines were introduced. I tried Humira. I also tried Remicade.

So although I took a lot of medications, I was never really wanting to. My mentality was usually: “I’m going to suffer a bit in the body that I’m in, because I don’t want to mask some problem and pretend it is not there.”

I mean, when you are on predisone, the side effects can make you lose faith is everything. I felt like it was often worse than the symptoms of what I was initially dealing with. So even though I was taking so many meds (Asacol, Humira, and Remicade), I truly didn’t want to be. I was getting by, but I was a shadow of the person I am now.

I would always do as much as I could the natural way. I would try elimination diets that were supposed to help you recharge if you did them for a month. I just tried to do whatever I could do.

But all those things were just treating the symptoms – they didn’t treat the real problem. That is what Bikram Yoga ended up doing.

What brought me to Bikram Yoga wasn’t actually the Crohn’s disease – it was terrible back pain, including herniated discs and awful sciatic pain.

I had never been into fitness or athletics of any kind. I went to college for music and I was touring musician for many years. Later I settled down and started doing landscape design.

Shortly before I turned 30, I ended up needing to have back surgery because of the landscaping labour. It was terrible. I had two herniated discs, and I was in chronic pain, including crazy sciatic pain down my right leg. I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t know anything about backs so I went to a doctor. He discovered two herniated discs (L4 and L5) and said I would have to have surgery.

I didn’t know anything, so I said okay and went ahead and had the surgery. It was lumbar discectomy, and it was a failed surgery. I came out of the surgery feeling the same if not worse than when I went in.

After the surgery I went to physical therapy. At some point my sessions were getting close to running out, and I wasn’t feeling much better. My physical therapist said, “I don’t know Billy, maybe you should try yoga.”

I laughed at her and put her off for about a year. I was like, “Please! I’m covered in tattoos and I play bass in a rock band… we are sponsored by Jagermeister… what am I going to do with candles and incense and meditation? How is that going to help my back?”

But I was really desperate one day and happened to drive by a sign that said “Bikram Yoga, $20 for two weeks.” So I went in.

I practiced consistently, and it started to fix my back very quickly. It worked so well that I kept going… and eventually I just fell in love with Bikram Yoga.

Over the course of years the Bikram practice was very powerful – but very slow – medicine. I started to notice internal changes and how I could digest food better.

I mean with Crohn’s disease, you have a hard time gaining weight, you are anaemic, you know every single rest stop on the highway, you can’t go out to dinner with your friends, you feel weird and awkward because you can’t eat… and eating is such a social thing.

Most people suffer in silence because everyone wants to talk about their bad knee, but no one wants to talk about diarrhoea. That is why I put it out there (even on my website!) that I have Crohn’s disease. I want to help the people who suffer and who don’t want to talk about poop.

Suffering silently just sucks.

After about four or five years of consistent practice my intestines were better. Like, completely better. It’s hard to even describe.

Let’s put it this way – four years ago I had peanut butter for the first time in my life. And now I can eat cashews, salads, Indian food, drink alcohol, have coffee, go out to dinner with my friends, and not have to hit the bathroom every ten seconds. Before, if I ate salad, I would end up in the emergency room. No joke.

So currently, after ten years of Bikram Yoga practice, I’m symptom free. I haven’t been on any medication for several years. I also use the practice and I keep my back feeling good. For me it truly is medicine. I have healed the real physical aspects of my back but also the internal.

In 2012 I went to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. That is the same year I stopped taking all of my medications.

I have been teaching Bikram Yoga since training, and now I own a studio in North Carolina. I tell people all the time if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, anything like that, some sort of something, Bikram Yoga can help. It is not just about touching your forehead to the floor and being flexible.

The Real Problem

You know, in today’s medicine, the last thing that the doctor asks you when you do in is, “What do you eat?”

If you go in and say: “I feel really lethargic and I have no energy and I can’t get off the couch.” They don’t say: “Well, have you been eating only Doritos for the last six weeks? Here’s your problem.”

My doctors didn’t seem to have information about nutrition, so they were only focused on my symptoms and trying to alleviate those symptoms. When I’m actuality they never addressed the real problem.

The crazy thing was that the yoga practice didn’t really help so much with the symptoms, but it really directly affected the problems themselves at the root level. It actually addresses my internal digestive health, the positive bacteria in the gut, the blood and circulation, the amount of water I had to drink, my stress levels, and even having a community of people all healing together. There are so much different levels to it.

Crohn’s disease for me was 50 percent what I ate and 50 percent stress, and Bikram Yoga took care of the stress part.

First Class

I knew absolutely nothing about yoga; I didn’t even know that Bikram Yoga was hot. I went into the studio with $20 and the guy said: “We are just opening and our first classes are tomorrow.” So I gave him $20, and he said to come back tomorrow and I would have two weeks to take class.

This was back in the time where I didn’t ask Siri. That didn’t exist. So I showed up wearing sweatpants and a long sleeve shirt, and carrying a chai latte, thinking we were going to do yoga and sit and meditate with a bunch of cute girls. I obviously didn’t know what to expect.

So in my first class I got my fucking ass kicked. I was like, “I’m never coming back, I’m never wearing sweatpants, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life!” I had no idea what had just happened.

But I came out of class and a couple of hours later I felt a little bit different.

I’m really frugal so I wanted to get the most out of my $20. So I came everyday for the whole two weeks. During that two weeks, the studio started doing a 30 day challenge. By the end of my two weeks, I was like well I’ve been coming everyday, I’m already halfway through this challenge, so I’ll continue on and see what happens.

My teachers had been saying that 30 days in a row will change your body. Great, I thought, because my back was really hurting, and this yoga was already working. If this could fix my back that would be great.

And then, somehow, I read in Bikram’s new book at the time that if you do 60 days in a row it will change your life. At the time I didn’t know anything from anything but I said what the hell, I’m already halfway through, may as well do 60 days.

So my introduction was 60 classes in a row right out of the gate. No doubles, no days off. And my back was feeling good. I was having more moments where I didn’t have back pain and sciatic pain.

That consistency and regularity of practice was what helped me over the course of all these years with the autoimmune stuff. It is easier to fix a knee or shoulder – that could be really quick. But with some of the internal stuff it is powerful but much slower.

Before Bikram Yoga, I had such a bad back; I was out of work and couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t live my life. My quality of life was zero at that point.

I had already had surgery, and the pain only got worse after that, so it seemed like there were no choices left. I was desperate.

At that point I really thought I had tried everything! I wore red underwear for my root chakra, I hung upside down on an inversion table, and I was waking up to alarm clocks that were Tibetan singing bowls – I was trying anything that I possibly could to get out of pain.

Then, in this this state, I tried Bikram. And it was working! There was nothing more important to me than just showing up. When you are in pain, there is nothing else that exists. I wanted more of the pain relief, so I did what I needed to sustain the practice.

One of the things I realised during that first two months was that I had apparently never drank a glass of water in my whole life. I didn’t realise how much water I needed. With Bikram Yoga I had to drink so much water, just to be able to keep up with it. Even just that will help you start to feel better – I don’t care if it is arthritis or whatever, even just drinking water helps to keep your body in its proper functioning state. And Bikram Yoga sort of forced this fact upon me.

Bikram Teacher Styles

It was really hard for me at first because the studio where I first practiced (Bikram Yoga, in Hudson, MA, which is now closed) had certain rules. For example, when I first walked in the teacher said, “OK your goal is to stay in the room.” In my mind I was like, “I might have to go to the bathroom, I don’t know, we will see how it goes.”

I struggled a bit with it. I had to liberate myself from following all the rules or I wouldn’t have been able to stick with it. Like you know, don’t drink your water at certain times or whatever. Man, if I didn’t drink my water I felt like that would have a huge affect on my digestive health and inflammation and all of that.

After a while, I started taking classes with Diane Ducharme in Denim, Massachusetts. She went to training in 1995 and has had her studio for over twenty two years. She teaches Bikram Yoga from a very pure and original place of how it was designed.

This is a type of yoga for people with chronic pain and injury and illness, and that is what she teaches. Her studio is like an infirmary ward. I started going to her and starting adopting her studio as my home studio. She would talk about things like blood rushing through your body, why we rest for 20 seconds, and all the internal things – like why we are massaging our ascending colon. Her explanations really started to resonate with me. She helped me understand more about how beneficial this was from a physiological or medical perspective. And I think that helped me benefit even more.

There was a moment early on, when my digestive health was getting better, and I was seeing these magical transformations in people. I remember thinking that I needed to go and learn everything I could about this practice and share it with everyone, because it was amazing.

Because it wasn’t just me. There was the 80 year old woman with the new hip, and there was the young dude with all the muscles and who could barely bend over and was so stiff and inflexible. And everyone was doing it together. It was this amazing thing that made me better at everything outside of the yoga room. So for me, I run my studio the same way Diane did. I want my people to know what is happening, so the change can start in your brain and then you can put it all together – your brain and your body.

Sharing the practice

I told people right away about Bikram because my back was feeling so much better. At the time, I was in a rock band that toured and my life and friends were a whole different scene. It is a different section of people. Half of the people who played the drums ended up with a bad back.

So I was telling those people, “Dude. You have no idea, you gotta come to yoga. You have no idea what just happened to me.”

I would challenge them. I would say, “If you can stay in that room the entire time, I’ll buy you a beer.”

I was just raving about it. And I remember, too, when the teacher would say in Wind Removing Pose, “You are massaging your ascending colon and descending colon,” I would giggle and think, “Yeah, like, sure. I’m stretching my hamstrings, I get it, but this seems like hogwash.” But now I don’t giggle anymore because I have realised that it works!

Barriers to practicing Bikram Yoga

The first barrier is that people think they can’t handle the heat.

Part of the problem now is that compared to when I started people have so much more information in advance. Some people read on or two people’s opinion on social media that it was hard, and hot, and long… and they immediately decide it’s not for them.

It is true that you have to do the work. It is true that it is very challenging. But a bit part of the issue is societal, in that we are so externally goal oriented: how many miles can you run, how many minutes can you do on the elliptical, how much weight can you bench, how long can you do it, etc. But Bikram is not that. There is no destination in Yoga really not something you can measure easily on the outside. It is just a path.

As soon as you walk in the front door and cross the threshold of my studio [Billy owns Rebel Hot Yoga in Wilmington, NC], you know that the external goals don’t matter. My pregnant teacher will get up on the podium and say, “All you need to do is breathe, and everything else is optional. When you are thirsty, drink your water, and if you are tired, take a break.” That is how we open every class. If you need to pee then you go and come back.

There is no expectation.

Finding Balance

Well now I’m a studio owner, and I’m at my studio all the time. I practice six times a week, although the I don’t need six classes to stay healthy. Since it is my business, I want to see my people, socialise, take class, and mentor teachers. So I am there practicing almost everyday.

For me, three classes a week is the magic number. If you do more than three a week, you will get all of the benefits. If you do under three, you will maintain what you have and make incremental improvements. But when you need to heal, the more you come, the better it is.

I’m a very lean person, so I have to be more conscious and staying hydrated. For someone with my body type, if they aren’t conscious and practice too much without hydrating, they could become dehydrated and could exacerbate symptoms.

You have to find the right balance though. You need to practice enough to get the benefits but not so much that you can’t stay hydrated, or that you get stressed out about it, because that is counterproductive. At my studio we don’t do 30 day challenges; we do a 20-classes-in-30-days challenge, so there are built in breaks.

The way that I was taught to do it by Diane is when you have something that is really acute, you need to come in six days a week until you find some sort of resolution. And then after that, you can have your maintenance practice of three times a week or so.

For me, if I don’t practice for a week, I can feel pain and symptoms coming back in my back and in my stomach.

Bikram Yoga is now medicine for me. Some people take pills. Some people take yoga. At first it was like boot camp, because I needed to change so many things about my mind and my body and my emotions. But how it is sustainable, so I can maintain what I have, and the symptoms stay dormant.

I also know that sometimes in my life my back is going to hurt, and at some time in my life I’m going to have a flare up in my digestive symptoms. But when I look at the whole long term big picture and accept that, I also know that I have my yoga practice to be able to get my health back. When I’m symptom free I want to maintain that, so I always try to keep my practice regular.

Another example of the big picture is that I have a bad knee right now, a torn meniscus. When things like this come up, I want to be in a class five times a day doing just one percent of the postures, because I know that’s where the benefit is.

What’s cool though is that the compound effect makes a huge difference. The improvements in circulation, strength, and stress relief are accumulative – the class that I take today is the result of every class I have ever taken. It just keeps building upon itself.

These days I don’t have to do six classes in a row because I have so much interest in the bank. I can jump back in, and my body knows what it needs to do to heal.

For me, the Crohn’s disease was about fifty percent what I ate and about fifty percent stress and emotion. If the IRS called up, my stomach would kill and I would have a big flare up.

It is a bodily response. Just like if Sandra Bullock walked into my studio, I would have goosebumps coming and my body would react!

One things I have been thinking about since you contacted me was the connection between autoimmune disease with Bikram Yoga. With autoimmune disease – and Crohn’s disease in my case – I always felt that this was my own body creating a condition that didn’t otherwise exist.

Nobody stabbed me with a knife. Nobody did something to me. It was like I was stabbing myself somehow. My body just didn’t get it, and it is creating this thing, this unneeded inflammation. It is unnecessary, but my body didn’t know how to respond correctly.

So then Bikram Yoga also seems to be creating some thing. But a different kind of thing. It is teaching my body a new way to respond. Almost like a different immune ability.

In the past, and if I have a flare up now, my body would create this reaction internally to some external situation (stress, etc.)

And in yoga, all the things we work on – like self control, concentration, faith, patience, determination- these are creating a different state within my body. These states are equally valid to the body, because they are creating a different emotional state and different bodily response to stresses. I think this is a big part of joe this changes the autoimmune response. So class is like the Bikram Yoga force field.