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Rheumatoid Arthritis

Ayesha Nauth, age 42, Brighton, United Kingdom, Rheumatoid Arthritis

A Fast Fall from Youthful Health to Severe Rheumatoid Arthritis

I was born in Guyana, South America, and my parents brought us over to England when I was 12. I went to school and had a perfectly good childhood. Then I went to university and was quite involved in everything going on sports wise, including basketball and hockey.

In my final year in university, my feet and hands started to swell. So I went to the doctor the next day at the university. They sent me for blood tests at the hospital and they said it was arthritic. The RA factor in my blood system was extremely high, so I needed to go to hospital to do some other tests. I went to the hospital and they kept me in for ten days, and I was officially diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. My stay in the hospital felt like forever, but I was grateful to have a lot of visitors. In addition, I sort of made friends with the elderly around me, even though I was only 22. You always think, “That isn’t going to happen to me. Arthritis is for people that is older.”

My feet were quite swollen – so much that I couldn’t wear shoes at that point. I was in severe pain, but otherwise felt fine.

The doctors prescribed a ton of drugs, and they were pumping me with medication. But eventually they sent me back to university. I was really suffering and couldn’t even get to lectures, so friends were bringing me notes and helping me out.

I plummeted into a depression straight away.

The doctors kept running tests — trying to get things to work — and prescribing lots of painkillers. Then I did all my examinations and went back home to my parents. At that point I became basically bedridden for a really long time. Just before I left university, my boyfriend broke up with me because he said he couldn’t deal with the condition. The doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair by the age of 35. I already had a walking stick.

Medications, Depression and the Ups and Downs of RA

My parents wanted to find a more natural remedy, so they tried reflexology, acupuncture, and Chinese Herbs, and they took me around lots of different people to find a cure. At this stage I couldn’t feed myself. My mum had to cut up my food and feed me — I couldn’t even hold a cup. My hands and wrists and knuckles just seized up.

I also remember my family, friends, uncles, and aunts visiting me, but I felt really embarrassed, because I was only age 22 and 23, yet so incapable of doing anything for myself.

This continued for a long time. With the medication it takes three to six months for it to get into your system and start working, so if it is not working after six months or so, then they try something else. For years and years doctors were trying different things until they could find something that worked. I plummeted further into depression. I wanted to take an overdose of all the medication I was taking. Like, seriously, I was at a very low place on my life and didn’t think my life was worth living.

However, at some point the medication started working, and I started feeling better. The medication that ended up working was methotrexate — which is really common for rheumatoid arthritis and also can be used to treat cancer — but it had a lot of side effects.

At that time my parents were going through a divorce, which was also very stressful. My mum got a house and took me and my sisters with her. She helped me to get a call centre job because I wasn’t sick anymore. I could work behind the scenes and not be seen. I was earning money and doing well and feeling a little more independent and getting my life back again.

Rheumatoid arthritis is very up and down. For a while you feel better, and then you plummet and can’t go to work some days, but then some days you are fine. I carried on and I was feeling better and better with the drugs but still in pain. I started doing ah evening course in graphic design. I passed the course and then was able to get a job in London. It was good to start working again, but I couldn’t wear heels, and I remember feeling awful in my flats. My toes were really curled up and deformed, and I was trying to hide them in normal shoes, but I couldn’t. It was awful.

Bikram Yoga – A First Class Miracle

A friend of mine at the time was practicing Bikram Yoga, and she suggested that I try it. I distinctly remember going in the room on the first day. At this point I couldn’t turn handles on a door, and several of the fingers on my hands were curled in towards my palm in a deformed position.

Due to my deformed fingers, I would always have to wait for someone to open a door for me. I never wanted to ask someone to open the door for me, because they would look at me and think, “What’s wrong with you?” So I would just wait.

That first class is etched in my memory. I remember I couldn’t get my hands together anything close to the proper grip, but I was really determined. Being in a group you can become quite competitive, but it can be used for good. I have that competitive background from sports; you either compete or you use the same energy as the person next to you: that competitive spirit made me want to keep up with the person next to me in the class. Yet, at the same time, if someone was sitting down, it motivated me to want to be stronger for that person. I felt people trying to be stronger for me as well.

In addition to my hands, my knees were so swelled and huge that I couldn’t kneel down, bend, or do Fixed Firm posture. Instead, for the whole serious I was just on all fours. I felt awkward that I couldn’t get into onto my toes. I had so much pain, but at the same time, I knew something was working.

After class, something had changed. I could feel it in my body. When I walked out, I could turn the door handle myself! I couldn’t believe it. I felt different mentally and physically. I also felt like this was something I wanted to be good at, because I couldn’t do any of the other running or team sports that I used to do. So I decided to keep going, practicing and practicing, and going to as many classes as I could when I was not working. I bought a yearly pass right after the introduction period.

Transformations Over Time

I felt a lot of changes in my body after starting Bikram Yoga. My skin had been awful because of the medication I was on; it was like snakeskin. But after practicing for a few months, my skin was looking better. It wasn’t scaly anymore. I also was feeling less swollen from the steroids that I was taking. During the first year of practicing Bikram, I went to class on average three times a week.

Sometimes I would be in tears most of the class because of the pain. One time when the teacher noticed me crying, she said, “This is just temporary. You are going to feel pain anyway because this class is very hard, so you know, don’t worry about it, just keep going.”

A year later, I was feeling incredible. The National Asana Championships for the United Kingdom were being held, and I decided to go and watch it. I was in the audience, and Michelle Pernetta (one of my teachers) was judging.

At one point, she turned around to me and said, “You go get dressed for the stage.” I was reluctant but did it anyway: I think this was in 2009 (I had only been practicing for about three years). I said to Michelle, “Oh my god, my skin is so bad. I’m not very good, I’m embarrassed and I don’t want to be on stage.”

She said, “No, you need to go. This is what yoga competition is about. This is about inspiring people. People will feel good about doing Bikram Yoga if they see someone like you doing it, because a lot of people come here from different backgrounds, with different talent levels. Go on stage; you will be fine. It will be good for you to compete and be in a different light and challenge yourself.”

So I had to borrow a leotard, and other people did my makeup (which was definitely not me!) I then went on stage. I had never been in this situation before. It was out of my comfort zone, but I did it, and I felt very proud of myself.

Michelle was right about how great the experience would be. It was good to get the first competition out of the way, to feel the adrenaline, to feel people watching me, and to feel what it was like to demonstrate the postures. So I just carried on practicing really regularly.

After seven years of practicing Bikram I went back to my doctors, and they were really astonished. A normal person’s RA factor is two to three, because everyone has a little bit of inflammation in their system. When I was first diagnosed, my RA factor was over sixty-five, and it stayed on around forty-five to fifty for a long time. But on this visit my results dropped to four. Truly astonishing!

At times, I was still in a little pain, and I needed to continue taking medication, but it was nothing like it had been before. Given that all of my blood results looked normal, it was really hard to prove that I was in enough pain to get more medication when I needed it. When I had pain or symptoms, the doctors would look at my bloody results and say, “This doesn’t add up.”

Upping the Intensity

I had by now worked my way up in the corporate world and was working in banking in the city. I was doing quite well; I now had my own flat which I had bought myself with my own hard earned savings. But I felt empty, and something was missing. I wanted to give back something to the yoga world for saving my life.

I decided to quit my job in 2009, and in 2012 I went to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training and came back to teach for Michelle. I was living in Brighton and travelling back and forth to London on the train for nearly four hours per day, to teach and practice. In 2012, when I competed again in the National Asana Championships for the United Kingdom, I came in third.

In 2013, I was introduced to the advanced practice in London. I was encouraged by many teachers and I let practicing intensely. I was teaching back-to-back classes, practicing 90 minutes of Bikram and then advanced classes for two to three hours.

During that year, I decided to enter the competition – but this time I won! I then went to Loz Angeles to compete in the World Championships. In the World Championships that year, I think I came 24th out of 100 women. I just kept going really. I was travelling and teaching on yoga retreats in Italy, Spain, India, etc. Being a teacher means that you have access to all these amazing studios around the world; I travelled and taught in Vienna, America, Canada, and Thailand.

Intensity + Frequency -> Benefit

The thing about the phase I went through – where I was training for competitions – is that it probably had the biggest healing effect. At one point I thought, “Because I have arthritis, I need to take it a little bit easier.” But it was the opposite. I needed to practice a lot more to heal my broken body.

During this time, I was practicing twice a day and teaching twice a day, so I was in the hot room all the time. I felt incredible.

If I didn’t practice in the hot room intensely like I did, I think my joints would be more deformed than they are now. I think the disease slowed down because of the postures I was doing and the intensity of it. The swelling in my hands has decreased, and my fingers aren’t as bad as they would have been had innit practices Bikram Yoga. Although Bikram Yoga was not able to reverse the joint deformation that had already happened, I think it kept the arthritis at bay and stopped the deformation from progressing.

Pregnancy, RA, and Bikram Yoga

The doctors said that I might not be able to have children. My husband and I tried for two years. We were about to go through fertility treatments, but then I got pregnant. I now have a five year old girl and a three year old boy. They are perfectly healthy, and I am trying hard to keep it this way, making sure they exercise. They practice yoga with me and eat well.

I practiced Bikram Yoga when I was pregnant with my daughter, all the way up until three days before I gave birth. My RA symptoms went completely into remission when I was pregnant, and I think they stayed away while I was breastfeeding. When I was done nursing, the RA came back a bit, but then I got pregnant quite quickly thereafter.

There is a twenty two month gap in age between my children. So I had it pretty good with four years of remission. When I was pregnant I thought, “Oh, this is what it feels like to feel normal! This is what a normal person can feel.” I was so free and I felt like I could do anything. It actually felt the same as when I was doing Bikram really intensely and doing the advanced practice.

Changes in Practice Frequency and Benefits

A couple of years ago I opened my own studio called The Hot Yoga Hun. I taught all the classes apart from a couple each week, so that I could practice in my own studio. However, I found it very hard to maintain a work/life balance and be there for my children and husband. So I’m August 2018, I decided to close the studio. I felt as though I was preaching all the benefits and helping others to achieve their goals and to heal themselves with the yoga, but at the same time I was suffering both physically and mentally. I needed to find the balance again.

I no longer own a studio but I still teach Bikram Yoga classes. Sometimes I have a flare up overnight, and when I wake up, I have pain or trouble moving in the morning. But I have to get on with it, because students are waiting for me to teach. Fortunately, but the time I am done teaching the class, the pain has dissipated.

Since I haven’t been practicing as much these last few years, my knees are a bit painful, and my wrist hurts, but it is manageable. I know the reason for the pain is because my practice has decreased.

Other Exercise, Other Approaches

I feel uncomfortable in my body – and mentally – if I’m not practicing. There is this internal craving for it, and I can’t imagine life without it. I have tried to go to the gym, but every time I try, it’s not motivating, and it doesn’t have the same aftereffect at all.

My medication has also increased. I have been taking methotrexate for a long time, and in 2017, I received an injection of Rituximab, which lasts for approximately two years. In the last four months I started Abatacept, which is one injection a week. We’ll see how this one works.

In the past year, I have changed my diet as well. Certain types of food I was eating caused inflammation and as a result I have tried to cut back on those types of food. I have been taking a lot more probiotics, like homemade kombucha and kefir, and a really high dosage of vitamin D. I’m trying to be gluten-free because sheaf and gluten affect my arthritis l. I am also doubling up with herbs and plenty of organic vegetables and anything that is really rich like flax seeds and nuts. I’m trying to have a really simple diet and not eat as much anymore – and I definitely avoid processed foods and sugar. I eat a lot of quinoa and lentils. I’d say it is close to a vegan diet but not completely. Just more of a plant-based diet.

Involving the Medical Professions

I actually have clients who stopped needing to see their osteopathic practitioner or chiropractor because they started coming to Bikram Yoga. There are some people who say their osteopathic practitioner recommended hot yoga to them, which is really amazing!

When I told my rheumatologist about how my practice had basically removed my symptoms, he was really intrigued and wanted me to give a lecture on my experience. I still do get asked to talk at local community events to inspire children. I have done a few talks to young children in local communities and scouts.

Inspiring Others to Try

I have people contacting me specifically to come practice with me because they have RA. We have a lot of students with arthritis who come to us because of my story. I also have lots that come because they have been told about it.

When I speak to people in class, I’m now open to them about my arthritis so they know the struggles and so they feel inspired to work, too. They feel understood and that they are not alone with their pain and their condition. It inspires them, and they feel instantly great afterwards and less alone.

I am now teaching yoga to children and teenagers and local adult classes in the yoga school. My next dream project is to built a yoga retreat in the Algarve, Portugal.