Yoga for Life: An HIV positive story
Carl* was about to travel to Singapore for work when he was diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus. It was 2008, and he says back then, information about HIV treatment wasn’t readily available.
He recalls, “I told myself it’s the end and I’ll die young. For three years I was really depressed. I had suicide attempts na hindi matuluy-tuloy.”
Today, HIV is a growing epidemic in the Philippines despite the drop in the number of new infections globally. The Department of Health reports the number of cases have grown over 1000% in a span of 6 years.
Turning it around
In 2012, Carl entered HIV Anonymous despite heavy doubts. He met like minded people but it didn't stop there. There was always that shadow of depression until a friend introduced him to an unconventional treatment - yoga.
Carl started classes with Yoga for Life, the first yoga-based intervention for people living with and affected by HIV in the Philippines.
“I had a lot of reservations before I attended Yoga for Life, I’m not physically fit, I’ll be practicing with people I don’t know. But a friend kept on insisting and I eventually gave in,” Carl explains.
While YFL encourages people affected with HIV to attend the class it doesn't force anyone to disclose their HIV status.
Not a victim
YFL President Benedict Bernabe says it’s important to treat everyone equally, especially when it comes to HIV. “People try to be very nurturing, masyadong bini-baby, which is bad. You disempower the person in a way. The person becomes a victim. You should be able to treat everyone equally."
“A lot of people, once they get diagnosed, they assume an HIV personality. They create a separate identity.” YFL aims to boost one’s capacity to deal with emotional and physical trauma.
Last week, they celebrated World AIDS day through The Yoga for Life Healing Festival. They featured different practices and info sessions where YFL's own roster of teachers taught Hatha, Power, and Yin Yoga. Loveyourself Inc. led a session on HIV 101 while SHIP foundation gave a talk on PrEP or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, the newest tool in preventing HIV in the global scale.
What does yoga have to do with HIV? Does it really cure at all?
Benedict, who previously worked as community facilitator with UNAIDS, clarifies yoga is not a cure to HIV/AIDS. "We always say yoga complements evidence-based medicine. Ever since day one. It's not an alternative." Yoga also helps reduce the side effects of the treatment. It's there for you when daily medication changes your blood chemistry and triggers chills, cold sweat, and severe depression.
"One, your stress levels will go down if you improve your breathing. Number two, the physical practice helps alleviate AIDS-related pain. The third one is more on the acupuncture side of treatment."
YFL founder Paulo Leonido says healing takes time and this is where the concept of community comes in. What happens after you get tested and diagnosed with HIV? It's important to build and maintain a healthy self-esteem something that becomes very difficult to do for anyone who's sick. Paulo, also a certified HIV counselor and yoga instructor, says support cushions the trauma and depression from the diagnosis and treatment.
Carl admits Paulo was the reason why he kept coming back to class. "When I saw that other people are willing to accept me, I began to ask myself: why can't I accept myself but others can?"
Role of social media
Apart from the yoga class every Saturday, YFL has a solid online community. Ben says, the strong online presence shapes the experience too. “When you come together to the mat, it doesn’t end there. We have a Facebook page, a Facebook group. Our main way of reaching out is social media.”
The next challenge is how to break past the misconceptions about yoga.
“That’s our biggest challenge talaga. We’re faced with a double stigma that yoga is something for the elite lang. People don’t want to come to class, baka mahal, plus the stigma of HIV.”
Not a competition
It's no secret that yoga practice today is also known through pictures of semi advance to advance poses posted online. This may be the source of these misconceptions: it's only for a particular body type and it's all about the complexity of your pose. If a consumerist society dictates this is what yoga is - intimidating and pretentious - that's the challenge we need to get past through.
Paulo, who teaches his signature Pauwer (Power) yoga class, always reminds us, "You're not competing with anybody on any pose, or on anything at all."
Carl thought yoga was not for him. He struggled when his body was too weak. He had pneumonia because of the HIV infection, yet he was in class doing breathing exercises. It was a painful process even before he started with YFL. "Hindi ko inacknowledge yung status ko for almost 3 years," he says.
An internal practice
Slowly into the habit, Carl realized healing was not just about the guided practice. The positive energy that doesn't impose, the warmth that doesn't intimidate - those things mattered too.
He recalls a time he met someone who goes to Yoga for Life not because she's diagnosed with HIV. "She shows up every week because she has a family member living with the condition. It made me think it's not just about me, it's also for others who simply care."
Today, he's an advocate of HIV awareness and treatment.
“I've been living with HIV for 9 years now. Before I was very masungit. Now I think of it not as a curse but actually a blessing. It taught me to be humble and to cherish my life." - Rappler.com
HIV/AIDS is a problem in many communities – both rural and urban - across the Philippines. Responding to our communities' concern about the issue, Rappler’s MovePH is launching a campaign to promote awareness on the issue. Follow our stories through the hashtags#StayNegatHIVe#LivePositive