Suffering from a severe autoimmune disease that caused her to lose mobility in her spine, Vesna first entered the hot room in 2002. Find out how Bikram Yoga for Ankylosing Spondylitis has helped her heal as she celebrates her 10-year anniversary with Bikram Yoga Vancouver.
Tell us about your very first Bikram Yoga class …
I did my first Bikram Yoga class on October 6, 2002, at the old Arbutus studio. I was suffering from chronic back pain at the time, and a friend told me that Bikram Yoga had helped her deal with similar issues. Danny was my teacher, and the class was really tough. When it was over, I cried over the realization that I had lost a lot of my flexibility.
What sort of back condition do you suffer from?
I have a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which is an autoimmune disease where most of the vertebrae in my spine are fused together. My spine is like a stick, with the bottom third completely fused together (no movement at all) and the neck area almost completely fused together, too (I do have some movement in the middle portion of my spine – about 20% to 30% mobility). This condition caused me to lose mobility in my spine, after which the muscles that support it started to lose function as well. I get painful cramps as a result, and suffer from severe morning stiffness. Before I started practising Bikram Yoga my posture was quite poor – I used to walk like a very old lady.
What made you decide to come back for your second class?
Going home after that first class, I could feel that it was easier to walk and move around. After over 15 years of issues with my lower back, I decided to give Bikram Yoga a chance to help me heal. I didn’t expect a miracle – I thought it would take a year or two to start feeling better – but I felt certain the yoga would be helpful. I returned for my second class that same week and have been practising Bikram Yoga ever since – at least twice a week, if not more. According to BYV’s computer, I had been in the hot room 899 times on my 10th anniversary a few weeks ago, which makes me feel really proud of myself!
What are some of the biggest benefits you’ve received from Bikram Yoga?
Bikram Yoga has kept me and continues to keep me away from disability. Thanks to the practice I’m able to walk and work. There are many more benefits but, to me, I don’t need another reason to continue practising.
How has Bikram Yoga impacted your health?
Before I started Bikram Yoga the range of motion in my neck was limited and I had a lot of pain in the small joints around my breastbone, which I felt acutely whenever I took a breath. I actually had to squat down to sneeze because any short, sudden movement would cause my body to cramp up. The pain in my lower back was so bad I had to lean on the sink to brush my teeth, and getting up from a chair, climbing stairs and exiting a car all caused me a significant amount of pain. I couldn’t even run a few steps to catch a bus, and I had to give up riding my bike. The pain even affected my sleep; it would wake me up at night, and I’d have to get up, walk around and stretch before I could go back to bed. My posture also suffered as a result, with my body constantly leaning forward and to the right; I had to take very short steps when walking.
When I finally got an X-ray taken of my spine, I wasn’t able to get back up from the examination table. One of the X-ray technicians had to help me up and, when I tried to stand on my feet, a severe pain bolted through my body, my legs collapsed and I fell on the floor. I could not move for a while.
Two weeks later I started doing Bikram Yoga.
At first it was very hard and painful to do yoga, and I knew I would have to go slow. Getting up from the floor was extremely challenging for me. For months I had to stay in same strange position due to cramping in the muscles between my ribs. I could barely move and I almost was not able to breathe. My spine was the main source of trouble, but I’d also started losing mobility in my other joints. I was hardly was able to spread my legs across the width of my yoga mat – but I persevered.
Today, I’m happy to say the time I’ve spent in the hot room over the past decade has yielded some very positive changes. Though the range of motion in my neck is still limited, the pain in the small joints around my breastbone is gone and I’ve managed to preserve a circumference of my ribcage thanks to the breathing exercises we do in class. My rheumatologist is impressed because I have achieved the same expansion of my ribcage as a healthy person. I still have some lower back pain, but Bikram Yoga has made it manageable. I can sneeze 10 times in a row if I have to, no problem, and getting up from a chair – not to mention sitting for longer periods of time – is easy. I can also manage stairs with ease. Better yet, I’m now able to run; two years ago I registered for a “resolution run” and completed the race! I also bought myself a bike last year and, if I pace myself, riding isn’t a problem. Plus, I’m able to sleep well most nights and get the rest I need.
My body is much stronger now. It took a year for me to fully stand in an upright position but, after eight years of practice, I started feeling the muscles of my lower back stretching. My flexibility is still affected (due to the fact that 80% to 90% of my vertebrae are fused together), but I have gained a lot of strength in my muscles. Overall, the quality of my life has improved remarkably thanks to Bikram Yoga. Last year I started snowshoeing and hiking, too!
Why do you think Bikram Yoga works?
Bikram Yoga is hard and demanding – at least 10 times harder for me than it is for many other yogis. But that’s why it works, and that’s why I keep coming. Bikram Yoga is my lifetime love; I will do Bikram Yoga forever.