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How Yoga Saved My Life

By Harimander Singh and Nirvair Kaur (Tom and Susan Wilkens)

The look on the doctor’s face told me volumes—far more than he probably intended. He looked intently at the monitor that showed my beating heart. Yesterday, my primary care physician scheduled me for an echocardiogram at Loyola Hospital in Maywood, Illinois, because she didn’t like the sound of my heart.

The EKG she did showed my heart functioning normally, other symptoms were lacking, but she made an appointment for me at Loyola’s cardiac clinic for 9:00 am on June 21, Summer Solstice.

Now, looking at the screen, even my untrained eyes could see what shocked this cardiac doc. A tear was clearly visible on what I later learned is the aortic arch. After several days of a periodically rapid heartbeat, during which I had slept very little, I was sensitive enough to almost hear his thoughts: “How is this man still alive? How is blood not leaking out of this tear?” He looked down at me and said, “Mr. Wilkens, you will need an operation by the end of the week.”

My intuition told me that he really meant that I would be operated on by the end of the day. He left the room. I felt the beginnings of panic and then shock hit me, causing me to cry. Rose, the technician who still held the device to monitor my heart, touched me with her free hand. “Don’t worry, you’re in the best possible place to have this taken care of now.” Her words comforted me because somehow I knew that it was true. I breathed in deeply to keep my thoughts from spinning into the future. I needed to stay in the present moment.

The first doctor came back with another man in a white coat. They both left and brought in a third doctor. They left and came back with a fourth. They all wore the same expression, ending any doubts I may have still had about the seriousness of my condition. The first doctor came back with consent forms for me to sign. All of a sudden the room filled with a dozen people asking me questions about who had brought me and their phone numbers.

My wife, Nirvair Kaur, had driven me to the clinic, but then left to teach two of my yoga classes in Chicago. The docs asked for her number but I couldn’t remember it. I asked for my iPhone but fumbled, too stunned to open it. Someone else tried without success, finally waving it overhead and yelling, “Who knows how to use an iPhone?” A volunteer made the calls to Nirvair’s cell and to the center where she was heading to teach.

A wheel chair appeared and I was helped into it with my clothes bundled up in my lap. At this point, my intuition told me that I could do nothing else. A part of me thought that perhaps some of my greatest fears were manifesting: I’d be caught up in the machinations of the medical establishment; I’d have huge bills and face financial ruin; nothing in my world would be the same again! But these thoughts were in the background.

Foremost in my mind was the clear and sudden realization that I had never truly trusted the Universe; I had never truly experienced it as a safe and loving Ground of Existence—and now, in a way I would never have consciously chosen for myself, I had the opportunity to trust that goodness. I couldn’t do any more. Others would have to save me. My consciousness fell backwards—at least that is how I imagined it—Into the web that supports the Universe, that is the Universe. A wave of bliss filled me as I experienced that compassion. My body collapsed completely and I passed out.

My ears heard Nirvair’s soothing voice talking to me for hours before my eyes could open. The sun streamed into the room, making one side of Nirvair’s face brightly lit while the other side remained in shadow. Her warm smile momentarily made me unaware of the tubes coming out of my chest, abdomen, and groin, not to mention the big one going down my throat. On some level I knew that she had been with me for many hours, for the entire length of whatever ordeal I had just gone through.

She looked at me and told me that everything was going to be fine, that all that mattered was that I was alive, and that together we could deal with whatever else came along. Tears seeped out the corners of my eyes as an expression of my joy. It took me awhile to grasp that I was actually recovering from emergency open heart surgery in an Intensive Care Unit. Slowly, over the course of the two weeks I spent in the hospital, people began to tell me what had happened to me:

Nirvair’s cell phone rang at 9:50 as she pulled into the parking lot of Mather’s More Than a Café at Belmont & Central in Chicago to teach one of my yoga classes. “Your husband is being prepped for a serious surgery and you need to come back to the hospital now.”  She ran into Mather’s to explain, as the director was coming out to tell her, “Go—we’ll take care of it.” Loyola had called her too; she would deal with the ten students waiting to take a Chair Yoga class.

Nirvair got back to Loyola’s CV Clinic by 10:30 and a doctor escorted her to the surgical waiting room. Dr. Donald Thomas, a cardiac surgeon, came out and walked her into a small room. “Time is short here, and you have a decision to make. Your husband has had an aortic dissection and needs a new aortic heart valve. Do you think he would prefer a pigskin valve or a mechanical one?”

Nirvair calmly asked the pros and cons of each and learned the former lasts only 10-15 years while the latter lasts “forever.” “I don’t think my husband’s going to want to have another heart surgery in this lifetime—let’s go with titanium.” Dr. Thomas said, “The surgery should last about five hours. If it goes longer, or if something unexpected happens, someone will call down to tell you. I also need to let you know that there’s a 30% chance your husband won’t come out of the surgery.”  Nirvair said, “I trust you to do whatever you think best,” and he sped to the OR. In the waiting room she began calling and texting dozens of friends, family members, yoga students, and teachers.

As word of my condition spread, hundreds of yogis started chanting and meditating for my health and well-being. Many members of our local Kundalini Yoga community were in the mountains of New Mexico to celebrate Summer Solstice. They immediately organized circles to chant the Ra Ma Da Sa healing mantra. They also let the other 2000 yogis in attendance know that I needed prayers and healing, and people from around the world whom I had never met closed their eyes and held me in their hearts and chanted for me.

Our names were added to the Ardas at the Gurdwara at Guru Ram Das Puri and to the Akhand Path. The Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago activated their prayer chain for me, as did the Church of Religious Science. Teachers who stepped up to sub classes for both Nirvair and me led the students in healing meditations; the Oak Park Aquarian sadhana group, the Friday morning seniors’ meditation class at Mather’s, Facebook friends around the world—so many generous individuals dedicating their yoga practices to my complete recovery!

The vibration created through this yoga of sound and meditation was a palpable force field that I could feel holding me up. There were several touch-and-go moments in the ICU—Irregular heartbeat, plummeting blood pressure, decreased oxygen intake—when I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that the yoga of my friends and fellow practitioners was keeping me alive and on the earth plane.

There were times when I felt a tiredness deep in my bones and thought, “I can’t do this anymore”—only to realize that I didn’t need to, that others were doing it for me, that in fact others had been doing it for me all along. Whether I was awake or asleep, conscious or fading in and out, able to ask for help or not, people were there for me, with me, doing what I couldn’t do for myself.

Nirvair and I talked a lot in the ICU, and we agreed that our personal sadhanas, our daily yogic spiritual practices, had equipped us to accept what happened without emotionality, and to do what needed to be done at any given moment. “It is what it is,” each of us said many times. Physical yoga no doubt prepared my body well; the doctors said repeatedly that the fact that I was in “great shape” was a “big plus.” Meditation had trained my mind to rest in calmness and equanimity. But ultimately it was the yoga practice of countless individuals that brought me safely through this event and allowed me to experience the care of a compassionate Universe.

Harimander Singh and Nirvair Kaur (Tom and Susan Wilkens) are both yoga and meditation teachers based in Forest Park IL. They are happy to announce that they are moving forward with plans to teach in their own yoga space beginning in January 2012. Details to come at