Strength in the Midst of Chaos: Cultivating Mindfulness in Trying Times

How ancient practices helped one woman overcome a modern ailment.

Yoga isn’t all about tuning out the world—sometimes it’s about figuring a way to live in it. For Sushma Patel, Communications Manager at Ford Motor Company and yoga educator, the discovery of yoga came at a time of immense physical and emotional pain. In 2007, Patel suffered an injury that left her unable to walk.

“What should have been a minor injury evolved over two years into a total collapse of my physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing,” says Sushma. After years of immobility and innumerable doctor visits, she was exhausted. Deciding that it was time to search for an alternative method of healing, she traveled to India. There she met a guru who instructed her to practice Nadi Shodhana pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) each morning. After just five days, Patel was able to walk again.

On the surface, Sushma’s story may seem miraculous. Was it possible that after years of immobility, she was suddenly able walk again, after just five days of breathing practices? From the standpoint of Western medicine, it seems incomprehensible that such healing could come from within, after so many doctors had tried and failed to provide treatment. In the yogic philosophy, suffering is inevitable. It is not something to be treated after the fact, rather it is something to be approached mindfully from within.

Integrating Practice on a Cellular Level

The benefits of the yogic practice permeate not just on a spiritual level, but on a cellular level as well. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.16 (Heyan duhkham anagatam) directs us to “prevent the suffering that is yet to come.” The word “duhkham,” or suffering, refers to a physical manifestation of imbalance, and translates literally to “constriction in the heart area.” We carry immense emotional stress in our bodies, and the symptoms show up physically. Without detoxifying and balancing our organs through pranayama and Ayurvedic techniques, we can be afflicted with ailments.

“People suffer at all points in their life, whether they’re young or old,” says Sushma. “For some reason I was meant to go through this 4-year period, and in hindsight I think that it’s so that I can make these tools available to people.”

After returning from India, Sushma integrated the practices of pranayama and Ayurveda into her daily life. She didn’t quit her job or upheave her entire lifestyle—she simply began taking a mindful approach to her well-being. “I didn’t have to think twice about continuing with these practices” she says, “they are a part of who I am now… As important as brushing my teeth or taking a shower before work.”

Realizing that so many people are afflicted with the physical manifestations of suffering, Sushma began to offer her insights to those in need. “I am a firm believer that if we are able to care for ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically,” she says. “We can lend our compassion and extend our energy to serving others.” She works with demographics who would otherwise not have access to these practices, primarily victims of domestic violence. “Because of the way that these women have experienced trauma,” she says, “they can’t walk into America’s yoga studios. I wanted to give these women a safe space where they didn’t have to worry about their bodies, and they didn’t have to explain themselves.”

Overcoming Suffering with Breath

It’s not only people whose suffering is overtly tangible who can benefit from these practices. As Patel began to give talks to people who were already practicing yoga regularly, she was shocked to learn how many people in the community were still suffering deeply; how many people were still largely unaware of the teachings of pranayama and Ayurveda. “While people may feel amazing when they come out of a hot yoga class,” she says, “they still felt like something was not right.”

In the West, the concept of yoga is commonly associated solely with the physical practice, or asana. When Sushma was studying in India, she did very little asana, and focused primarily on pranayama, or breath work. The practice that she was instructed to do daily—Nadi Shodhana—cleanses the body and spirit internally and balances out the Nadis, or subtle energy channels, creating union. This allows prana to flow more easily through the body, and synchronizes the two sides of the brain. On a physical level, the practice lowers the heart rate and reduces anxiety. “Pranayama, or breathing practices,” says Sushma, “are a gentle and effective way to reverse the effects of stress and rid our bodies of accumulated toxins.”

To practice Nadi Shodhana, all you need is yourself. Simply sit in a comfortable seat with a tall spine and bring the first and middle finger of your right hand to your third eye, resting your thumb lightly on the right nostril and your ring finger on the left. Inhale and exhale deeply, and on the next inhale close off your right nostril and inhale with the left for five seconds. Hold both nostrils at the top for five seconds, and then exhale through the right nostril, closing off the left. Alternate this cycle and repeat thirty rounds with your eyes closed, looking inward. Take note of how you feel prior to and after the practice. Chances are, your heart rate will have slowed, and you will feel a stronger sense of clarity and ease.

The word “yoga” translates to “unity.” When we recognize that imbalance is a fact of life, we can begin to foster healing from within. In challenging times, the most important thing we can do for ourselves is sit with it and breath through it. By practicing mindfulness and approaching difficulties with grace, we are able to dispel emotional distress and unwanted toxins that build up in our organs. This healing takes place not just in the physical practice, but in the way that we approach every aspect of our lives.

“Following an Ayurvedic lifestyle has taught me to see all experiences and all things as a form of medicine,” she says. We agree.