How Yoga Saved My Life | Omega

In a life-threatening moment, Cyndi Lee's yoga practices came to her rescue.

It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don't like water, and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat. So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.

No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, "Wow, this is how it happens," and I visualized a small article in the New York Times, "Yoga Teacher Drowns While Leading Retreat in Costa Rica." My mind raced and my lungs got tight but, somehow, I didn't panic.

The yoga, breathing, and meditation practices that I had been doing for years prepared me for that very moment. Breath awareness, manipulation, and retention practice allowed me to intuitively know that I could go without breath for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me to know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand, even while thoughts of my own death were running rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.

A very long minute later, a bodybuilder/yoga student floated by, grabbed me by the collar, and plopped me into his boat. Gehlek Rimpoche, a Tibetan lama, had taught me that to meet the teachings of the Buddha in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise's head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I've ever been. But when I was under the boat I was not scared. I was wide awake, balanced, and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga postures, and breath awareness are all powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply, but there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of all three that saved my life.

Excerpted from Yoga Body, Buddha Mind by Cyndi Lee. Copyright © 2004 by Riverhead Trade.

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