The Unexpected Yoga Lessons of Retinal Detachment

I thought about the metaphorical meanings of my eye problems. Detachment. The veil of ignorance being lifted. A new vision. The dissolution of "eye/I."
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After a trip to India to study yoga more in depth, I returned home only to find the real yoga was about to begin.

I had wanted to go to India for over 15 years, even before stepping onto my yoga mat. Something about this country called to me. And when I started practicing yoga over eight years ago, I wanted to go even more. In January, after three years of trudging through various misfortunes -- the loss of my mother and aunt, car crashes, job troubles -- I decided it was time.

I found a yoga teacher who was offering a retreat to India's holy sites. Perfect. I signed up for the 10-day adventure. I then joined a volunteer organization to work with Tibetan children in Dharamsala after the retreat. I would be gone a total of one month.

Yoga has transformed my life in ways that go beyond the physical. Don't get me wrong, I love the physical practice, and aside from sitting meditation, it is the only thing in the world that calms my mind. My sitting meditation practice has always been spotty, however. I sometimes go to a group sitting because the group energy helps me. The most I can do at home is maybe 15 minutes before I'm peeking at the clock. I've been blessed with having amazing teachers in my life: Bryan Kest, Sharon Salzberg and more. But as inspiring as they are, they cannot come into my house and force me to meditate.

One week before I left for India, I went and got new contact lenses. I noticed that my vision seemed off in my left eye but I thought it was my contact lenses. I landed in Delhi and the adventure began. The month that I spent there included meeting wonderful yoga and meditation teachers. We meditated in caves, at sunrise in the Himalayas, by the Ganges, in temples and ashrams. We sang kirtans and listened to spiritual teachings with rapt attention. I felt more committed to my meditation practice than ever before. As the trip progressed, my vision started to get worse in that eye. I kept thinking that maybe it was my prescription changing or that I needed to get bifocals. I continued to traipse around India, doing yoga, including all sorts of inversions!

A few days before my flight back home, my sight worsened and I knew that something serious was going on. A black-like veil shrouded the vision in my left eye and I couldn't see anything in my periphery. Upon landing at LAX, I called my eye doctor at baggage claim.

"I'm losing the vision in my left eye," I said nervously.

"Can you come in right now?" she asked.

After flying for over 24 hours, I was exhausted. But, I went straight to the doctor where they diagnosed a detached retina. Not only was it detached, but it had been that way for over a month! I was then told I would need emergency surgery the next morning.

That Sunday morning I had eye surgery, where a gas bubble was inserted into my eye. I was told to lie on my right side for one week so that it would press the retina back into place. Dutifully, I followed the doctor's orders.

I had been dreading coming back to the States. I was worried about my transition because I felt such peace in India and really wanted to continue my daily meditation practice. I was concerned that all the ego of our Western culture (including mine) would "take away" my India bliss. Ah, how we try to hold onto things. I was actually fine with lying on my side because it allowed me to rest and process my trip. I continued my meditation, often at 4:30 a.m., thanks to jet lag.

At my next appointment a week later, he informed me that the surgery failed. I needed another extensive surgery where a scleral buckle would be inserted and sewn permanently around the eye. This was painful and again, I was instructed to lie on my right side. Week two of lying still was more challenging than the first week. I was no longer jet lagged and I wasn't happy about coming home from India to watch TV all day -- or at all. Reading was impossible. I thought a lot about the possibility of losing my sight in that eye. I didn't feel scared or worried at all. In fact, I wondered why I seemed to be calmly accepting what was happening.

I'm not married so I relied on my family and friends to help take care of me. And did they ever. I thought about the metaphorical meanings of my eye problems. Detachment. The veil of ignorance being lifted. A new vision. The dissolution of "eye/I." In our studies of Eastern religion and philosophy, many of us Westerners struggle to "detach" from that which brings us suffering. During my morning meditations, I started to realize that it wasn't detachment that was going on.

This was about "re-attachment." I found myself being overwhelmed with gratitude from the help of my friends. Real, heartfelt gratitude. Was it possible I was "attaching" to that love? I've always kept myself at a distance from people. I could go on and on about why, about how my childhood upbringing conditioned me to keep people at arm's length. But who cares, really? I was experiencing something new and "seeing" love in a different way. Open and soft, I cherished the love that surrounded me.

After my second week of lying on my right side, I went back to the doctor only to be told that even the scleral buckle wasn't working. I would need a third surgery, called a vitrectomy, to remove some vitreous fluid that was blocking the retina from attaching. After the surgery, I was to keep face down for one week. Holy eyeballs.

You have to remember that since getting off the plane, I had seen only a doctor's office, the hospital and my apartment. With one eye.

Back to the hospital I went. I had to order special medical equipment to help me lie face down. A massage chair with donut hole for face placement and another contraption to attach to the end of the bed arrived. Sleeping proved to be very difficult because placing my face on a donut hole was just not comfortable. I continued my meditation practice, sometimes comfortably and most times, uncomfortably.

When people asked me if I missed yoga, I replied that I was doing yoga. According to the Yoga Sutras, asanas -- what we know as the physical postures of yoga -- is really a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal of yoga, which is samadhi or meditation. After three-and-a-half weeks of surgeries and having to lie still in various positions, I was physically ill at ease but not mentally. Apparently this was supposed to be my transition experience back and I accepted it.

The day I got the okay to "resume normal life" was VE day. Victory Eye day. To be able to walk to the post office. To go to the grocery store and linger in the aisles. To eat in a restaurant. I still couldn't see out of one eye as it would take at least two more months for the gas bubble to be absorbed into my body. But I had a new appreciation for the life I had been resisting coming back to.

I'm continuing my yoga practice every day. And soon I will resume the physical asanas. So we'll see. Hopefully out of both eyes.

Jennifer Repo is a yogi, freelance writer and editor. She lives in Santa Monica, California.