Gary Kraftsow noticed something strange as he walked to the podium to deliver the keynote address at the Northwest Yoga Festival in 2004. He wasn’t walking in a straight line. He was drifting like a car overdue for a wheel alignment.
The next morning, he packed his bags and flew home to Maui and his 10-year-old son. He felt weak and his heart beat irregularly. Over the next few days, he began to experience double vision, dizziness, and loss of balance. A CT scan revealed a tumor wedged between his cerebellum and brain stem, a condition medical professionals refer to as “sudden death.”
“What should I do?” he asked his doctor.
“You need to have surgery,” she told him.
She’d already arranged a same-day flight to Honolulu.
“Yesterday,” she said.
Today, if you go to a workshop with Kraftsow, who has been teaching yoga for over 30 years, don’t unroll your mat right away. Take a seat on the floor or pull up a chair, and prepare to stay awhile.
The preoccupation with asana (postures) in some quarters of the yoga community frustrates Kraftsow. The notion that yoga is an exercise regimen has become so entrenched in the West that nonpractitioners commonly shrug it off with: “I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible.” Not only has yoga been reduced to asana, but asana has been reduced to what Kraftsow calls “self-chiropractic,” a fervid pursuit of textbook alignment. What he will tell you is that yoga isn’t about getting to know the postures. It’s about getting to know yourself.
In Honolulu, Kraftsow had less than a week to prepare for his surgery. “So I did a lot of yoga,” he says, “but no asana.”
Instead, Kraftsow plumbed every dimension of his being. He directed attention and gratitude to every part of his body, every biological system. He reflected on all the things he’d learned in life, his character traits, and his capacity for joy. “It was like touching all parts of myself with awareness and a loving attitude,” he says. “I did it for hours and hours.”
He also practiced breathing techniques (pranayama) and chanted sacred verses believed to hasten healing. He thought a lot about his reasons for living: his son and the new woman in his life. By the time he checked into the hospital, shock and anxiety had given way to hopefulness.
Surgeons removed a tumor the size of a golf ball from his brain. The news was good: It was a benign schwannoma. But the seven-hour surgery had taken a toll. He couldn’t move for several days, his muscles atrophied, and he dropped 30 pounds.
In a neurological ward filled with moaning patients, Kraftsow took up his prayerful meditation. “I think I began doing it when I became aware that I was alive,” he says.
A month after surgery, Kraftsow began experiencing crippling headaches and fevers. Cerebrospinal fluid was leaking through the membrane around his brain. He was in and out of hospitals for six months and underwent a second surgery. “I couldn’t do asana or pranayama or chanting, yet yoga was fundamental to my recovery,” he says. Physical immobility deepened his meditative practice, illuminating his highest priorities.
These days Kraftsow spends much of the year traveling, conducting workshops and training yoga teachers and therapists. He is 54, healthy, and by many accounts a different man than he was before brain surgery. “He’s more gentle, more loving, more present, more clear,” says yoga instructor Kathy Ornish. “I think you fully understand the power of yoga when you can do nothing but watch your breath or touch your fingers. The subtle becomes more profound.”
From a distance, the yoga sequences Kraftsow teaches can appear undemanding, even mundane. A closer look reveals their artistry. They are mosaics of movement, breath control, and chanting. He calls his approach Viniyoga, a Sanskrit term for skillful adaptation. You’ll never catch him molding a student into a textbook version of the triangle pose. Instead, he’ll adapt the triangle to best serve the student.
If you ask Kraftsow how his ordeal changed him, first he will correct you. He will call it an “opportunity.” Then he will raise a fist and slowly unfold the fingers. He will tell you that the most important lesson he learned was “letting go”—embracing the reality that we can’t control everything.
“My desire for all those who have only been exposed to the asana part of yoga is that they have an opportunity to appreciate the depth and breadth of this great tradition,” he says. “When you have a life-threatening or serious condition, you can’t rely on what you could rely on before. Yoga is like a raft that can help you go through these things.
“But in my case it wasn’t asana. It wasn’t even breathing. It was attitude, prayer. These are going to help you when you can’t do anything else.”
Anna Dubrovsky is a contributing editor of Yoga + Joyful Living, a magazine that takes yoga “out of the studio” and explores every aspect of conscious living. This article is excerpted from the Spring 2009 issue; www.yogaplus.org.