My local high street shops are about a twenty-minute walk from my house. There is a fancy butcher (by which I mean that it is expensive and also sells halloumi), an organic hairdresser, a Post Office, a church converted into a centre for amateur dramatics, a sooty hole halfway up a building where the Chinese nail studio used to be (I’m not making that up. It exploded in the middle of the night a few months ago), an independent optician, a Turkish supermarket, the best bakery in the city, and any number of assorted coffee shops. I was in one of these when a woman in an ugly jumper and shoes that she appeared to have made herself from the corpses of dead handbags flopped into a chair at the next table. I wouldn’t normally listen in on the conversation at someone else’s table (I would be having a far more interesting conversation of my own, or possibly reading something racy), but as I was turning my attention back to the question of whether or not Hates Commas was standing me up, another woman in a similarly offensive jumper arrived and embraced the first woman in a jangle of homemade earrings and after some highly unnecessary shrieking they ordered coffee and some kind of lentil-based snack and sat down and I went back to my book (The Jacaranda Tree by the greatly underrated H.E. Bates). In fact, I was about to remove the two women from my mind altogether (easier said than done when one takes the fit-inducing knitwear into account), when the first woman leaned confidentially across the tiny table.
‘Oh, but haven’t you heard, Jobiska [or Rushlight, or Sunset, or whatever]? Yoga is what I do instead of drugs!’ she exclaimed. Having suppressed the urge to slap her espresso out of her hand for her own good, it occurred to me that, while this is a profoundly stupid statement, in my case it approaches the truth.
I have had stress-related bowel disease for the last five years and originally was put onto two different drugs, to be taken together: an anti-inflammatory and a pain-killer. The anti-inflammatory pills were white, small and innocuous; the pain-killers were giant fuchsia-coloured horse tranquilizers, and if (as instructed) I took the two together they used to make me cry, for no reason and with no warning: I freaked out many a student, innocently visiting the office (shortly after I had taken my second dose) in the hope of handing in an essay. Having returned to the specialist and informed him that I was no longer going to take said pills as they didn’t seem to be having any other discernible effect, he replied ‘I see. I think I’ll double your dose’. This was the point at which I ceased to take any pills at all, on the grounds that, firstly, my specialist was a madman with a grasp of the English language in general, and the statement ‘the drugs don’t work’ in particular, that was shaky at best (did the 1990s pass him by completely?); and, secondly, he failed to understand basic maths (nothing multiplied by two is still nothing). I was also offered an operation to remove the troublesome section of bowel. The operation essentially involved pulling out the entire bowel, cutting out the nasty bit, and then stuffing my innards back where they belong. It had a 40% success rate and would leave me with an enormous scar. The specialist helpfully suggested they put this on the right, where it would look like an appendectomy scar ‘only bigger’ (the fact that I already have an appendectomy scar having also passed him by); it would therefore also make any future Caesarean tricky at best, and I would need a mere six weeks off work to recover, assuming that nothing went wrong, which it might well, given that what we are describing here is essentially a controlled disembowelling. Since I was ill in the first place because of work-related stress, I suggested that he could simply sign me off work for a few weeks and have much the same effect without the need for major surgery, but I must have said this in my mind rather than out loud because he swept on, speculating cheerfully on how likely it was that the surgery might go wrong (massive internal infection, perforated bowel and internal bleeding were among the jolly possibilities) long after I had said ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing that’. We concluded our interview with me asking whether there were any further lifestyle changes I should make. Bowel disease, I already knew from my excellent GP, carried all sorts of risk factors in later life, like liver disease, leg ulcers, colorectal cancer, and the delightfully named toxic megacolon (essentially, the colon swells up and then bursts, causing all sorts of nasty things and, if not treated, death, presumably from a combination of shock, blood loss, internal infection, embarrassment and rage). His response was that ‘not much research’ had been done in this area and he was unable to advise me. He then weighed me (for the second time in an hour), commented that I weighed the same as last time he weighed me (who knew?) and suggested I take up watercolours.
I now manage the condition by other methods, all of which I am sure my many-bangléd friends in the coffee shop would approve of whole-heartedly. I have cut down on meat (my favourite thing), bread and pastries; I have no nicotine, no alcohol, no drugs and almost no caffeine. Instead, I dose myself with aloe vera juice (which tastes like sperm), fruit, cod liver oil, evening primrose oil, water and herbal tea (which don’t). God help me, I even tried to switch to soya milk (very good for the bowel. Got a question about what’s good for your bowel and what’s not? I am the bowel-related magic eight ball), but honestly, soya milk is so disgusting that just typing the words ‘soya milk’ is making my mouth turn down at the corners in case I have to throw up. And then of course, in addition to all of this, there is yoga, once (or if I am feeling really keen, twice) a day, on a homemade mat.
I do hatha yoga (i.e. not the jumping around kind; not the chanting kind; and not the very high temperature kind). There are a few poses that I can manage with a modicum of dignity, as follows: Chair Pose (in a brilliant non-sequitur, my rather wonderful 1970s yoga book suggests I imagine I am a wizard); Eagle Pose (bend into unlikely shape while balanced on one leg); the Dancer (ditto, but this time with one foot above your head); Warrior Pose (‘imagine you are poking an assailant in the eye’); Tree Pose (back to balancing on one leg while doing things with the other); the Cobra (at least you get to lie down for this one); Happy Baby Pose (surprisingly literal); Reclining Hero Pose (look, that’s just what’s it called. I don’t make the rules); and Camel Pose (not at all like a camel). A pathetic little list. Bat Pose, which I believe is also known as putting-your-head-on-the-floor-while-clutching-your-ankles pose, is particularly tricky. A few months ago, a major Bat Pose fail ended in me flicking a terracotta pot, an African violet and about two pounds of soil onto the floor with my buttocks. I’m still not entirely sure how I did this; I was probably concentrating on releasing my kneecaps or similar at the time. I mention this because it demonstrates my favourite thing about yoga: even if you do it really, really badly, it still works. It stimulates the internal organs, relieves stress, aids concentration, strengthens the back, tones all sorts of muscles you never knew you had, and clears the mind. It is also the only thing I have found that can beat jet-lag, as the stunned people cleaning the building opposite my hotel in Nanjing could testify.
I really believe that sick people need the help of medical professionals to get well again, and yet here I am, self-medicating with poses I can’t do and supplements I don’t like. I’m doing so because one approach has worked and the other hasn’t. It must be infuriating for doctors to undergo years of training and examination, only to be told by well-educated people that they would prefer to drink raspberry leaf tea and rub valerian into their pressure points, and obviously some of those people are idiots and would do better to read some science and listen to the considered advice of their doctor. However, there are also people like me, who really believe in modern medicine until they become unwell and are then let down by the ‘pills and piss off’ culture (if the drugs had worked, I’d still be taking them). This leaves me with no alternative but to embrace each facet of new age nonsense with as much grace as I can manage. Next up: inappropriate piercings.