Author’s Note: Jim Mielke has been studying and practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation for the past 25 years. He received his Teacher of Yoga certification in 2003 from the International Sivananda Yoga and Vedanta Forest Academy in Netala, Himalayas, India. Jim recently completed his Advanced Yoga Teacher Training Course (500-hour Yoga Alliance Certification) at the Sivananda Bahamas Ashram.
Jim has also completed intensive meditation training courses in Thailand and India and is well grounded in Buddhist Meditation and Raja Yoga traditions. His instructional style encourages individual expression, spiritual or secular, and is tailored to all levels of ability and experience. Over the past 15 years, Jim has taught yoga and meditation in health clubs and schools in Thailand, Vietnam and in YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Centers in the United States. Jim currently resides in a quiet seaside setting in the south of Thailand, and has been living a full and active life with an ileostomy for over 40 years.
Originally published in The Phoenix ostomy magazine – www.phoenixuoaa.org.
By Jim Mielke
Over the past 35 years, I have had the distinct privilege of living and working as a public health professional in some of the poorest, most remote and underserved parts of the Asia-Pacific region and in the U.S. My work involves assisting governments, international aid agencies and local communities to strengthen their systems managing communicable diseases (including HIV/AIDS), women and child health and youth leadership.
Starting out as an overseas volunteer for the YMCA and other non-governmental organizations, I eventually returned to school for specialized training in public health. I then proceeded to join organizations such as UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee, and have also worked as an independent contractor on public and private sector health projects funded by institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM). In addition to having worked in over 20 developing countries, I also enjoy traveling to exotic destinations and currently live in a quiet seaside setting in Thailand.
I also happen to have an ileostomy, which has served me well for over 40 years. After suffering years of pain and misery with Crohn’s disease as a teenager, I received my first ileostomy in 1977. Before long, my life took off like a rocket with my newly recovered health. I can still recall feeling like a new man almost immediately upon waking up with my ileostomy – suddenly free from nearly a decade of suffering with inflammatory bowel disease.
However, for the next three years I was in and out of several hospitals for 11 major ostomy-related surgeries, including total removal of the large intestine and rectum. Withdrawing from the addictive medications prescribed to me over the years that seemed only to treat the symptoms was also a struggle.
In 1980, I re-entered university in Colorado, having been forced to withdraw earlier for health reasons. I heard about overseas volunteer opportunities with the YMCA while working summers at Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks in New York. Soon after graduating in 1982, I was off to Sri Lanka for a 6-month internship as a YMCA volunteer leading outdoor recreation and life skills programs for disadvantaged youth.
For the next 8 years I worked with volunteer aid organizations in developing countries throughout Asia and the Pacific before returning to school to complete my doctorate in public health, and then began consulting on high-level (and typically high stress) United Nations and government health projects.
Rest and Recovery
One of the benefits of working as a private consultant is the freedom to take long stretches of time off between jobs. So in 2001, after several particularly high-pressure assignments in Cambodia and Vietnam, I moved to a beautiful, unspoiled island off the southwest coast of Vietnam where I rented a beach bungalow for $100/month. Two years of personal development and self-study – including daily yoga and meditation – followed. I also enjoyed plenty of inspirational reading on Eastern philosophy, spirituality and mysticism, as well as swimming, biking, eating well, and generally looking after my health and well-being. It was a wonderfully refreshing and revitalizing experience.
Each morning, shapely, leotard-clad women filed out of my bungalow. With such a curious sight, my neighbors could only guess about my nocturnal activities. In fact, the women were joining my early morning yoga practice before they went to work. Although I had taken some yoga classes over the years and enjoyed sharing what I knew with my friends, I needed some formal training in order to teach yoga properly and safely.
Yoga Training in India
In 2003, I took the leap and traveled to northern India for a four-week yoga teacher trainers’ course at a remote ashram on the banks of the Ganges where it rushes through the dramatic Himalayan countryside. The training honed my teaching skills while profoundly impacting my personal yoga practice, and my very way of life. Recently, at Sivananda Bahamas Ashram, I completed the advanced teacher trainers’ course, over four weeks of intensive yoga practice and the study of Vedanta philosophy.
When I applied for both training courses, I explained about my ostomy and specific physical and dietary requirements. For example, I really love vegetarian food and it makes me feel great — clean, light and with excellent digestion as well. But I have difficulty assimilating sufficient protein over a long period of time. So in India, they gave me extra yogurt for more protein. In the Bahamas, I brought my own protein supplement, which worked well. I also purchased travelers’ insurance and brought plenty of pouch changes and medications that I might need while away from home.
From the start, I was open about my ostomy. And although I was probably the first ostomate they had trained to be a yoga teacher, my teachers and fellow trainees were totally accepting and supportive of my physical situation and limitations. I was given alternative postures whenever the class was practicing advanced poses that I could not do. One trainee was an older woman who needed to use a chair for certain postures — and this was also perfectly acceptable.
At one point, when the class was enjoying a few laughs while learning yogic ‘bandas’ or ‘locks’ — some of which require contracting the anal sphincter muscle while holding the breath to maximize the prana (life force) generated by advanced breathing exercises, I shared (for more laughter), that due to my surgeries, I was missing a few parts and may not be able to experience this in the same way.
Complete Personal Development
Originating in India many thousands of years ago, yoga is oldest system of personal development in the world, encompassing a balance of physical, mental, and emotional health. It combines all the movements needed for physical health. with breathing exercises that calm, revitalize and refresh the body. Meditation techniques ensure mental power and peace of mind. Anyone can practice yoga regardless of age, condition or religion. Yoga is not a competitive sport, so you can practice at your own pace with no pressure and no comparison.
“Anyone can practice yoga regardless of age, condition or religion. Yoga is not a competitive sport, so you can practice at your own pace with no pressure and no comparison.”
The underlying purpose of yoga is to realize your ‘unity’ with all of existence. The word yoga literally means ‘union’ or ‘joining’. In time, if you continue with regular practice, you will become aware of a subtle change in your approach to life. Through persistently toning and relaxing the body, and stilling the mind, you begin to feel a state of inner peace which is your true nature.
Yoga is not a theory, but a practical way of life. It is not just about headstands or twisting oneself into extreme physical contortions, nor is it just for ‘spiritual’ people. In fact, if you are practicing to show off or otherwise boost your ego – you are missing the point. Through asana practice, you can tone and relax the body, with pranayama (yogic breathing) you can control your emotions, and through meditation, you can come to a deeper understanding of who you really are.
Yoga for Ostomates
There are literally thousands of yogic postures and variations to choose from and modify as needed to suit any physical condition or limitation. For example, I can no longer do headstands due to multiple surgeries that have weakened my abdominal muscles. I can still safely do shoulder-stands and the standing ‘hands-to-feet’ pose for similar benefits.
The same goes for teaching. When I cannot demonstrate a particular asana (pose), I simply ask one of my students to demonstrate, and otherwise I give verbal instructions and assist where needed. Anyone who has undergone surgery should consult his or her surgeon for advice regarding physical activities including yoga.
I really love turning people of all ages on to classical yoga and meditation. But to understand the essence of yoga – as a practical, meditative path towards self-realization — you need to experience it for yourself. So put yoga into practice, and you will see the benefits. And when you are ready for some real fulfillment, become a yoga teacher and share the magic!
Stay tuned for more stories – coming soon!