At the age of thirteen, Heather Proud suffered a severe spinal injury in a diving accident that left her paralyzed. She met Guruji in 1981 in Maui and then settled in Mysore for a year to work with him. She is in the process of setting up a facility for people with severe disabilities to enable them to experience the benefits of yoga as well as other healing modalities.

How did you meet Guruji?

Through mutual friends, Nancy [Gilgoff], just from his students who knew me and knew him. They said, “You really should meet Guruji and work with him.” I was very open to all kinds of alternative and holistic therapies because my parents, my mom was into yoga, Sathya Sai Baba. As I grew up, she was into yoga and Eastern philosophy. And before I had my injury, I felt born to be a yogi and an athlete. I did gymnastics, I was very flexible. I felt that it was from other lifetimes that I had that kind of spirit. When I was growing up, I was always doing headstands and handstands and backflips and walkovers and was just very open.

How old were you when you met Guruji?

I was sixteen.

Were you already into that stuff yourself?

To a certain extent yes, definitely. Holistic, alternative, all kinds of energy therapy, meridian, acupuncture… yeah. Then, when he was ready to work with me, I felt it was really a privilege and an opportunity to be able to do that. And after the first two or three times, I started feeling more circulation and tingling through my body, especially my lower body and my spine. I was feeling a lot more circulation because of the breathing and the asanas that he was working on with me. He was basically putting me in a lot of the first-series asanas. Slowly I felt more and more comfortable with him.

How did he instruct you what to do?

He worked one-on-one with me. And worked with moving my legs and my spine with the breath, the in-breath and the out-breath, with the different postured and positions. And pretty aggressively, but always to the extent that I would feel comfortable with. I think it was definitely the breath and positioning. I was really flexible from my younger life so I was able to do padmasana, and he would then support the lower part of my body and work with my arms and hands to the extent that I had my muscle strength.

So his main instruction to you was really to breathe?

Yes, and to work with the muscle tone that I had. What he did was to increase the circulation and the muscle tone in my legs and my back. And by doing that, I had a lot more feeling return. When I had my spinal cord injury, I was told, “Your spine is completely severed or injured so you won’t have any feeling or movement at all.” Yet after I did the yoga with Guruji, I had feeling. I was starting to feel and wake up the energy through my whole entire body, my lower body and my spine. He was pretty intimately working with me, and really closely, with my flexibility, my abilities. I’d say he emphasized my abilities rather than my disability, which was really special.

Over the year that you were there, did Guruji change your practice much? Or was it the same throughout that period?

He included more of the first series, more postures, and it was more powerful. He was focusing on my strengths and changing and supporting my posture so I could stand up. He would stand in front of me and hold my knees and lock my legs and hold me in a standing position. That was really powerful at the time. Then I started feeling pain in my lower back and spine and hip in different circumstances. So over time, yes, it got more intense.

Do you remember your first meeting with him?

It was in the yoga room. You know, it all kind of ran together, but the first time we worked together, I realized that the therapeutic breath together with the movement was really what everybody needs to stay flexible, and that circulation is the key to health and well-being. So I do remember that, and the tingling. The sensation of oxygenation through my body was like when someone’s leg falls asleep or is just waking up, the tingling and pins and needles – that feeling through the body.

Did Guruji help you to re-relate to your body or to see yourself or experience yourself without attaching to something completely physical?

Well, both. It helped me have more awareness and consciousness of my body and at the same time have the detachment of being able to be comfortable in my body. And a lot of people see me in my wheelchair and they are just looking at me and are thinking that I’m a normal balanced person without knowing the day-to-day challenges of just keeping a healthy consistent living. So I think the whole experience helped me to just have the love and joy, and keeping that in my heart. So, yeah, not so attached to the physical, it comes and goes – the physical.

Did Guruji help you re-relate to your body as an athlete?

Definitely, because I hadn’t therapeutically taken the time or had the motivation to process or to actually mourn the loss of my physicality. It was like “Okay, keep going!” and keeping up with life. It was more “Well now I can be a mental but not a physical being” – that was how I was treated and how I felt after my injury. But then when I got to do the yoga I felt I could definitely embrace my physical body as a gift. After that I had more strength and courage to do a number of things I wouldn’t have done otherwise: piggyback for miles and swim many miles, snorkel and kayak and do a lot of, to me, just essential therapeutic activities. To have the strength and courage to do that, to keep going, to keep motivated and inspired about being part of the joy of my physical body. And there was, along the way, a lot of other support for me to be that way, to have partners who would be able to help me have a lot of physical therapy, swimming, hot tubs, and so on.

Is that what you needed? Inspiration?

Definitely, because otherwise, I think, the sadness or the mourning of that much loss, of going from being intensely, extremely physical to not having that available to me… I’ve known other people and seen how that could be all-consuming in terms of depression or addictions or just escaping, just using anything and everything to escape from the loss and the pain from such a severe and traumatic injury. So to be able to be at that young age with Guruji and for him to really embrace me in my condition was really meaningful, valuable–invaluable.