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6 Songs About Chronic Illness From Pop Stars With Health Conditions

Illness is the great leveler. Just ask Missy Elliott, Lady Gaga, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, and TRACE, all of whom have written songs about the experience of being chronically ill.

When it comes to pop culture, the chronic illness experience isn’t always represented, but that might be about to change. Over the past few years, several high profile singer-songwriters and performers have revealed their own diagnoses with long-term conditions and disabilities, and they’ve begun to speak out on the topic, and even refer to it in their songs. Here, six musicians and the long-term conditions they live with.

Lyme Disease — “Head Above Water” by Avril Lavigne 

If you’ve ever wondered why Avril Lavigne took such a long break from the music industry, the answer is simple. The singer contracted Lyme disease which forced her to retreat from the spotlight, and question whether or not she’d ever sing again. Speaking to Billboard in October 2018, Lavigne explained, “I was in bed for f***ing two years. It went undiagnosed for so long that I was kind of f***ed.” She even shared that, prior to her diagnosis, multiple doctors had made her feel “crazy” by not believing her symptoms—which is something that many people, and women especially, can relate to.

2018’s comeback single—“Head Above Water”—is about the moment that Lavigne “accepted that I was dying… like I was underwater and drowning, and I was trying to come up to gasp for air” (via Billboard). Lyrics such as “My life is what I’m fighting for,” and “I’m underneath the undertow” will be instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by a condition they didn’t ask for.

Fibromyalgia — “The Cure” by Lady Gaga

Back in September 2017, Lady Gaga was forced to cancel her European tour because of a fibromyalgia diagnosis. In a statement released at the time (via The Guardian), it was revealed that Gaga had made the difficult decision not to tour due to “severe physical pain that has impacted her ability to perform.” As anyone with fibromyalgia syndrome knows, the unpredictability of the condition means that patients can experience a variety of symptoms including extreme unexplained exhaustion, and severe muscle and body pain.

Released in April 2017, “The Cure” seemed to speak to the condition Lady Gaga had yet to reveal to her fans. Lyrics such as “If I can’t find the cure, I’ll fix you with my love,” and “If you say you’re okay, I’m gonna heal you anyway,” read like the comforting voice a chronically ill person might crave amid intense pain and discomfort out of their control. Gaga would return to the theme on the A Star Is Born soundtrack in 2018 with the track “Heal Me”.

Lupus — “Wolves” by Selena Gomez

Wild rumors suggested that Selena Gomez had absconded to rehab when, in fact, she was dealing with a lupus diagnosis she was yet to reveal to the world. Speaking to Billboard in October 2015, upon the release of her second solo album, the aptly-titled Revival, Gomez explained:” “I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about… I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea.’”

In September 2017, Gomez revealed she’d also undergone a kidney transplant due to complications relating to the chronic illness. And she’s frank about the fact that living with a chronic illness has exacerbated her mental health. Speaking to Harper’s BAZAAR in February 2018, Gomez explained, “I’ve had a lot of issues with depression and anxiety… and it’s not something I feel I’ll ever overcome.”

Upon its release in November 2017, many fans speculated that Gomez’s collaboration with Marshmello—“Wolves”—was about lupus, and it’s easy to see why as Gomez sings, “I’ve been down the darkest alleys. Saw the dark side of the moon.”

Anxiety — “Anxiety” by TRACE

Up-and-coming singer TRACE isn’t afraid to delve into what living with anxiety is really like—conjuring it as the perpetual lurking demon it truly is. On her latest single she warns that the condition is, “Creeping through the doors, and under all my sheets. I can never sleep. It worries me.” (Which, same tbh). In the music video, the condition is literally personified, and TRACE is relentlessly stalked by two largely silent, horror movie characters.

Detailing her anxiety for L’Officiel, TRACE writes, “one minute you’re enjoying a snack in front of the TV, and the next you’re in the shower, bawling, thinking about death. Personally, Anxiety takes me away from the present and puts me in a harmful future. It makes me worry about things I cannot control or things I might not understand.”

Graves’ Disease — “I’m Better” by Missy Elliott

In 2008, Missy Elliott was diagnosed with Graves’ disease—an autoimmune disorder that affects a person’s thyroid—after exhibiting some pretty serious symptoms including a dramatic weight loss, per Billboard. The rapper explained, “It causes hair loss, your eyes bulge. My blood pressure was always up from just overworking,” having revealed her diagnosis in a statement to ABC News in 2011.

Speaking at Essence’s Black Women in Music event at the start of 2018, Elliott said of her condition, “I was sick and I couldn’t even lift a pen. My nervous system had broken all the way down.” But Elliott’s health has been improving and, as collaborator Lamb raps on 2017’s “I’m Better”, “It’s another day, another chance. I wake up, I wanna dance. So as long as I got my friends, I’m better, I’m better, I’m better.”

Diabetes — “A Little Bit Longer” by Nick Jonas

When he was 13 years old, Nick Jonas was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and went on to write the song “A Little Bit Longer” about finding out he had the condition. With lyrics like “Waiting on a cure, but none of them are sure,” Jonas grapples with the lifelong condition and his need to medicate and keep it under control.

In 2008, Diabetes Control explained that Jonas diagnosis followed a plethora of unexpected symptoms including “mood swings, extreme thirst, frequent bathroom breaks, and sudden weight loss.” And in 2015, Jonas told Healthline that he uses an insulin pump to monitor and control his condition, and said, “yes, it has affected me creatively in the sense of how it’s shaped who I am as a person, and given me perspective.”

If you’d like to listen to these songs on Spotify, here’s a playlist containing all of them. If you know other songs about chronic illness, feel free to add them!

Q&As

Yes, You Can Get Lyme Disease From Ticks in Winter

Cold climes don’t stop some species of ticks from actively gorging on us and our pets. Here's how to protect yourself.

Ticks are hearty creatures. Despite that, most of us—including our doctors—believe these blood-thirsty insects die or hibernate at the first frost. Unfortunately, that’s a myth. Depending on the type of tick and the stage in its life cycle, ticks survive the winter months by going dormant or latching onto a host. They stay hidden in leaf litter present in wooded and brushy areas and a layer of snow on top of that creates a “snug as a bug” scenario.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe hotter summers combined with milder winters increase the risk of tick-borne diseases. Cases of Lyme disease showing up in winter months have been recorded in at least 11 states, with Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania having the highest numbers.  Dr. Ken Holtorf, medical director of the Holtorf Medical Group, shares how we can prevent getting Lyme disease at any time of year and what we should do if we think we contract it.

Why did you decided to specialize in Lyme disease?

I had Lyme while I was in medical school. Like many others, I was sick and very fatigued. I went to physicians who told me it’s nothing, that I’m stressed and depressed. By trying to help myself, I learned so many others are suffering from similar conditions.

What is Lyme disease and how is it spread?

Lyme is an infectious disease caused by Borrelia bacteria, which is spread by infected deer ticks. The blacklegged tick also spreads Lyme and is quite active between October and March on those days when the temperatures are above freezing.

Since ticks are generally more active in the warmer months and because we spend more time outdoors during those months, we tend to believe that the threat is over once the cold weather arrives. Unfortunately, there is evidence that we can’t let our guard down during any time of year.

Where can we find ticks in the winter?

Ticks are found in most parts of the United States and in many parts of the world.

How does the cycle work?

 

Dr. Ken Holtorf says it’s never too cold to not protect yourself.

In August and September winter tick eggs hatch on the ground. The Larvae seek out a host between September and November. Those that don’t find a host die.  The females that find a host stay put until the end of winter or the start of spring. Then they drop into the leaf litter and can lay up to 3,000 eggs before dying.

How common is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is now twice more common than breast cancer and six times more common than HIV/AIDS.

If Lyme disease is so common, why do doctors dismiss it?

Lyme disease is a master of disguise in the medical field. It’s commonly misdiagnosed or completely overlooked. Many of the symptoms of Lyme are shared among a number of other conditions.

The symptoms include:

  •         Swelling of lymph nodes
  •         Swelling or rash where one was bit
  •         Flu-like symptoms
  •         Stiff neck
  •         Chills
  •         Fever
  •         Headaches
  •         Fatigue
  •         Muscle aches and joint and tendon pain
  •         Arthritis
  •         Feeling a tingling or numbness
  •         Facial paralysis
  •         Panic attacks
  •         Depression and mood swings

How do we treat Lyme?

Aggressively. If not fully treated, Lyme disease symptoms can reemerge months to years after treatment is completed. Patients have reported symptoms in varying degrees.

Treatment is made up of a combination of prescription and/or natural antibiotics, antiviral, anti-parasitic, immune modulators, hormone balancers, nutritional supplements, low dose immunotherapy, and ozone therapy.

Can Lyme disease be spread in other ways?

A study published in the Journal of Investigative Medicine found Lyme disease may be sexually transmitted. The theory behind this comes from the similarities between borrelia burgforferi and the bacteria that causes syphilis. They are eerily similar in structure and function.

How can we prevent getting Lyme disease?

Carefully check for ticks after you’ve been outside, even in the winter. Some experts recommend wearing tick repellent throughout the winter months as well. One other thing to be aware of is that even if you’re well covered outside, pets can carry ticks indoors.

Some experts recommend wearing tick repellent throughout the winter months as well.

How do we protect our pets from Lyme?

Check your pets and home regularly, too. You can talk to your pet’s veterinarian about ways to keep your pets free from ticks.

What else can we do to prevent Lyme disease?

Spread the word that Lyme disease can be contracted anytime of the year.

Creative Commons image by Andreina Schoeberlein.

The Good Fight

How Climate Change Is Hurting Our Health

More heart attacks. Worse asthma attacks. Year round allergies. And tropical diseases everywhere. That's just a taste of what climate change is doing to our health.

Climate change can seem like a problem so much bigger than an individual person. But even outside of flooding coasts, hotter summers, and freakier storms, climate change is deeply impacting our health on an individual level. But just how much? Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health, a new book from two experts on emergency medicine, addresses just that million dollar question.

“If things are going bonkers weather-wise in our neighborhoods and regions it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that it affects our health,” explains Enviromedics co-author Dr. Jay Lemery, an associate professor of emergency medicine at The University Of Colorado, who wrote his book alongside his mentor Dr. Paul Auerbach, a professor in the Department Of Emergency Medicine at Stanford.

And those effects, which Lemery has seen first-hand as part of his own practice, can be severe, such as pre-existing conditions like asthma exacerbated by extreme heat, or allergic reactions that last for whole seasons.

The book takes readers “bedside” to a mixture of scenarios extrapolated from the authors’ own practices: patients with preexisting conditions exacerbated by extreme heat; allergies previously bad for short periods lasting whole seasons; heat-induced asthma attacks.

In myriad ways, some discreet, others overt, climate change imperils global health. “Ecosystems are suffering and we are inextricably linked to the places we live,” says Lemery. We spoke to him to learn more.

How did you go from emergency medicine to climate change science?

A man with a beard wearing a knitted cap and a blue sweat shirt, standing in front of glacial waters on a rocky beach.

Dr. Jay Lemery wrote Enviromedics because he sees climate change as the greatest health crisis of our time.

Out of residency, I took a job at Weill Cornell Medicine teaching wilderness medicine. It was ‘how do you take care of people in remote austere places?’ ‘How do you practice without advanced technology?’ I had been a resident during 9/11 and started at Cornell in 2004; disaster medicine was everywhere. I really dug it because it kept true to the core principles of medicine, of innovation and physical diagnosis. Somewhere in there I began to think about climate change and environmental degradation. The science was being politicized. I thought, this is crazy. I did a lot of contract work for the National Science Foundation supporting Arctic research, tons of which is climate related. I was also a past president of the Wilderness Medical Society, a nonprofit academic organization. We would help establish the Everest base camp medical clinic during climbs.

We were in these spectacular places, supporting researcher’s health, supporting the science, and I just noticed this glaring absence of the medical community in this conversation on climate change when it is so clearly affecting our health. That was my big moment.

“I just noticed this glaring absence of the medical community in this conversation on climate change when it is so clearly affecting our health.”

What did you think the conversation was missing?

So much of the conversation around climate change is about polar bears or abstract concepts like parts per million of carbon dioxide which, if you study this stuff you know is a big deal, but for the layperson means absolutely nothing; just a number, literally, out of thin air. I thought, we have to do better.

As doctors, me and Auerbach know sickness. We’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the future because climate change will be a driver for sickness. In our book, we took composite vignettes of the patients that we see everyday. These are not specific cases but are the natural extension of the data we’re seeing. We know extreme heat drives morbidity and mortality for people with preexisting illness; we know what heatstroke looks like; etc. So then instead of talking about polar bears you’re talking about your parents’ risk of chronic lung disease and your kids’ risk of asthma.

My own sister lost her house in Vermont during a hurricane in 2012, when all of northern New England got nuked by extreme rain. A little beautiful stream diverted into her living room, turning into a river. These are real things. Talk to people in California about their wildfires. The air is degraded; people are losing their homes; huge swaths of land are gone; people are dying. There’s nothing healthy about that.

“The air is degraded; people are losing their homes; huge swaths of land are gone; people are dying. There’s nothing healthy about that.”

How is climate changing making people sicker?

Heat waves can kill people but very few people die from heatstroke, relatively (although we’re seeing more more of that this summer in India and the Middle East, where you have very vulnerable populations who just cannot cool down). It’s really the people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart attacks or congestive heart failure who die. Heat makes their bodies work harder. When you’re walking around on a hot day, your pulse goes up, you’re working harder to sweat. That’s enough to push someone over the edge.

The cover to Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health.

Extreme weather, too. Hurricanes kill people and destroy infrastructure. Look what happened in Puerto Rico and Houston. In Houston, a tremendous downpour caused catastrophic flooding and people were killed and internally displaced. In Puerto Rico you had a relatively vulnerable place get pummelled (I was part of a study that pointed out that the death rate was in the thousands, not 64 as the government said at first). Try living in Puerto Rico without power for nine months; that’s a big hit to your health and wellness.

Another one: Part of the bedrock of public health is that we separate the areas where we eat, go to the bathroom and grow food. But when we have a heavy downpour, which we’re seeing more of, you end up blending all those places. That’s water insecurity. Even in Boston or New York you can’t drink the water for a few minutes after an extreme downpour because it overwhelms the sanitation pumps. Now that’s just a couple minutes of inconvenience but in many places in the world your food is compromised; sewage has contaminated your crops. That’s where you get these horrible diarrheal diseases. Diarrhea is still one of the biggest killers of children across the world. Water insecurity is a huge deal.

What are the biggest climate-caused or exacerbated health issues?

Even among climate scientists, there’s debate. Is it extreme heat? Is it the rise of sea level which will make coastal living impossible? I think that, between extreme weather and the increase in temperatures, climate change will undermine our food supply. Food security will have the biggest health effects worldwide because it will undermine our access to nutrition. Lack of nutrition is a wonderful way for disease to thrive. That’s going to be the biggest, I think.

“Food security will have the biggest health effects worldwide because it will undermine our access to nutrition. Lack of nutrition is a wonderful way for disease to thrive.”

What are some of the more subtle ways in which climate change affects health?

Take allergies. The aeroallergen ragweed and pollen levels are going bonkers because they’re responding to higher CO2 levels. Seasonal allergies are lasting longer than they have before, particularly in northern cities. In Canada there’s good data which says ragweed allergies used to last for only a couple of weeks a year; now it’s months. That doesn’t kill people. But if you suffer seasonal allergies you’re incapacitated for the time you’re outside. You’re miserable.

Ticks and mosquitoes, which carry tropical diseases like zika, yellow fever, dengue and malaria, are moving higher in latitude and altitude. In the East African highlands people who have been historically spared from malaria are now susceptible. It’s a double whammy: more people getting malaria and those getting it have no tolerance. We’re going to be seeing more of this in the U.S. as well. Lyme now exists in all fifty states; that’s unprecedented. There’s no mystery to it. Bugs like warmth.

Yet, if you think about what’s happening it’s not just global warming. Although rising temperatures is one of the drivers what we’re actually witnessing is a global energizing. We are energizing a very complex system, the planet. I’ve had people in climate communication say not to use that word because it’s too optimistic. Katharine Hayhoe out of Texas calls its global weirding, which I think is very effective. It’s really what we’re seeing. The weather is just wacky, with more crazy anomalies we haven’t witnessed before. Climate change is crazy town.

“Climate change is crazy town.”

What sorts of climate-related issues do you see in your own emergency room in Denver?

On hot days we see tons of people come in with chest pains, shortness of breath or exacerbations of their chronic illness. Extreme heat exacerbates preexisting conditions. On those days with heavy wildfires we’ll see exacerbations of asthma. Researchers who look at these things aggregately are able to see spikes from these weather anomalies.

That issue of causality is interesting. When can one definitively blame a health outcome on climate change?

“Let’s not be naive.”

You don’t need direct causality to be a threat multiplier. There are great epidemiological methods to tease out different variables–if you look at our book it’s all right there. Causality, when you see it, is important. But it’s also important to acknowledge that we cannot definitively prove this. For example, the 2003 heatwave in Paris was beyond historical experience. Fourteen thousand people in France died, 32,000 in northern Europe, a very well resourced part of the planet. Can I definitively say that was due to climate change? No. But what you can say is that this heatwave is beyond historical experience and that we know we’ll be seeing more in the future. Undoubtedly the data we’re seeing from temperatures across the planet are driving more extreme heat events and we know that this is a threat multiplier for health. Let’s not be naive.

You can purchase Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health on Amazon.

Profiles

How Frida Kahlo Helped This Burlesque Dancer Recover From Paralysis

When Irene Delgado was diagnosed Guillain Barré, channeling the Mexican feminist icon helped her recover, and get back on stage.

The day after she left the hospital, Irene Delgado was on stage, in a floral crown, peasant blouse, turquoise skirt and black Mary Jane flats. She stripped her costume to reveal a medical corset, just like the ones Frida Kahlo wore. At the end of the act, Irene broke herself out of the corset, put her arms in the air, and cried, “I’m free!”

It was a fitting gesture. Like Frida, Irene had suffered debilitating pain, undergone intensive tests and diagnosis: X-rays and spinal taps, blood transfusions and physical therapy, after six weeks in the hospital.

Irene has soulful eyes, a shaved head, tan skin and a free, infectious laugh. She’s 48, but it’d be hard to guess her age, and harder to tell that beneath her small frame is a whole lot of fortitude. Irene was born and mostly raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents. For the past 20 years, New York City had been her home, while she worked as a burlesque performer and costume designer and stylist and other odd and end jobs.

48-year-old NYC burlesque performer Irene Delgado.

One early morning in November 2016, she woke up with a strange, pulsating sensation going down her legs. The painful sensation continued through the day. As she sat, cutting fabric, she felt her muscles spasming. When she attempted to relax, later, the sensation returned: a shock of numbness and electricity, pins and needles. Not only was it going down her legs and feet, but it had started moving into her arms. “I freaked out,” Irene said.

On her first visit to the emergency room at her local hospital, she waited for five hours, in so much pain that she couldn’t think. When she stayed in any position for too long, she started to cry. Her legs were jerking, out of her control. “I didn’t know what was going on. If I had experienced something like this before, then I could pinpoint it.” But the pain was completely foreign, and the doctors gave her few answers. They sent her home with an anti-inflammatory shot, and blamed the pain on anxiety.

She returned to the hospital three more times over the next two weeks. Each time, she left without a diagnosis. In the meantime, the pain escalated. She was so weak that she could hardly eat. She started losing the ability to use her hands. When Irene had to finish a costume for a client, she asked a friend for help, and directed on exactly what to do. For a short while, she grew hopeful that the pain had plateaued. But when it returned, it started to fire up her lower back. She couldn’t sit down and limped when she walked.

Finally, a friend who worked as a ER doctor drove her to NYU Langone to find answers. When she went into the ER that day, her heart rate was 138 rpm, beating so rapidly that she was gasping to breathe. It wasn’t her anxiety that was causing her suffering: something was going on inside her body.

She stayed at the hospital for the next six weeks. Every day, there were a series of tests and attempts at diagnosis. Three vials of blood drawn every day, MRIs and CT scans, X-Rays, procedures that Irene had rarely experienced before. “There was a piece of me going everywhere, all over the United States,” Irene says, laughing.

Doctors speculated that she might have had Multiple Sclerosis, and she tested positively for Lyme disease. Then they noticed the excessive proteins she had in her spinal fluid. After a spinal tap, they told her that she likely had a version of Guillain Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune condition in which her body viewed the proteins in her spinal fluid as foreign invaders and started to attack itself, damaging her peripheral nervous system.

For treatment, she underwent five days of plasmapheresis. The doctors hooked up a PICC line from her neck to her heart. The line filtered out her blood and replaced it with fresh plasma. Irene didn’t know what the illness meant for her future, but she and her partner, photographer Adrian Buckmaster, tried to make the best of the stay. Buckmeister recreated the iconic photo of Frida Kahlo in her hospital bed with Irene’s costume. They befriended the nurses and attendants, and spent a happy Christmas in the hospital, when a steady stream of visitors brought food and coquito liquor from “ten in the morning until ten in the evening.” Irene’s friends created a GoFundMe, and in three days, it raised enough money for Irene to pay her rent until June.

In the next three weeks, Irene slowly relearned to use her limbs. “I felt like I was a newly born baby.”

In the next three weeks, Irene slowly relearned to use her limbs. “I felt like I was a newly born baby.” Not only had the illness disrupted her nerves, but the extended bed-rest shortened her muscles. “When I left, I couldn’t walk properly, couldn’t think, I was taking nine different medicines, I was very emotional.” It was hard to explain what she’d gone through, hard to explain the intensity of her experience.

After getting sick, Delgado turned to Frida Kahlo for inspiration.

The night of her Frida Kahlo performance, Irene took two Oxycodins and channeled the artist on stage. Frida had always been Irene’s favorite painter, but now, she had a different understanding of the artist’s work. In her paintings, Irene says, “you can see her loneliness, her fragility… and you can see her strength.”

It was a physically and emotionally grueling experience. The actual stage time lasted only five minutes, but there were hours of waiting and prepping and primping. For Irene, simply sitting down was torture. But she wanted to keep her performance slot: “I didn’t want to be forgotten about.”

Over a year since the illness hit, Irene is still numb from her knees down to her feet — “if I were to scratch my leg, I can’t feel it.” The worst of illness has passed, but Irene thinks she’ll live with the residual numbness for the rest of her life. Irene is still sewing gowns and coats, and performing on stage. The illness has changed her life in one major way: it helped her start a new business, a line of scented creams and lotions and body oils and bath salts, scented and lovely and infused with transdermal magnesium, which she discovered while fanatically looking for ways to reduce pain.

The afternoon we spoke, Irene’s partner was Photoshopping each product in the line, adjusting the curves to reflect the warm or cool shadow of a face cream. She sold the line for the first time this February at a market at a kinky art salon and mixer, and plans to open an Etsy shop. Adrian and Irene have been together for twelve years, but in the skincare line, Adrian saw something different. “This is very special, “Adrian said. In creating the line, he saw something in Irene manifest, something he thought she could do all along. “I guess it took going through the pain,” he said. “You changed your view of the world in many ways.”

Irene made creating the skincare line look easy, because she loved it. And perhaps she’d been gearing up for it all along: Irene had worked for Sephora when it first opened as a boutique in NYC, and had spent years traveling the country doing Dr. Brandt’s microdermabrasions on clients. “I sold the hell out of other people’s products,” she says, “now it’s my turn to build my own.”

Health & Fitness

The Kick-Ass Yogi Who Fights Lyme Disease With Swear Words

Jyll Hubbard-Salk might be the feistiest yoga instructor in the Five Boroughs, and her students wouldn't have it any other way.

“Ass up! Ass up!” shouts Jyll Hubbard-Salk, a 50-year-old yoga teacher, to a crowd of sweaty students in downward-facing dog position. Wearing tinted aviator glasses and gold bangles up her arms, she stands before a shrine decorated with amethyst crystals, bundles of sage, and a bronze statue of the Hindu goddess Shakti—as well as an empty Jack Daniels bottle and an upturned Zoo York skateboard.

Jyll Hubbard-Salk.

“I’m not your typical yoga teacher,” says Jyll, who founded Urban Asanas, a magenta- and orange-painted yoga studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. During the 30 classes she teaches weekly—from “Breath and Beats,” a vinyasa class with a live DJ, to the restorative “Urban Unwind” class—she tends to say “fuck” at least twice as much as she says “namaste.” It’s part of what keeps people coming back. “I cuss when I teach, and some other teachers are like, ‘Oh my god! Blasphemy!’” But for her cultish following of students, this tough-love, real human approach is a refreshing break from a wellness culture with its fair share of the holier-than-thou. (“Jyll snapped me back into reality, forced me to face myself,” wrote one student in a Yelp review.)

When she opened Urban Asanas in 2012, after saving up $20,000 over a five-year period, Jyll’s mission was to make yoga classes more accessible, diverse, and affordable for all. This felt especially crucial in the gentrifying neighborhoods of central Brooklyn, where some new yoga studios charge $8 for a coconut water and $3 to use a mat. (Urban Asanas offers donation-based “community” classes and complimentary use of all props.) The studio’s opening also coincided with Jyll’s diagnosis of lyme disease, an autoimmune disease transmitted to humans via tick bites. The joint pain, lethargy, and stress it caused called for her to double down on her commitment to self-care via yoga and meditation.

Here, Jyll discusses why striving for goodness might be a better bet than striving for greatness and how to stay sane even amid the insanity of 2017.

Why did you start Urban Asanas? Why not just teach at an existing yoga studio?

I kept going to yoga studios where I was the only black girl. I wanted to have space where everyone wasn’t a size two, like [cheeks sucked in]. Eat a piece of meat! Enough of those bitches.

In class you’re always telling your students to “sit in your shit,” and to “get uncomfortable to get comfortable.” What does this mean to you?

When I say “sit in your shit,” for me, it’s about needing to get into a place where I can feel what I need to feel, let it come to the surface, and purge through it. It doesn’t feel good. But if I stay busy all the time, if I don’t have to stop and think about anything, then it hits the fan.

Hubbard-Salk opened her studio as a positive space for people of all body types.

You make your students laugh all the time, which is kind of rare in yoga classes. Why do so many yoga people seem to take yoga so seriously?

They’re tightasses and they’re not living their yoga. A yoga teacher I know recently had plastic surgery and changed her face — I’m like, who’d believe that? Who’d study with you? That’s not real. That’s not what yoga’s about. Yoga’s about life, living. I can’t pull it out of a book. I cuss when I teach, and some teachers are like, “Oh my god! Blasphemy!” But I’m a proponent of real yoga. Yoga is every day. I’m consistent in how I am at my house, with family, friends, and at the studio. It’s all me. I’m not putting on different hats. I’m not like, “This is my soft yoga voice.” There’s people I know who are like, “I wanna be in Yoga Journal!” I don’t need to be on a magazine cover. My aspiration is to just change people’s outlooks and make them feel good. It’s not something I’m doing myself—it’s something I’m helping people find on their own. I’m sitting in the pews, like, “You got it! you got it!”

How do you use yoga and meditation to help manage lyme disease?

I’ve had lyme disease for four years. It’s an autoimmune disease. She comes and goes as she pleases. It makes me super lethargic, so I have to keep my stress level down with yoga and meditation. I eat no gluten, no sugar. I gotta stretch, get acupuncture, got to specialists, smoke a lot of weed, medicinally. But I have to say, I’m living with it. I’ve heard some horror stories.

You’re someone people turn to for guidance, and in the wake of the recent election, many people have been really needing guidance. How do you help your students cope with politically-induced stress?

People are still reeling from the election. Yesterday, in class, half the class was crying, and I was crying with them. The day after the election, all three of my kids were in tears. I told them, you gotta be the change. My two oldest daughters will be able to vote in the next election. Go out and talk, get active, go speak. And they are. My oldest, Sierra, is speaking about race relations at the 2016 NAIS People of Color Conference in Atlanta.

And I’m an advocate of self-care. You have to take care of yourself.  If you’re not doing work to take care of yourself—resting, meditation, good food, good company—especially in winter, the darkest time of year, you’ll get moody and depressed. And we have to get to know each other. When was the last time you said hi to someone on the street? Just say ‘Hi, how you doing?’ That softens people. Everyone’s rigid. I’ll have my students introduce themselves to people in class. And when was the last time you picked up the phone to call someone? An aunty, a grandma, a friend? Don’t text me. I wanna hear your voice.

Who taught you this attitude? Who are your “role models?”

My kids are my role models. Honestly, I don’t look at people like that, as role models. I have mentors, and women who just inspire me, but I’m not looking at people like Oprah as role models. They’re working it out, just like I do. A homeless person who’s out there trying to survive has as much to teach me as some star. The people I admire, they’ve lived. They have stories to tell. There’s nothing a little 25-year-old white girl who just got certified can teach me in a yoga class. I need someone who’s been in the game for a minute.

 

I’m not the Mother Teresa, and I’m not the raggediest [expletive] out there. I don’t wanna be great, I wanna be good. Great’s cute too, but I wanna be good. When you always trying to be great, there’s an expectation of failure. But I can get that balance. I wanna live in the pause, the space between breaths. I’m my problem, and I’m also my solution.

At 50, I’m clearer and more present than I’ve ever been in my life. I got there through yoga and meditation—and not giving a fuck. I don’t [care] about Kim Kardashian. I don’t [care] if Kanye’s crazy. I don’t [care] People are like, “Are you thinking about plastic surgery?”  Never in my life have I thought about altering anything on my body. I like me. I love me. I like being with me, and I think I’m cool. I don’t [care]. My life’s complete. If I died today, I’d miss my kids, but I’m good. I’ve had love—I’ve had a little bit of heartache—but I’m complete.

What advice would you give the many people who really don’t feel that way?

You gotta get to know you. You gotta slow down. You gotta take the time to be like, okay, that’s not cute, but that is. We’re so superficial, only looking at [our faces] in the mirror. I’m always telling my students, Get to know your back body. Get to know your kidneys. What does the back of your heart look like? I didn’t wake up like this. I’m always working on myself. Always trying to get better. It’s  work. It’s not easy. But I think I’m worth the work.

Profiles

The Girl With The Beautiful Photographs

“I've learned that if you really want to find peace in life, you have to learn how to embrace [your obstacle] as a stepping stone,” says 14-year-old photographer Emma Ketterer.

A park bench sits near a still pond, orange fall leaves from a tree overhead. The image is still, serene, and beautifully composed. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the work of an adult photographer with years of experience and schooling, but you’d also be wrong.

14-year-old Emma Ketterer takes beautiful photographs with no formal training. A native of Berks County, Pennsylvania, she also has Lyme disease: a difficult-to-diagnose bacterial infection that can cause extreme fatigue, insomnia, and cognitive impairment.

Emma uses her photography to transcend her condition.

“The photography is a big therapy in a lot of ways,” says her mom, SuEllen Ketterer, “getting her body moving, getting outside, and having something positive to do.”

Emma has always been interested in photography, but she considers the starting point of her photographic ‘career’ the day her uncle gave her his old Canon 20D camera for her twelfth birthday.

“I had no clue how to use it, and didn’t even discover shutter speed until that summer,” she says. “You can imagine how much different my first photographs look compared to what I do now.”

The gift changed her life. Just six months previously, the symptoms of Lyme disease had hit her all at once. Most days, it was hard enough just to get out of bed.

“You have to understand that before I became sick I was a very active person,” Emma says. “I had been a horseback rider for seven years, I played the flute in the school band, I took part in choir and many other extracurriculars.”

When she was suddenly unable to do those things, it became hard for her to get excited about life. Photography gave Emma a new challenge that fit within her limitations.

“I was able to push myself without causing stress,” she says, “and the result of that was a physical image that I could look at as a reminder that I was trying my hardest.”

Two years ago, Emma’s grandmother put the photos up for sale at her farmer’s market booth and sold out the first day before noon. Now, Emma is featured at a local art gallery, sells photos through local flower shops, and places her photos at nearby craft shows, in addition to her grandmother’s booth.

“When I first started, I was taking photos because that’s all I could do, and it gave me a purpose,” Emma says. “Skip ahead two years later, and I’m being recognized around my town as the girl with the beautiful photographs!”

Emma is still figuring out what type of photography she likes best. She tends to take a lot of animal photos and landscapes, but would love to try more street photography. It’s important to her that none of her subjects are posed or set up like a postcard. Her goal is to share the truly wonderful moments in her life.

“To me, photography is all about capturing the raw moments of life and using that to spread a message or unite people,” she says.”

 

While her health has improved immensely in the past two years, even simple tasks like getting up to go to school can be tough for Emma. Her photos represent the most precious moments in her life, and remind her that happiness can truly be found in the darkest of times, as she continues to overcome any obstacles in her way.

“I’ve learned that if you really want to find peace in life, you have to learn how to use that obstacle to your advantage and embrace it as a stepping stone,” she says. “You have to take it as an opportunity to better yourself and those around you.”

This inspiring young woman has found her own way to help herself and hopefully help others around her. Taking her photos and selling them has allowed Emma to spread her own hope and joy with others, inspiring them to make the most of what they’re given.

“If I can help just one person to find that happiness in their darkness,” she says, “then I’ll have done my job as a person.”

You can follow Emma’s photography on Facebook here.