How yoga helped me handle alopecia

Lying in the yoga shala of Gedong Gandhi Ashram, on the east coast of Bali, I felt at peace in myself for the first time in years. I allowed my breath to settle, as my teacher sang an old folk song:

The river it is flowing, flowing and growing
The river it is flowing, down to the sea
Oh, Mother carry me — child I will always be
Oh, Mother carry me… Down to the sea.

Beads of perspiration from our first class together trickled down the side of my bare head. I’d asked my boyfriend Andy to shave it, just three days previous, back in our Dublin apartment. The night before I flew to Indonesia for two months of solo travel and, for what my friends and ex-colleagues no doubt thought, was some sort of Eat, Pray, Love self-finding mission.

I hadn’t read the book then, but I have since, and must admit I can see clear parallels. A depressed young woman leaves her home country to escape an inner conflict. Seeks out a new culture, to challenge herself in unexpected ways, maybe even find someone who can “heal” her. Only to discover she didn’t need healing, not really. She was fine as she was all along.

But as a newbie baldie, I struggled with that acceptance at first.

I hated my egghead look and wondered what the hell I’d been thinking. Because the decision hadn’t been some Britney-esque impulse, an act of desperation. No, I’d actually thought it through. I’d been wearing a wig to cover my ever-expanding bald patches of alopecia areata for the past two years, having first developed the condition after my mum died when I was 10. Now, aged 28, I was sick of hiding. Sick of the constant fear I’d be exposed, found out as a closet baldie.

My family and closest friends already knew, but that was it. No one at work. No one at the choir I sang in every week. I always had my wig carefully curled, a headband in place to keep it secure in case it’d slip. The combs of the wig and the tight headbands gave me horrible headaches, sure…but at least my secret was safe.

Before the big shave

Still, I needed to come clean.

The temptation to live out in the open, wig-free and secret-free, was all I could think about. After work every evening, I’d take off my wig as soon as I got in the front door. Andy would tell me how beautiful I looked, with my tiny knot of hair. I didn’t believe him — but I did wonder how it would feel to live that way; not “hiding” under a heavy, uncomfortable hairpiece. To feel like I could breathe again.

So this trip, the first I’d ever take myself, seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’d handed in my notice at the advertising agency I worked for, told them I was going freelance. I’d booked my ticket and had arranged to stay at an ashram for my first week before exploring Indonesia for a further seven. The most exciting part was that no one knew me — so surely no one would care what I looked like!

I was wrong — of course they cared.

Or at the very least, they weren’t oblivious. After all, people tend to notice what’s different. As a tall, pale, Western woman, travelling alone, I was bound to stand out. As a tall, pale, Western woman, travelling alone and completely bald — well, let’s just say I had little chance of blending in.

Later, I’d learn that walking around in Dublin would attract me curious looks and unsubtle stares — but that people would look away again, not wanting to appear rude. But while Balinese people are some of the kindest I’ve come across, tact isn’t a word they’re all that familiar with.

In the first two days, while making my way to the ashram, I lost count of the amount of times someone asked: “Your head. What’s wrong with it?” or “Are you sick?” Other times, a group of longyi-clad ladies would unleash a chorus of cackles in my direction. My driver to the ashram even tried to rip off my headscarf (which I’d tied on in the hopes of some anonymity) to see what lay beneath.

At the time, I felt so vulnerable. Angry, even, that I couldn’t just go about my business, unnoticed.

A rush of blood to the (patchy) head

It’s amazing the difference a week makes.

When I got to the ashram, I made myself ditch the headscarf straight away. This was me, bald as an eagle, and there was no sense in hiding it. There, I drew the reactions I’d become somewhat accustomed to — walking past a group to find conversations cut short, excited whispers in my wake. Open-mouthed stares and the tricky task of getting people to direct their speech to me instead of my shiny head.

And while I knew there was no malice in it, just curiosity, it was hard. Hard to walk around and smile back and not get upset.

The only time I could let my guard down, truly, was on the yoga mat. It became my “happy place”. It still is, coincidentally. Any time I can shut out the world and connect to my breath, feel at one with my body again, brings me peace. Not only because it reminds me of that special place, that time in my life when I started to accept myself, but because it reminds me I don’t actually need to seek out other places or people or things to “fix” me. Everything I need is right here, within me.

One, two, three….auuuuummmm

It sounds hippy dippy — but it worked!

Because from that first yoga class onwards, I started feeling better about myself than I had in a long, long time. And when the ashram members started asking me about my bald head, I managed to talk about it without my voice cracking, or tears pricking at my eyes.

I kept doing yoga, every day, after the ashram. Even if only for a few minutes, I’d roll out a sarong and practise what I’d learned. After a few weeks, I noticed that not only was I becoming physically stronger and more flexible, my mental state had improved, too.

I was less anxious. Less bothered by what people said, or what I perceived them to be thinking about me. And while I still didn’t love my new look, the self-criticising record I’d had on repeat for as long as I could remember occasionally allowed new songs in.

Maybe it’s NOT the end of the world or Maybe there’s more to me than alopecia or even Maybe they’re not all thinking about me — they’ve probably got their own stuff to worry about!

That was one of my biggest realisations — that we ALL have our insecurities. For some, it’s body image issues. Others find it hard to articulate their thoughts. Others worry they’re not smart enough, or popular enough, or successful enough. That they’re not a good enough mother. That they’re not fulfilling their purpose. That they should do better, be more.

And while my insecurity was a hard one to hide — when it was so baldly staring people in the face — I came to learn that actually made it easier to deal with. I was going to get reactions, either way. The difference was how I chose to let them affect me.

Attempting to blend in. Not sure it worked…

The deal with Lady Alopecia

No doubt that the “exposure therapy” of that trip helped a lot. Having people stare at me so openly and ask such pointed questions made me get used to my condition. I had to suck it up. So by the time I got back to Ireland, I’d toughened up a little.

But what really helped me, then and now, was yoga. Not just the physical poses, but the deeper practices of meditation and mindfulness, of using yoga as a way of life to accept what I can’t change and to find gratitude in these challenges. In the lessons they have to teach me.

A couple of months after that trip, I posted publicly about my alopecia for the first time. Which led me to set Lady Alopecia — a website I now use to help fellow baldies find the acceptance that’s taken me, oh only a couple of decades!

I advise people on treatments and natural remedies as best I can. But, like I always tell those who write in, clearly I haven’t found a “miracle cure” — I’m still mostly bald, save for the little mohawk I managed to grow back!

What I really love sharing with people, is ways they can live with their alopecia. How they can feel comfortable in themselves, just as they are…without searching for a cure and spending a fortune in the process.

I’ve spent years doing just that, FYI. I’ve been through the steroid creams and scalp injections. I’ve had acupuncture, reiki, hypnotherapy and CBT. I’ve rubbed enough weird smelly herbal treatments, drank enough foul tinctures and swallowed more medicinal brown pellets than I care to recall. Always hoping one of them would “fix” me. Some of them have, temporarily…leading me to fall even further when they’d inevitably stop working again.

How yoga helped my alopecia

But in the midst of all the treatments, the healers, the diets and lifestyle changes, yoga has been my constant. My hair hasn’t grown back overnight because of it — but it’s what helps me handle my mostly bald head, on a daily basis.

It helped me accept alopecia all those years ago; it gave me the confidence to talk about it and the inspiration to help others with it.

Nowadays, it keeps me grounded. It keeps the anxiety (that I’m very much prone to) at bay — or if that anxiety sneaks up again, I can recognise why…and not beat myself up for it.

During COVID lockdown, yoga saved me all over again. In a time of chaos and fear, I felt, strangely enough, at my most centred. Probably because rather than rushing out into the world, I started every morning with a little yoga, a few breathing exercises, and some meditation.

Over the past few months, my hair has even started growing back — and I know that’s because I’m looking after myself properly. Sure, some of these things are related to diet and avoiding certain behaviours. But yoga helps me recognise what’s good for me and, crucially, what isn’t.

Recharging my mental batteries.

Happy habits help…

As a happy bi-product of practising yoga, I’ve cut down on things that might deplete me of what yogis call prana or “life-force energy”. Like reading the news, too much screen time or spending time with primarily negative people. I’ve also learned that high-powered exercise isn’t great for me and use my little red rash at the base of my skull as a sort of “inflammation indicator”. If I can exercise and boost my endorphins without it flaring up, that’s the kind of exercise for me!

When I practice yoga, I feel energised in a much calmer way. A sense of wellbeing that feels less like a jolt of energy, more like a trickling inwards of calm, a feeling which (for me, anyway) is better than the sudden high of a run.

Meanwhile, I’ve taken up more things that nurture me: like writing, spending more time with the right people, staying close to nature. That’s why I always say, yoga isn’t just a few stretches on a mat. Something that ends after your class. It’s a whole way of life.

On a physical level, the poses and breathing exercises I practice lower inflammation, produce serotonin and increase circulation — very handy for baldies because inversions allow fresh oxygen and essential nutrients to go straight to the scalp!

On a mental/emotional level, yoga has given me a more positive outlook, it’s made me a kinder, more compassionate person (at least, I hope it has!) and it’s equipped me with the tools I need when I’m feeling anything but kind and compassionate!

Love is all around you. Even on the walls.

Because yoga isn’t about feeling happy and zen all the time.

Just like meditation isn’t about clearing your mind. Rather, practising these things just makes you more aware of how your mind works. So when you’re feeling particularly shitty, you can ask yourself why. Maybe you’re rundown. Or maybe the weather’s crap. Or maybe you slept badly.

You’ll be able to recognise these things, to understand it’s OK to feel this way (because guess what? You’re human!) and that you won’t always feel like this.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is from a wise old yogi who said: “Yoga is not about touching your toes — it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

Cringe. I know.

But it’s true! I got into yoga for the physical side of it but it’s given me SO much more. It’s helped me accept my alopecia, my anxiety and all the other dark parts of me, just as they are. Because those dark parts are necessary to better show the light. They’re what make us whole.

Leading a sunset yin yoga class

Now I’m a yoga teacher AND a proud alopecian!

I’ve taught yoga in my adopted home of Hoi An, Vietnam since 2018 — and I’ve never been happier, even with my bumpy bald head.

Because I get to share this very special practice with people who want to de-stress, stay grounded and feel good about themselves.

The people I connect with most, and who I feel would benefit most from yoga, are people like me who suffer from things like anxiety and are maybe even losing their hair as a result. That’s why I’ve recently developed an online course, using yoga to help alopecia — just like it helped me.

My shiny head and my fabulous students.

But back in that ashram, I had no idea how far yoga would take me.

How simply breathing deeply and learning to feel at home in my body again could change my life.

I could only enjoy the soft singing, the gentle breeze, and allow myself to be transported by the words:

Oh Mother, carry me — child I will always be
Oh Mother, carry me… Down to the sea.

See how far yoga can carry you. And enjoy the journey. Namaste. :)

Alopecian who likes writing, travelling and puns. All of which can be found at ladyalopecia.com/