A large window overlooks the grocery store floor, providing a bird’s-eye view of shoppers walking the aisles of Detroit’s Whole Foods. The phrases “Community Focused,” “Community First,” and “Community Proud” hang above the window. Adria Moses, tonight’s yoga instructor, is one of the first to arrive.
Moses is preparing the space where she holds classes every Tuesday, setting up her mat at the front of the room. She happily greets each student as they filter in, encouraging them to apply the essential oils that she’s placed upon a table at the entrance. One attendee — he first discovered the class when he spotted people leaving the store with yoga mats — asks Moses why she teaches for free. “Karma yoga,” she says with a smile.
By the time class starts at 6:30 p.m., there are seven students, enough to comfortably fill the small space. Starting in “child’s” pose, Moses leads everyone through breathing. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth.
The lesson continues like this, focusing on breathing while moving through poses — cow, cat, downward dog, and, finally, warrior. The students hold the position, gazing over their left hand toward the window.
“We get uncomfortable and stop breathing. That’s what life has taught us,” Moses says, her soothing voice rising above the outside bustle. “Breathe here, warrior. You’re showing strength.”
This comment is especially striking coming from Moses, a warrior in her own right who, at only 24 years old, has had to fight more than most to be at the class she’s teaching today, let alone to be alive.
A Change of Pace
Parts of Moses’ story — nearly dying at the age of 19, a stint in the ICU, and a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder that was so painful, it led to an eventual suicide attempt — have become blurry. But over a decade later, she remembers what it felt like to be told she had Crohn’s disease at 12 years old: “When I got my diagnosis, it was like the world stood still.”
Moses wasn’t a stranger to the autoimmune illness, which affects the digestive tract lining. Her father was also diagnosed at the same age, and she witnessed his health scares. Prior to her own childhood diagnosis, she was the youngest of four children living in Inkster, Mich.
She says the family was close-knit, but her mother and father had an unhealthy relationship. It was about the time she was 11 — when her parents separated and she moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Walled Lake with her mother and siblings — that Moses first experienced signs of Crohn’s.
“I wasn’t really aware of my symptoms, but when … it was quiet and I was alone, I would have bouts of abdominal pain and using the bathroom more,” Moses says. She believes the stress from the divorce sparked what may have been a dormant illness.
After six months of persistent pain, her mother took her to see a doctor who, just by looking at her nail beds, could tell that she, too, had the autoimmune disease. “My fingernails were slightly curved downward. People refer to it as mild or early clubbing, which is linked to Crohn’s.”
A colonoscopy and endoscopy followed, and so did the official diagnosis.
Trips to the doctor became more frequent, and at one point, she was taking six to eight different medications a day. She would log each administration in a journal, which her mom would pack up for her as she went between households.
At 14, the most likely source from which Moses should have been able to draw guidance regarding treatment was her father. However, he downplayed the symptoms, often commenting that he’d simply remained mentally strong to deal with Crohn’s. Moses says this advice, coupled with disagreements with her doctor’s wellness philosophies and a lack of improvement in her condition, eventually led to her becoming inconsistent with taking the medicine.
“I was suffering,” she says. “I was just dealing with the pain every day. I didn’t want to be on the medicine, because it wasn’t helping.”
Yet she still attempted to push through her teenage years. She ran track and played junior varsity volleyball as a freshman. The rigorous exercise, she thought, would counteract her disease, but it made symptoms worse. She caught shingles when she was 16 — due in part to the immunosuppressive side effects of medication — and had to quit the teams.
Academically, she didn’t do well either, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t capable. In fact, her high ACT score, along with a heartfelt essay about what high school is like while living with Crohn’s, can explain her acceptance to Oakland University despite her grades.
Although they had a rocky relationship, Moses moved in with her dad, who had opened a wellness studio near his Dearborn home, and started college. “At that time, we didn’t have a relationship that represented anything of a father-daughter relationship. I yearned for that. I felt like I needed him.”
Between classes, she would work at the center mixing shakes for members while learning about personal training. Sometimes, even though she found it difficult to get into positions, she would also attend the studio’s yoga classes.
“I did not like yoga … I’m 17, going on 18. My body should be able to fold and bend, and it’s not because of years of being balled up in pain,” she says. “Every day was excruciating pain. I needed someone to tell me, ‘You need to go to the doctor.’ But nobody was there.”
Life on the Line
Moses did need to go to the doctor. She had stopped taking her medication, and was once again performing poorly in school. To cope with the daily pain, she’d take naps in between client sessions at the wellness studio and her classes at Wayne State University, which she transferred to when she was 19.
Despite cohabitating, the relationship with her father was still complicated, and Moses would sometimes stay at her mother’s apartment. Aug. 4, 2013, was one of those nights. She knew something wasn’t right, but she drove around to distract herself, came back home, and managed to eventually fall asleep despite the pain in her abdomen. In the middle of the night, she sat up and screamed.
“You get to the point [where] you think that you’d be at your limit … but my pain had reached a level I can’t even explain,” she says. Her mother rushed into the room and called 911.
Moses remembers the sirens. She remembers getting to the hospital and learning the person who had to perform emergency surgery on her was on call. In a daze, she saw her dad had arrived, and she passed out.
A few days later, Moses was on life support, no longer breathing on her own. Doctors were discussing the fate of her health and decided another surgery was needed.
“I could hear them, and my mom [was] like, ‘Shh, don’t say it loud,’ ” Moses says, tearing up while reliving her memory of the ICU. “I wrote on a paper to her, ‘I’m not afraid.’ ”
Eventually, she learned the pain she had felt that night at her mother’s was the result of septic shock from a bowel perforation — a complication associated with Crohn’s that caused everything Moses’ body was working to contain in her organs to spread into her abdominal cavity. The surgeons had to remove 12 centimeters of her small intestine, and on Aug. 8, she was off life support.
Before surgery, she was 115 pounds, dehydrated, and malnourished. “When you have Crohn’s disease, the body cannot absorb nutrients the same … which causes malnutrition and often times anemia. During the time of my surgery, I was dehydrated because I was essentially dying slowly.”
Afterward, she was 190 pounds, pumped with fluid to keep her alive.
As she began to take in her new form, she noticed something: an open wound stitched with sutures ran the length of her abdomen. Two drains were positioned below.
“I remember panic. [I imagine] it feels like when people don’t have their limbs.”
Learning to Breathe Again
Moses’ 20th birthday was spent in the hospital. As the months progressed, she split her time between her mother’s place, the ICU, and the hospital floor learning to walk again and how to pack her still-healing wound.
By April 2014, nearly 10 months after her emergency surgery, Moses was still aching. Her wound was beginning to scar and she was on anti-anxiety medication to help with PTSD and depression. She needed something to keep her mind off the day-to-day of post-op, and she settled upon Bikram — known as “hot yoga” — at a nearby studio.
The only previous experience she’d had with yoga was attempting to get into positions at her father’s studio. But the idea of a hot room sounded appealing given how sore she was. She was unsure of her decision, but even as she struggled to get through the class, something changed.
“It was the only thing that made me feel connected to my body,” says Moses, who revealed her scar for the first time in Bikram, the hot temperatures prompting her to exercise in a sports bra. “This was like I was breathing. I could feel all my senses again; I just felt alive.” The Arabic word for “warrior” is now tattooed above the scar, her self-proclaimed badge of honor.
Moses kept going to the class, and eventually made her way back to her dad’s wellness studio now located in Southfield. She was still healing — both physically and mentally — but she knew the way yoga made her feel wasn’t something she could ignore, so she started to pursue her certification to teach her own classes.
Rediscovering yoga wasn’t a be-all, end-all solution. Following her newfound love for the practice, she was still dealing with mental health issues associated with her traumatic surgery, and nearly lost her life again when she attempted suicide in July 2014.
“I couldn’t work [full time]. I couldn’t go back to school. Financially, no one could support me. The car I leased when I was 18 got repossessed because no one could pay on it.” The series of misfortune, for Moses, pointed to a resounding: “Why am I even here?”
But as the years went on, she ended unhealthy relationships, found a more collaborative doctor and medicine she felt comfortable taking, started a job as an executive assistant at the Detroit-based cosmetics company the Lip Bar, and finished her yoga teacher training in December 2016. Slowly but surely, she rebuilt.
“I’ve been spared and know it,” she says. “I have the experience to tell you, s*** gets hard, and dark, and scary. But fall seven times, get up eight. I don’t fear much, because I know there’s another side to a coin.”
Bending not Breaking
Back in the Whole Foods community space, class is winding down. After nearly an hour of practicing Vinyasa yoga, the students are instructed to sit.
“Take note of how you feel now from when you first walked in,” she says, the energy of the room distinctively calm as a grocery announcement plays overhead. A few moments pass before Moses says, “namaste” and the students pack up. An older woman with her own physical limitations thanks Moses for being patient.
These moments of inclusivity are a core part of the yoga practice Moses teaches. She doesn’t belong to a studio and instead holds pop-up classes across Detroit at unexpected places like Whole Foods, Détroit Is The New Black, Live Cycle Delight, and Lululemon, which she’s an ambassador for.
Moses believes in the power of the discipline; she’s had firsthand experience with its stress-relieving and mental health benefits, which are crucial for navigating chronic pain. However, she still remembers what it felt like to go to yoga and not feel like she belonged. This is why she wants her teachings to be accessible to those who may feel like they don’t fit into yoga stereotypes because of their race, income, or, like Moses, illness.
“What draws me to yoga every single day is that mind, body, spirit connection,” she says. “I love to get on my mat, and move, and feel free. Even though I have Crohn’s, I’m free of my sickness. I’m living my best life.”
What is Crohn’s?
Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease.
The illness, which is autoimmune in nature and typically diagnosed before the age of 35, leads to ulcerations in the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus — most commonly at the end of the small intestine. Those with Crohn’s disease have a loss of regulation of the immune system in their intestinal tract. It alters between flares — moments of activity and ulceration — and periods of calmness.
Chronic abdominal pain
Doctors may use a combination of tests and procedures to diagnose the illness, including blood tests, colonoscopy, CT scan, MRI, capsule endoscopy, and balloon-assisted enteroscopy.
Approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. are affected by Crohn’s, and research indicates that a virus, bacteria, or heredity link may trigger the disease. In fact, 20 percent of those who are diagnosed with Crohn’s have a blood relative that also has an inflammatory bowel disease.
Especially if undiagnosed or not cared for, complications of Crohn’s can include bowel obstructions; ulcers; fistulas, abnormal connections between different body parts caused when ulcers extend through the intestinal wall; anal fissures, small tears in the tissue of the anus or skin around the anus, which may lead to infections and painful bowel movements; malnutrition; and colon cancer.
There is no known cure for Crohn’s, but many with the disease are required to take anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant drugs. Other medications — such as antibiotics, pain relievers, and iron supplements — and nutrition therapy may also be suggested. Nearly half of those who are diagnosed with Crohn’s will need surgery at some point. Surgery does not cure Crohn’s disease, but it may be required to remove a damaged portion of the digestive tract, to close fistulas, or drain abscesses.