Hongkonger treats tinnitus with yoga and turns her life around

Journalist Vivian Tam Wai-wan was almost overwhelmed by ringing in her ears, but managed to overcome the debilitating condition with yoga and the help of her teacher/mentor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 11:46am

One morning, in the early summer of 2008, Vivian Tam Wai-wan woke with the feeling of having water caught in her ear. She thought little of it. But soon, the muffling developed into a constant, torturous ringing. “It was like the sound of an old, broken AM radio. You know that “ee-err” sound it makes when switching channels?”

In a matter of days, her tinnitus, as the condition is known, overwhelmed her. She could barely sleep and struggled to hold a conversation. Seemingly overnight, Tam went from being a hard-working, award-winning journalist for Ming Pao and CableNews at the height of her career, to being jobless and unwell.

“Hearing gives you that extra dimension, you don’t realise it until it’s gone,” she explains. “Even crossing the road became difficult.”

As her world came apart, she fell into a spiral of depression. Exercise, she says, “seemed the rational thing to do to pass the time and get better”. Feeling weak, she found herself drawn to yoga which “seemed gentle and emotionally healing”.

As she struggled through various poses in her first class at Pure Yoga, discovering tight muscles and stiff joints, she was struck by the caring attitude of her teacher, Connie Yan. “Connie really inspired me. I remember the way she looked me in the eye with a caring expression. She was the coach I needed.”

In the seven years since, Tam has found solace on the mat. Practising three days a week under the guidance of Yan, she has remarkably improved her condition.

“The damage is done, but [practising yoga] has certainly improved the ringing, which is caused by a damaged nerve. I can manage the ringing now; I can put it in the background.”

Yoga has also helped Tam settle into a new career as a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Being a journalist is very different from being a teacher. As a journalist, the environment is fast-paced and you’re always under deadline. As a teacher, you have to be caring and have patience,” she explains. “In yoga, you are always the student, and that has also enabled me to study what makes a good teacher.”

Why do you keep coming back to the mat, week after week?

The miraculous thing about yoga is all you need is a small rectangle of a mat and concentration. There, yoga helps you to understand your body, its movements and ranges, as each pose moves you in a different direction, and also your mind. Forced offline, you must be still and in the moment, and I find that very calming.

What other benefits have you experienced?

I’ve learned to breathe. That sounds silly, because we breathe everyday, but we breathe unconsciously. Focusing on the breath has become an important tool for me. When I’m stressed I focus on the simple motion of ‘in’ and ‘out’. My flexibility has also improved, and so has my balance. I finally feel good.

Do you have a goal with your yoga – or is it not about goals?

On one level there are some poses it seems I will never achieve. On another level, yoga is not about comparing with others, it is about understanding your body at the present moment. When I see I can do a little bit better than yesterday, I am happy. But yes, yoga is not about competition. It is a way to get in touch with oneself, physically and mentally.

What’s the biggest change been to your body since practising yoga?

My feet have got bigger. I’ve grown from a [European] size 37 to 38 because I have learned to stretch my feet and toes.

What makes a good yoga teacher?

A good yoga teacher is not just someone who is fit and is able to do all the poses, but someone who has a good attitude towards life. Connie has become a friend and a mentor. She helped me through my hard times. She is a role model to me.

Looking back, how do you feel about your health experience?

The good and the bad thing is that I faced that challenge at 35, which is quite young. Most people have health problems later in life. That was a blessing in disguise, as if I didn’t have problems that young I wouldn’t be managing myself as carefully as I do now. It was a reminder to me that the first priority is health. I now work out quite often – I also swim, cycle, hike and run – and I put my body and my mind as my first priorities in life.