Thursday, September 5, 2019

Melitta Rorty on Service, Social Activism, and Karma Yoga

After working with Jivana on Discussing the Yoga Path of Service with Jivana Heyman, I thought it would be a good idea to interview a friend of mine, Melitta Rorty, as an example of someone who practices service and karma yoga the way Jivana described it in that interview. Although many yoga practitioners perform service in the form of teaching yoga, there are many other ways you can provide service to your community as your karma yoga practice. In Melitta’s case, both her full-time day job and her after-hours volunteer work and social activism provide opportunities to deepen her karma yoga practice. —Nina 

Nina: Melitta, can you tell us a bit about yourself, including something about your yoga background and your interest in community service and social activism? 

Melitta: I have been practicing yoga regularly for more than 25 years. I did take a yoga class while in college, with an excellent teacher, but it just didn’t “grab” me then. When I sought out a yoga class at age 34, my moment of knowing that this yoga was for me was in that first Savasana—it was a moment of awakening, where I truly let go. More than 25 years later, I avidly practice and love yoga, and I added meditation to the mix. 

I became interested in community service at an early age, although I can’t tell you why. I assisted with Special Olympics at my high school, I was a co-president of a lesbian support group in college, and as a young adult I helped found the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County, a non-profit LGBTQ+ organization which thrives to this day. 

My purpose in life, my true calling, came to me via a devastating medical diagnosis. In 1995, shortly after I had begun yoga classes, I became extremely sick due to the onset of Type 1 diabetes. I was hospitalized near death, in diabetic ketoacidosis. But because I was 35 years old, and Type 1 diabetes previously was wrongly labeled a “childhood disease,” I was misdiagnosed by the endocrinologist on call at the hospital as having Type 2 diabetes, an altogether different disease. I was taken off of the insulin that had saved my life and released from the hospital. I was given a prescription for a medication for Type 2 diabetes, which did nothing for me. I was sent to classes for Type 2 diabetes at the local diabetes center, which weren’t pertinent. 

Because I am a scientist, I studied the information provided to me about diabetes and realized that phenotypically I fit the textbook description of Type 1 diabetes and that I had no risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. So one week after I was hospitalized, I confronted my endocrinologist regarding the “Type 2 diabetes” diagnosis. To his credit, the endocrinologist admitted he made a mistake; I was put on exogenous insulin and given the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. Because of the horrible treatment I received when first (mis)diagnosed, I have worked ever since to change the perception that Type 1 diabetes is a childhood disease. It is not—it is far more prevalent in adults than children. Since my diagnosis, I have met numerous others with adult-onset Type 1 diabetes who were also misdiagnosed as having Type 2 diabetes. 

Also, when I was newly diagnosed, I was in extreme despair and believed that my life was ruined. But yoga saved my life then by allowing me some space and freedom from thoughts of my new diagnosis, and yoga continues to save my life today by helping me stay calm and focused despite the daily grind of self-care I must perform. I recommend yoga to anyone who has to live with the stress of chronic illness. 

Nina: What is your main focus these days as far as service?

Melitta: After being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I realized that all the medical information was geared towards newly diagnosed children—there was nothing for adults and no acknowledgement that adults can be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, despite the fact that actor Mary Tyler Moore was diagnosed at age 33. I started acquiring whatever information and scientific studies I could find that mentioned adult-onset Type 1 diabetes, and I started writing to organizations such as the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (now JDRF) to raise awareness of adult-onset Type 1 diabetes and to try to get them to change their materials that said that Type 1 diabetes is a childhood disease (note that ADA and JDRF have since updated and corrected their materials). 

Progress was glacial, and back then I had many medical doctors who became apoplectic when I challenged the conventional wisdom and who lashed out at me. But I persisted, in part because I kept meeting people who like me had been misdiagnosed and suffered terribly as a result. Misdiagnosis is serious, and can result in rapid onset of diabetic complications and even death due to diabetic ketoacidosis. In recent years, I started a blog, in part because I was so often challenged about the facts that I presented. My blog is and my most popular post is Melitta’s Top Ten Tips for the Newly Diagnosed Person with Adult-Onset Type 1 Diabetes

On Facebook groups and online resources for people with diabetes, I help people get correctly diagnosed by coaching them on how to speak with their doctors and get the autoantibody tests that can differentiate between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes (Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease and specific autoantibodies are indicative of the immune response.) Of course, I have a post about autoantibody testing! Quite a number of people, after they have gotten a correct diagnosis and treatment, have told me that this literally saved their lives. 

Nina: For many years, you’ve referred to your work in community service and social activism as your “karma yoga.” What does that mean to you? 

Melitta: I think I first read about karma yoga in something that yogic scholar Georg Feurstein wrote, and I said to you, Nina, “that is what I do.” Georg says that karma yoga is the yoga of self-transcending right action, and that its most important principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity. For me, that means I act in service to others, for a greater good, without regard to personal gain or being attached to a particular outcome. My most profound service is advocacy on behalf of people with adult-onset Type 1 diabetes. 

Nina: Is there any wisdom in the Bhagavad Gita that guides you as you follow this yoga path? 

Melitta: The Bhagavad Gita stresses selfless service without regard for the fruits of one’s actions, or the outcome. For me, not being attached to a specific outcome is essential—I follow specific actions, but I never know what the outcome will be. Because so much of what I do is online, my work is all the more challenging. I have coached people to advocate for themselves with their doctor, to request autoantibody testing to determine diabetes type, and many have subsequently been correctly diagnosed and treated with exogenous insulin. Many of those who I have helped have gone on to assist others who are newly diagnosed. Some people who I have coached are not willing to stand up to their doctors—to be their own best advocates within the medical system—and I have had to simply let go in those instances. Those situations are heartbreaking. In two cases I distinctly remember, the people kept insisting that they believed the doctor’s Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, and they both rapidly developed horrific diabetic complications, which are preventable if correctly treated. 

Nina: Is there any other yoga philosophy or practices that you find helpful? 

Melitta: Yoga philosophy has so much to offer us today, including practices that help us find equanimity, contentment, and focus, among many other benefits. Yoga and meditation include practices that help us distill down what is truly important and to be awake in this life. Yoga is a set of technologies, physical and mental, that can bring about self-transformation. Or, as I once said to you, Nina, when you questioned why we do yoga, “We practice yoga because it makes our lives better.” 

The self-care that yoga and meditation provide has been instrumental in my ability to persist in my efforts, despite the obstacles, setbacks, and attacks. As I mentioned, when I first started my diabetes advocacy more than 20 years ago, many medical doctors insulted me, dismissed me because I am merely a patient and not an MD, and declared I was wrong regarding the prevalence of adult-onset Type 1 diabetes and the importance of a correct diagnosis and correct treatment. I often had to retreat back into my practices to find respite. Thankfully, now that the “patient voice” is more valued within medicine, these attacks have lessened. Online, I frequently experience misogyny from men engaging in personal attacks for my voicing my science-based positions. In part, I use so many scientific references to support my posts because of these attacks. I have used Sharon Salzberg’s audio loving kindness meditation, among other practices, to try to regroup after these incidents. 

Nina: It seems me that in your day job, the job you’re doing now to earn a living, you’re also performing karma yoga. Can you tell us a bit about this work and how it is a form of service? 

Melitta: My background is in geology and environmental science, and for my paid work, I manage large, complex environmental cleanups. Yes, cleaning up the environment is so important, but it can also be disruptive to a community because the cleanups are big construction projects. Most often, I am working with members of the community who have questions and concerns, and it is essential that I listen and understand their concerns. That way, they are heard and I can take measures to work with them and alleviate their concerns. Sometimes I encounter members of the public who are angry, and I use yogic practices of centering to stay calm and present and try to work with them, but some still remain angry. Every day, I strive to act with integrity, let go of the outcome, and serve the community. 

This post was conducted and edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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