How to praise the devotional practice that has brought the greatest injury and greatest healing to my life fills me with wonderment today.
Grateful to the practice for healing my chronic neck, shoulder and arm pain, I cannot sing enough praises to yoga. I suffered silently for years, ignoring the creep that would eventually cripple my happiness more than my body.
More than five years ago, I was told by my HMO nurse practitioner that the x-rays of my neck revealed bone spurs at C7, which probably caused the discomfort ranging from stiffness to acute pain in my neck, the tenderness in my upper arm just below the acromioclavicular joint and the tingling to eventual numbness radiating down the outer underside of my right arm through the tip of my pinky. The medical profession shrugged and insinuated the inevitability of old age. I was 49 at the time.
Though it took two years for me to finally seek a cause and solution to the growing disability or dying of the sensation and movement of my neck and arm, I was underwhelmed at the lack of interest and information offered by the medical establishment. Would I just have to live with it? While aging poses complicated adjustments to prepare for, as I already understood, I was not prepared for potentially several decades of debilitation.
As my world that year collided with so many forces resulting in the gains and losses that come with growth, one fortuitous constant emerged in an energy that surrounded me and finally prompted me to leave my cemented comfort zone: the yoga practice of my new-friend-soon-to-be-teacher.
RA taught – and still teaches – yoga at various community centers and private establishments. She and I became dinner and coffee friends through my husband who regularly met her husband at the local coffee shop. While I had practiced yoga for periods in my life, I had not practiced for a long time before meeting RA, perhaps for the difficult relationship I had had with it.
Yoga hurt me once – badly.
Well, I hurt myself doing yoga. Yoga did nothing to me as it could not possibly do anything.
During the active years of tennis, running and aerobics of my twenties during the 1980s I joined a yoga class at the neighborhood community center. The class was full with 20 to 25 other mat circumscribed bodies pastiched onto a gymnasium floor. The instructor appeared to be in her late fifties, a grey-haired, slender, petite body and sported an Indian sounding name like Pavi, though time has erased the finer details.
With no individual instruction or idea about sane practice, respect for my body or notion of my limitations, I attempted a wheel pose after two or three classes. Perhaps I could not hear the instructor well. More likely, I chose not to hear. I beamed bravado more than enlightenment at the time. Physicality meant strength and power.
Placing my hands above my head palms down, I pushed my upward facing prone body up with force into that inverted arc, but the height fell short of the wheels I glanced at around me, my head partially suspended from my half-wheel/flattened wheel. So I pushed some more. Harder, more upward bound.
I felt it then, the pop. I couldn’t be sure that the entire class didn’t hear it, though the tweaked facet joint of the fifth lumbar silently protested in reactive violence. My back did not arch much, straightened by tight, inflexible dorsal muscles and un-pliable ligaments and sinews. The joint flicked and flinched under the pressure.
Then came the panic. I could not reverse the pose to undo the damage. Hugging my knees into my chest and my head into my knees produced pain, not release. My skin turned clammy as my mind reeled with what I had just done.
The pain crippled me. After several trips to the orthopaedist, innumerable visits to physical therapy, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, daily back stretches for six months, I could once again walk, sleep and sit without sharp pain. A few months after those six, snowboarding and running took their places back in my life.
I could not understand until much later what yoga did to me. What I did to me.
Remembering the peace and bliss of yoga from the class I took at the local community college as a freshman six years prior was my motivation for taking the class that did me in. Seeking to retrieve the passion I once had for yoga as a 15-year-old studying a palm-sized yoga pose manual with black and white pictures of a skinny, stodgy woman in a saggy looking leotard and tights until I could fumble my way through something as gorgeously sounding as sun salutations, deluded me into thinking I could no-pain-no-gain my way through a yoga class to bliss.
But when I returned to yoga as a 49 year old, taking that first Wednesday morning 8 a.m. class at the recreation center, I approached asana with the wisdom of a humble, beaten body from too much soccer, too many marathons and two childbirths. I listened to a wise yogini older than I who gently guided her class from the same perspective: knowledge and self-awareness.
After the first successful fall session, I registered for the spring. I wanted to continue the secret unfolding for me ever so slowly, paced. My body whispered to me inaudibly at first but increasingly louder, so I could hear, feel and taste the healing.
At first, every move I made in class was performed with conscious respect – not fear – of my neck’s inflexibility and tenderness. But I neither had to work around nor through the pain. I just had to acknowledge limits and pay attention – with patience.
Like living itself, moving through asana is a practice of increments, minute, undetected, but cumulative. Bending takes will tempered with focused listening, acute awareness of blood coursing through veins, firing synapses, elastic ligature, all combinatory contributors overlaid with mindful movement through breath.
It’s been years since I learned to practice yoga, really practice, not perfect. After gently surviving and thriving through that re-introduction to yoga, I signed up for another class session in which I not only continued the study of my mind and body in meditative motion, but found my saving graces: my gratitude and my medicine.
I have been neck-pain free for several years with an occasional flare up directly correlated to the lapse in my practice. Yoga – and I – cured me. We live together now in daily communing about the present, about the gift of health.