A friend of mine has been recovering from not one, but two car accidents.
He was rear-ended twice in the span of a month by inattentive drivers. He’s had x-rays and MRIs. He’s tried chiropractic, spinal cortisone shots, physical therapy and ignoring the pain.
“When I go to pick up my kids, I feel like I’m 60 years old,” he said. He’s still a young man. Nothing’s working.
So, I convinced him to try yoga.
He’s a general contractor (and a very good one—those are rarer than unicorns), so there was a certain amount of resistance. Finally, I offered to meet him at the studio where I practice, see what he could do, and talk to him about yoga. He agreed, and after about six months found the time.
I spent a couple hours sussing out what he could do, listening to what he’s been through, and we started with a single suryanamaskara A.
It may be that you were like me when you came to yoga. Perhaps, you were in bad shape. I was in my mid-30s, and had already spent years in pain. I had been a runner, but not much of one (I didn’t start exercising at all until my early 20s). Maybe you weren’t like me, but now I’m asking you to think about what that would be like.
Coming to the front of the mat, I stood opposite my friend and saw myself.
The act of bringing the big toes and ankles together in samastitihi—that simple act itself—is painful. Just a little. I can see this on his face. So, first, we breathe.
I am looking at myself 12 years ago. I look in his eyes and ask him to listen to the sound of his breath. To relax his shoulders. To keep his eyes open and listen. The tension relaxes. A bit.
Bring in the belly and raise your hands up over your head as you inhale. “Can you bring the palms together?” I ask. He can; I could not. It took about two months before I could touch my palms together. I feel a little joy for him—somehow, bringing the palms together above my head, and seeing them come together is such a beautiful thing.
Exhale, and open the arms as you fold. Without curving the spine, keeping the torso straight and strong.
Like my first “fold,” he makes an upside down “L” in space, hands on his thighs—his limit. Inhale, extend as far as you can. Exhale. Placing the hands down, the slow agony of chaturanga dandasana begins.
All adaptations are in play. Come to the knees, then to the floor, then urdva mukha svanasana becomes “sphinx pose,” the exhale to adho mukha svanasana involves bent knees. Downward facing dog is an agonizing pose until you can get your heels down—perhaps you know this. I remember my early teachers calling this a “resting pose,” and how I would laugh and laugh in my head (cackle, really). I ask my friend to stay strong as he breathes five times.
Inhaling, stepping forward, his upward drishti is actually his toes, but he extends. He exhales into his “L.” He inhales and slowly raises his arms. He exhales and lowers them. We manage two of these.
“What was that?” he asks. “That was a sun salute,” I say, “That’s your homework.” “I want to do more,” he says.
This simple series of moves contains the seeds of the entire Ashtanga practice. I was also hooked, those years ago, although it didn’t feel like “home,” as my teacher Tim Miller describes it; it felt to me like “hope.” I can do something. I can do something, myself, about my pain.
It was four years before I could get my heels down in down dog. I tell this to my friend. The journey may be long, I warn. But the one thing I can promise you is that if you do nothing, the back pain will get worse.
“I want to do more,” he says again. Every day, I say, five of these in the morning. Then we’ll talk again.
My friend has taught me something very important at a crucial moment in my practice. He’s taught me to be present in it, to take nothing for granted, and to not look beyond my drishti. Hope is what the practice gave me, and it keeps giving it to me. It’s also—if this makes sense to you—given me the clarity to see this, to recognize it, to see beyond the pain, inside it, so to speak. Or maybe beyond it.
Bobbie Jo Allen began practicing yoga fifteen years ago, after a degenerative condition left her walking with a cane. Ten years ago, she came to Ashtanga accidentally, when an Iyengar class was full. She has been practicing Ashtanga exclusively ever since, and threw her cane away. She began studying with Diana Christinson and Tim Miller, and currently practices in Los Angeles with Jörgen Christiansson.
Bobbie also teaches writing, which she says has a lot in common with yoga (“practice and all is coming”), at the University of California, Irvine. You can read samples of her poetry at www.bobbieallen.com. She and her husband blog at http://theconfluencecountdown.com/.
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
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