Photo: Erica Leibrandt (Me In a Fancy Pants Yoga Pose)
Why don’t I do fancy pants poses anymore?
Stuff like tittibhasana (firefly), astravakrasana (8 angled pose) or kapotanasana (King pigeon). The party trick poses—the ones that say,
“Hey! I’m a Yogi, see what I can do?”
Not that you should be doing them that way, but you know what I mean.
The short answer to that question is, I can’t. Well, I might be able to, but I don’t think I should.
Eleven months ago I herniated two discs in my lower back. The stuff that is supposed to be inside my spine exploded everywhere and came to rest in all the wrong places—namely on a bunch of nerves.
It didn’t feel like a back injury. I couldn’t figure it out. One day my left foot was on fire, another, I wouldn’t be able to stand up. Sometimes it felt like I had a knife plunged into the center of my left glute, other times I was numb from the waist down.
I just kept hoping it would go away, even as it got progressively worse. I practiced through the pain, basically speeding down the yogic highway at 120 miles an hour on two flat tires.
I am a yoga teacher. I’ve worked hard to build my classes and my practice, and I was absolutely not going to let whatever this was get in my way. Even though this insistence on not listening to my body was about as non-yogic as I could get.
But after an embarrassing episode at the supermarket, where I collapsed on the floor and wept, I finally went to the doctor.
Prognosis negative. (Seinfeld fans, holler at me). As I said, I had two herniated discs which would require surgery.
I reluctantly took a three month leave of absence from work, the minimum the doctor believed would be appropriate, and set a date to go under the knife.
Meanwhile, I was showered with (mostly unsolicited) opinions from all sides about my decision to have surgery. Many were against it, believing I would be paralyzed. Others thought I could heal my own back. (I was even given a book: Heal Your Own Back.) Still others questioned the doctor I had chosen and suggested I go to their guy, who was the best guy, and such a rock star that he probably stood outside after surgeries signing autographs.
My husband and I endlessly debated the pros and cons of going through with the operation. “You can still cancel,” he’d say, and then a minute later, “But you can’t live like this.”
He was right. I couldn’t. I kept my appointment and was heartened by the pre-op people. “You’ll wake up pain free!” they assured me.
I did not wake up pain free.
I woke up feeling a thousand times worse. That’s natural, I thought. It was a major procedure. Three weeks later when I still couldn’t walk, I began to worry. I was taking six Hydrocodone a day for pain, Valium at night to sleep and I could still barely sit down for longer than three minutes or stand for longer than two.
Was I going to end up bedridden and addicted to pain meds, a bitter and immobile shell of my former self?
Then suddenly, around week four, the pain was gone. Totally gone. First I walked for 10 minutes, then 20, then an hour. It was miraculous.
Then, on day five of being pain free, I felt something snap— which is the only way I can explain it, and suddenly I was back to square one. Mega pain.
Frantic, I called the doctor. I was supposed to go back to work in two days. He saw me and surmised, either I had just re-inflamed the nerve and a steroid pack would fix the problem, or I had chipped off a fragment of my dissembled vertebrae and would need more surgery.
He said this in the same tone of voice someone might say, “I hear it’s going to be windy tomorrow,” or, “Do you happen to know where the bathroom is?”
I wanted to scream “F*ck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you kidding me!?”
Instead, I went home, took my steroid pack, prayed, and within 48 hours, was pain free once again. No chipped vertebrae.
I went back to work, kept my fingers crossed and felt good.
To be clear, though I wasn’t hurting, it did seem like I was in someone else’s body. I didn’t know how anything worked anymore. I had no idea how deep I could go in any pose, if I could twist or jump or turn upside down, or even how wide my stance could be.
Had I imagined this scenario beforehand, I would’ve assumed my reaction would be anger, fear and frustration. What a wonderful surprise to discover that wasn’t the case.
With the gift of this new, strange body I got to be a beginner all over again.
Now, I’m a lot more relaxed about my practice than I was before my injury. I’m not buying into the images of enlightenment that I see in Yoga Journal or on the web pages of Yoga-lebrities anymore. I’m not striving to do whatever they are doing, even if what they’re doing is good.
I’m going to find my own flavor, my own rhythm, my own current to float in. I’m going to be my own teacher, my own student, no cameras, no mirrors, no bullshit.
We all have to learn our lessons in different ways. I’ve been given the opportunity to practice humility, and you bet I’m going to grab it. Maybe once I’ve really learned my lesson, there will come a time for me to be fancy once again, or maybe not.
It doesn’t matter. That’s the point.
For now I will relish the simple things; being able to stand, walk, rest and pray. I’ll watch real fireflies do firefly pose and thank the world for so consistently giving me everything I never knew I needed.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman