I finally figured out there might be a teensie new problem with my back when I tried to go to the bathroom and the pain was so excruciating I collapsed on the floor, wondering quite seriously if someone could hook me up to a colostomy bag.
Anything was better than the prospect of trying to sit down on the toilet again.
Not that I hadn’t experienced this before—I had, for the whole year leading up to the back surgery I’d already undergone to repair two herniated discs.
But my back was supposed to have been fixed, and here I still was, in a messy heap on the bathmat with a dangerously full bladder and a bunch of yoga classes I was scheduled to teach later that day stretching out before me like steps straight down into hell.
I coaxed my spine into temporary functionality with ice, heating pads, rest, pillows and a variety of drugs, but I knew I had to go to the doctor.
I marched into my neurosurgeon’s office—a place I know annoyingly well—equipped with my latest MRI and a “F*ck it” attitude, as in, “F*ck it. Whatever you tell me, whatever is wrong, I am fixing it and going on with my life, as is.”
As we sat together and looked at ghostly black and white image of my vertebrae, especially the lower four, my doctor suddenly laughed uncomfortably.
“Sometimes I really hate my job,” he said. That didn’t sound promising. “I’m going to be honest with you. You have the spine of an 80 year old woman. My recommendation is that you find a new profession.”
In other words, quit teaching yoga.
I knew it. I knew it was coming. I’d known it for a long time.
As I stumbled out of the office fighting back tears I almost bumped into a young woman in a wheelchair. Her head lolled forward and her mouth hung open, both clearly beyond her control, and her parents stood behind her, her mother with one hand on her shoulder, her father pushing the chair.
As they looked up at me startled, I noticed someone had tied a pristine white ribbon lovingly in the girl’s brown hair.
My cheeks burned with shame. How dare I feel sorry for myself.
Before I had even gotten to the parking lot, my brain was adjusting to the directive I’d just received.
No more teaching. No more teaching.
The words bounced around aimlessly looking for something to grab onto. And in short order they found these three familiar pieces of the philosophy by which I’ve come to live my life.
Ironically, it is yoga that has prepared me for leaving yoga—leaving the physical part of it anyway.
Even as I struggled to accept the situation and my child-self cried out in anger at the iniquity of it—after all, I’ve worked hard, I’ve trained hard, I’ve overcome significant odds both personal and physical to do what I do—this isn’t fair, it isn’t fair—I knew that my suffering, or lack thereof, was in my own hands, because suffering is only caused by our unwillingness to accept what is, and what is is always changing.
But how do we accept what is? How do we release our suffering?
In this case, I knew that if I continued to practice asana—the part of yoga we know as poses—I wouldn’t actually be practicing yoga. Instead, I would be in direct contradiction to one of the tenets of yogic philosophy: ahimsa, or non-harm.
To live truly as yogis, we must make a commitment to causing as little harm as we can—in the world, in others and also in ourselves.
How many times had I taught this lesson to my students? That they have a responsibility to the earth and the community, but most importantly to themselves—to be kind to themselves, to forgive themselves, to love themselves.
Also, as a yogi, I know that one of the most critical steps toward enlightenment is the acceptance of change. All things change, and we cannot cling to what was, or what we wish will be without tormenting ourselves. Every day presents opportunities to learn this lesson, but some days have better offerings than others.
This was one of them.
Finally, and again, I could hear the echo of my own voice saying this to my classes, “The road to happiness is paved with stones of gratitude.” This is much more than a platitude; I have found that being in a state of thankfulness is a choice, and if we make that choice everything else gets much better immediately.
Yes, yoga has given me the tools to accept change, to do it gracefully and to be grateful for all that I have—but that doesn’t mean grace is instantaneous. Grieving is part of acceptance, too.
And so, even while I find this still, present moment, and embrace it for all that it is and all that it will never be, I can accept my sadness and be grateful at the same time.
Goodbye Yoga, my love, goodbye—or, goodbye asana, I should more accurately say.
Will I still be a yogi if I don’t backbend or headstand? Yes, of course I will.
Yoga is a way of life, not a shape of the body.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own