I’ve spent my whole life fighting against the curvature of my spine. This weekend I attended a single session at the Yoga Journal Conference here in San Diego, and it may have changed my life.
I was born with scoliosis, too mild for childhood treatment. If I were to wear a bikini (unlikely!), you’d see my waist is asymmetrical. My hairdresser has to compensate, as my shoulders aren’t level. Most people have no idea, as I stand up tall and have good posture.
It has limited my life in small but significant ways. I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but couldn’t get the turnout. I loved tennis, but the torque of serving threw me off. Same with volleyball and a few other sports. And until I fell rollerskating in 1982, landing smack on my coccyx, it was just a minor issue. What I didn’t know then was that I had cracked a vertebra in my back. I remember lying on ice packs for three days. I didn’t have health insurance, so I never saw a doctor.
My back was “bothering me” by grad school, and I had a series of x-rays. I was told the pain was from my scoliosis, and that my coccyx had healed crookedly from the fall three years prior. When the painkillers made me too woozy for class, I started my journey into alternative medicine, seeing a steady stream of naturopaths, chiropractors, body workers, energy healers, and physical therapists over the next fifteen years. I stopped and started exercising more times than I can count, frustrated with the way my body let me down.
I learned that I couldn’t stand for long periods of time without my left leg going numb. I rode my bike to and from work—and across the Florida Keys with my brother—wearing capsaicin cream and ignoring the dull ache and the radiating numbness.
I was told I had sciatica and I made the best of it. I still roller bladed, biked, and danced, but also used lots of ibuprofen and ice packs and Tiger Balm patches. All the while I was incredibly frustrated with my body. It was constantly letting me down. I tried positive visualizations, I watched The Secret, I chose not to identify with having scoliosis, and I tried not to complain about it.
In 2003 I got really sick. By this time—at age 42—the hip pain was constant. I didn’t do well on prescription meds and I didn’t drink, so I lived with it, gradually, subtly curtailing activities I loved. My doctor suggested that I work with a Pilates instructor who could create a specialized program for me. After two or three sessions with him, I heard my pelvis do a weird grind-ey shift. I thought, “That’s not right” and felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I remember trying to fall asleep and all I could feel was pain: gnawing, relentless. By the middle of that summer I went back to the doctor and asked if there was something else we could try. He sent me to an orthopedic surgeon for cortisone shots. The surgeon brought in my fresh x-rays. “You don’t have sciatica. Your back is broken. This disc (L5/S1) is crushed. Gravity has slid your body 25% forward of your pelvis, and it’s crushing the nerve that runs down your left leg.”
As he talked, I felt overjoyed. Finally! Something concrete could be done! I walked out of his office buoyant and hopeful. I dutifully got two second opinions, listened to the litany of possible complications, and counted the days until my surgery. I was the happiest spinal fusion patient he had ever seen. [I had already had three abdominal surgeries, so I knew that surgery and recovery would suck. But I had hope for the first time in years that my body could be better.]When I woke up after the six-hour procedure, there was no pain in my left foot for the first time in over a decade. Recovery went well, I fused successfully, but two years later scar tissue had me back on the table, to “roto-rooter it out.” I loved my surgeon and am super grateful to him. Overall, things were better.
But I still had scoliosis, and now a fusion, and my ability to do yoga was wildly variable. I would go for weeks attending class regularly, and then stuff would start to hurt, the chiropractor would be seeing me twice a week, and I’d have to quit again. Which brings us to this past Sunday.
A very good friend of ours died quite suddenly two weeks ago, bringing up new grief, Buddy Girl grief, and general feelings of crappiness. I hadn’t been to yoga class in weeks. I was discouraged, again. But I knew that my teacher, Bhava Ram, was giving a workshop at the Yoga Journal conference and I wanted to hear his story. I thought I could go for the day and cover it here on the blog. He was kind enough to get me a pass.
As I looked at the schedule, fear crept in. I wasn’t in good enough shape to take more than one yoga class a day, let alone several! Maybe I shouldn’t go. On Sunday, I was thinking about every possible reason to skip it: I wasn’t in shape. I didn’t feel well. All these other people were super-yogis and I would be so out of place. But I had the gift of this pass, and I wanted to hear Bhava’s story. So I got myself here… to a taped-off section of carpeting in a conference room at the Sheraton, surrounded by 100 people.
As I knelt in child’s pose preparing for class, the grief and loss came up again and I started to cry. Class hadn’t even started yet. I got tissues and came back to my mat.
Bhava’s story is extraordinary, and I can’t wait for his book to come out next year. The nutshell: NBC News war correspondent, broke his back (also at L5/S1), massive painkillers, failed fusion, Stage IV metastasized throat cancer, two years to live.
He is now 140 pounds of lean, radiant, pretzel-man, able to put his foot behind his head. As he talked, I grew more and more hopeful about my potential. His back is still broken, but he is cancer- and pain-free. During the Q & A, I asked him about his technique for eliminating the pain signals. He said,
“I had to embrace the most broken part of me and love it with all my might. Getting cancer and breaking my back were the two best things that have ever happened to me.”
Embrace my brokenness? Embrace my curvature instead of rail against it, hate it, be frustrated with it? Identify with it as a unique, special part of me that has something to give to the world? As the tears flowed again, I started my journey. Every time I wake up my neck hurting, or my low back aches, or the puppy pulls me out of alignment, I pledge to love myself for that. I am sharing this part of my story here—not for sympathy—but as a way to embrace that part of me I have kept hidden.And the mat? Bhava says that’s our “magic carpet”… just start by getting on it for ten minutes a day. And so I am.