A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with Spondylolisthesis (“spondy” for short), which is a forward slip of the vertebrate that most often occurs in the low back. In my case, the slip was located at my L5 vertebrate, where it had slid 75% off of the S1 vertebrate below it. This diagnosis came to me after years of pain, ebbing and flowing in intensity. Sometimes I woke up and it felt like I had just danced too hard, done a couple too many deep backbends, or like I had pulled a muscle in my leg. In fact, my pain wasn’t ever really in my back. It was literally a pain in my butt.
I tried so many things to make the pain stop. In my personal yoga practice I abstained from forward bending poses for a while, then hip-openers, then backbends. I tried massage (years of it), Alexander Technique, Zero-Balancing, chiropractics, acupuncture, banning myself from wearing high heels or riding my bike, Arnica oil, flower essences, meditation, a gluten-free diet, ice packs, hot baths, retraining my sleeping positions, changing mattresses, physical therapy… I’m not saying these choices didn’t help. In fact, I believe that I was able to endure and function with such a compromised spine because of these holistic health practices, many of which I still do.
The truth is that I repressed and blocked out the pain in order to go on. I chose to fake feeling “happy” and “fine” to keep the active lifestyle I live. I was essentially ignoring my body’s messaging system. In a yoga class in Nov of 2013 I went up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose) and felt a sharp shooting pain worse than ever before. I came out of the pose and was terrified that my legs were parallelized. I could barely move them enough to finish the class sitting on my mat. This was a scary awakening.
I was referred to an orthopedic specialist by my chiropractor. When I saw the MRI of my back I could no longer deny that there was a problem — and it wasn’t one that changing sleeping positions could fix. The doctors said that I had probably had this injury since I was a teenager. They think it didn’t start causing me pain until the slip had progressed severely, when the disc between L5 and S1 dissolved completely and the nerves exiting my spine were compressed. With this information I felt immense grief. I was overwhelmed by the decisions ahead for treatment and all of my loss. Much of the loss was psychological. I had to confront shifts in my sense of identity: that I wasn’t the healthy, athletic person I thought I was. A new reality: I am still a healthy person with a spinal condition.
Initially, I looked for healing in a system I trusted: YOGA. I read books, blogs and anything I could find about yoga and Spondy or back injuries. The yogis with the best reputation for the therapeutic yoga are the Iyengar-trained instructors. I contacted Lois Steinburg, of the Iyengar Institute of Champaign-Urbana. She was out of the country, studying with BKS Iyengar himself, when I contacted her. However, she messaged back quickly with some suggested poses and props and advised me to get into the Iyengar Yoga Therapy course in town. I followed her advice, and when she returned I began the therapy course with her.
In the yoga therapy course I experienced yoga as a method of medical treatment. It was no longer simply spiritual practice, athletic endeavor, stress-reliever, etc. (Of course yoga is complex and will always serve more than the initial doorway that you open into it, but that’s another topic for another blog post…) For the first time in my life yoga became a prescription aimed solely at healing. Lois designed a sequence specifically for relieving pain in my body and even potentially realigning my spine. Each week she adjusted the sequence depending upon my current condition. We recorded how I felt before and after class and noted other factors outside of class that could be affecting my condition.
The care and attention to detail I received during these classes was exquisite. At times there were three or four instructors’ eyes (and sometimes hands) on me. Lois’s observation skills are unparalleled. She attended to quite a range of focal points simultaneously, from my big limbs (arms and legs) to the quality of my breathing, coloring and temperature of my skin, and even, the texture of my muscles and how they responded to the postures. I highly recommend the Iyengar method as a path towards healing from injury and recovery from illness/surgery (as well as a good path for the non-injured yogis too!).
I chose to move forward with the decision to have back surgery. I welcomed the abundant support of friends, family, a caring partner, an online support group, and my doctor. In April of 2014 I had a spinal fusion (2 level). I now have two metal rods and four screws in my back. I practiced yoga as preparation before surgery, and as part of my recovery afterwards. At times, it was just a few restorative poses, pranayama and some chanting of mantras. It helped very much.
Through this experience I have learned an immense amount about healthy spines, treatment options, holistic approaches, pain management, the therapeutic benefits of yoga and, of course, about myself. It seems each challenge in my life effectively prepares me for the next challenge to come. Yoga continues to be my steady ground, the most practical, effective and enjoyable thing I do. For this I am grateful. I am so honored to share yoga with others.
And now here’s a shameless and related plug for my upcoming workshop: On March 14th, I will be leading a workshop called Got Your Back. You can expect to learn basic anatomy of the spine, safe movement for your back, how to stand and sit with good posture, how to use props, and how to practice yogic techniques to help alleviate back pain. For more details and the registration link, please visit my events page. Thanks for reading this long post! 🙂