Bend Over - by Mary Walsh
I am healthy (not health-nutty – I eat chocolate and drink coffee, as well as kefir and kale). I am strong and flexible (not a circus act, just stable and limber). I have never had any major illnesses or injuries. I’m in pretty good shape.
Last year (for no apparent reason) my back started to hurt. Really hurt. My days began with tears of pain. I couldn’t sit down at work, in case I had to stand up. I went to doctors and physical therapists, had x-rays and scans, swallowed pills and herbal potions. I stretched. I rested. It wouldn’t get better. There was no avoiding it - I was now one of those people with a bad back. But, I looked after myself! How could this happen? I was mad with my body.
I don’t actually like to talk about what’s going on with my back because as Cristina, a yoga teacher I know, says, “don’t argue for your limitations.” My bad back, however, may prove not to be one.
In a yoga class last week this same teacher used me as an example for another student. This student was struggling with the modifications required in some of the postures because of her own injury. Cristina said, “look at Mary, she’s not apologizing for her injury, she owns the modified posture. She looks like she’s meant to be doing it.”
I remember, though, how I was when my back first started to hurt.
I have an L4/L5 issue. I got the MRI, and the specialists’ opinions - back surgery was the only answer if I wanted to be pain free again. I don’t know why it happened so suddenly. The rest of my spine, according to my doctor, looked like the spine of a much younger person. She admitted this only after seeing my x-ray, before which she’d told me I did not have youth on my side (I am 45).
The specialist said the specificity of the injury looked like the sort of injury contracted by a high performance athlete. Nope. An athlete, I am not. My doctor hypothesized about the possibility of a childhood injury, that (until now) my youth had masked. I did like to jump from the corrugated tin roof of our home in Horseshoe creek when I was ten, holding an umbrella, pretending I was Mary Poppins. Maybe this explains the specific site of the injury.
These days flying is out of the question (unless it’s with Qantas winging my way home), all I want is to be able to walk my dog around Cabbagetown without looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I did not, however, want a surgeon slicing open my back so I could achieve this again. I was convinced my yoga practice could cure me. I sought out another physiotherapist (my third) - this physio was an experienced yogi, he was supposed to support this plan of action. He told me to stop practicing (at least for a while).
I likely would have ignored him because I used to be a little crazy about missing my yoga practice, but my job was about to take me to a remote area of Australia where there was not even a yoga mat to be bought (I know because I tried to purchase one while there and all I found was a camping roll), let alone a yoga studio. I begrudgingly took my medicine.
After five weeks rest I went back to yoga. My physio told me - absolutely no forward bends. Every class for the first month was torture. I didn’t own anything. I struggled with my injury. While everyone else bent over, grabbed their heels, tucked their forehead to their knees displaying their strength and flexibility, all I could do was stand there. Or sit there. Just stand or sit. I remember my internal dialogue back then. I wanted to let everyone know, I could do the postures. In fact, forward bending was my strength (my hamstrings are like elastic). I wanted to tell them, I’m a good yoga student. I’m not lazy. I can do this. I wanted to bend right over, kick out my leg, curl up my spine, do all the sit-ups with energy and verve. See!
The truth is, no one in the class really noticed, or cared.
When I gave up this struggle with my ego, and focused instead on what I could do without hurting myself – i.e., engage my abdominals, I realized my abdominals weren’t so engaged after all. In fact, they were kind of weak. This is when I realized, this injury was going to actually help me. Slowly I let go of what I used to be able to do and just did what I could do now. Instead of muscling into the full expression of my postures, I worked on my core strength, and lifting out of my hips, and lengthening my spine.
Of course, as soon as I started feeling like my back was getting better, I immediately bent over, curled up, kicked out. Hmm… maybe I hadn’t mastered my ego after all. The next day (and for the following two weeks), I paid the price. My back issue flared up again.
Today, almost 10 months later, I finally understand as my body changes (over time), so must my yoga practice. I am still learning to do more by doing less. My postures don’t look as physically impressive anymore, but I am (mostly) pain free again. The 40 year-old mattress that sinks like the gaping hole of an iron ore quarry in my mother-in-law’s guest room doesn’t do it any favors - I am not looking forward to Thanksgiving.