The accidental yogi
Yoga as medicine
Just when I thought I was getting somewhere with my yoga practice, I had to go and get hit by a car. True story. Whilst holidaying in Bali a few months ago – the home of the world’s worst traffic jams – I was unfortunate enough to have been on the back of a scooter when it was hit from behind by another vehicle. On the very last day of my holiday, when my gut instinct had told me not to get on a scooter on those roads but I let myself be talked into it anyway. Goes to show – you really should always listen to your intuition.
Looking back at the situation, I’m now incredibly grateful for that bad traffic, as I was thrown off the scooter and into the middle of the road into oncoming traffic. Except the aforementioned traffic was at a complete standstill so I wasn’t hit by any other cars. It could have been so much worse. I’ve since learned that a minimum of five people die per day in moto accidents in Bali, with countless others injured and so many of them don’t wear helmets. At least I listened to that part of my intuition and my head was protected.
So, there I was, flung into the middle of the steaming hot asphalt, legs all akimbo and my wrists extending backwards trying to protect myself from the impact. It really was like slow motion. I looked up and there were loads of people around me. Trying to help me up, offering me water, asking if I wanted to call anyone, checking I was OK, asking if I needed an ambulance. The Balinese really are wonderful, warm people. As their voices echoed in my head I felt a searing pain rising through my coccxys. One side of my butt felt like it had been hit by a truck (well, close!). The other felt like it had been rammed by a bull. My wrists… ouch, my wrists! Limb by limb, I oh-so-slowly and stiffly stood up and realised I was not severely injured but that I had definitely done some damage.
Now, fast forward a few months and I was back home in Ibiza. Turned out I had damaged the joint tissue between my lower four vertebrae and torn the muscles in my butt cheeks (it really wasn’t fun sitting down, let me tell you). I’d been to see doctors and specialists who’d told me there wasn’t much they could do to help rehabilitate these injuries. That I just had to rest and wait. Everyone had an opinion. Pilates. Physio. Osteo. Chiro. Acupuncture. Reiki. Massage. And of course, yoga but my GP had said no. I put on weight because I couldn’t move my body. I’d become slightly addicted to heavy painkillers and I was starting to think there would be no light at the end of the tunnel for me. This was it. Pain was my life now. I know you should try to be positive, even when you’re in chronic pain, and I was constantly reminding myself I was lucky to be alive, but you know, there are some days when anger and resentment get the better of you.
I was referred to another spine specialist as my final beacon of hope. This doctor was quite young (compared to all the others I’d seen) and seemed pretty clued-up. I put my trust in him and I thought perhaps he could prescribe me stronger pain meds if nothing else. After checking my X-Rays, poking and prodding me in all the painful places and making me walk, stand on tip-toes and try to lift my legs up (think Standing head-To-Knee pose), he sat me down to give me his prognosis. “I could put you into group rehabilitation sessions here in the hospital,” he said. “But I don’t think it will help.” My heart sank. I started imagining orthopaedic shoes and walking sticks.
“You need to do yoga.” Hang on… WHAT DID HE JUST SAY? I think I’d accidentally tuned out. “The best thing you can do is go to yoga as often as you can to improve your core. This will support your back. Just do what you can and try to do a lot of cat and camel poses. This will really help you.” Ahh, the camel – my dear yoga nemesis (you can read more about my err, challenges with the camel pose in this blog). Talk about karmic retribution. I snapped to attention. Not only was he recommending yoga, he was recommending specific poses. He knew his yogic stuff. After chatting to him for a while longer (and trying to pretend I was a totally experienced yogi of course to get some doctor brownie points), it turned out he was an advocate of movement as medicine.
But… but… what about stronger medicine? My requests were met with a firm no and an explanation that in fact, pain medication, anti-inflammatory gels and muscle relaxants were a very bad thing for injuries such as mine, because by numbing the area, you can risk overdoing it and making it worse, but you wouldn’t feel it. What about vitamin supplements? Nope – doc says there is no scientific evidence to support they work to heal injuries such as mine. A hot water bottle was his only recommendation – and not for too long. Just a couple of minutes at a time so as not to make the muscles too tender. If only I had been able to see this doctor three months earlier, think of all the progress I could have made. C’est la vie – we got there in the end. Again, I remind myself to be grateful for what I have, not for what I don’t have.
And so, after months and months of walking around like a pregnant woman while holding my lower back and wincing and drawing a sharp breath as I went up or down stairs, I prepared myself to go back to practice. I bought a new pair of pants of course (that’s the beauty of online shopping – even when you’re injured you can do it from your bed) because, well, one can’t go back to class in any old leopard print pants. Sebastien asked me all about my injuries and got me to show him at which point of a bend or stretch I felt pain. I felt very cared for and supported during class (his regular mantra of “just do what you can” felt very targeted towards me and I was grateful) and when he could see I was suffering from discomfort, he’d suggest a slight alteration to the pose. When I was in pain, I’d rest. And the heat of the room during Bikram classes was actually very soothing.
Since then, my back pain has dramatically improved. Where I used to wake up at 3am and reach for my medication, I now sleep through the night. I no longer walk with my hand at the base of my spine. Whereas before I had to sit after 20 minutes on my feet, I can now stand on my feet for more than two hours at events. I still do take medication from time to time – but usually it’s due to something I could have avoided, such as pain caused by sitting in my desk chair for hours on end, or using my laptop in bed (yes, I should know better). I get twinges of discomfort during class, but I have learned to differentiate the difference between this and real pain.
It’s funny – looking back as I write this blog, I have almost forgotten the intensity of the pain I felt in those first few weeks after the accident. Perhaps my mind has blocked it out (another thing for which I am grateful). I think up until the accident, I had always thought of yoga in a vanity kind of way (I wanted to win at poses, I want lovely new clothes every week, I want to be the teacher’s pet and well, yes, I wanted to be super skinny). I liked yoga and I wanted to do more of it, but I still hadn’t reached the point of feeling like I needed it. I wasn’t prioritising it. But now, I think of yoga as medicine. An ongoing, long-term prescription for health, strength and healing. And I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to practice every day. No more complaining, no more excuses. As I just learned the hard way, everything can change in an instant, so all we can do is live in the present and be the best people we can be.