Saturday, August 15, 2015

Transition as Transformation

The last year has been incredibly formative from the perspective of my yoga practice. Since last September (when I hit the nadir of my pain condition - we hope), I've been required to reframe my experience of my body through a variety of different methodologies, some of which I've written about (MELT method, Roll Model, active release chiropractic, yin yoga - amongst others). Really, there's been nothing outside the scope of my exploration. I do mean to write about as-yet-undocumented, life-changing bodywork things I've discovered but really, there are only so many hours in a day. At a certain point, I can research and do it or write about it.

I don't think of myself as one of those silver-lining people. I've been through some dark night of the soul moments vis a vis pain (and acute illness) over the last few years. You know that. I mean, this blog is a litany of fear and complaints (amongst other things). But I'm frankly amazed by the way my completely unpalatable experiences have deepened my awareness of myself and my body-mind.

Before you reach to vomit at that last sentence, let me contextualize. I'm a woman who's deep in the middle of hormonal transition. For better or worse, this has precipitated (or sharpened) many health issues. I'm also a person who contracted an acute illness 3 years ago (right at a critical juncture of hormonal transition, I suspect) who's never really felt the same since. I know there are many who've experienced pertussis in adulthood. Some of them recovered easily. Some of them were unpleasantly ill for a while, but it wasn't decimating. I can't speak for those people.

My own experience of pertussis was life-changing - and not to my physical betterment. It was a premature opportunity to come up against the margins of my mortality. For weeks, in the depth of sickness, I woke (after struggling to sleep) horrified, unable to breathe for what would seem like minutes at a time. I couldn't eat for a month. I couldn't muster the energy to walk down a block, by the end of it (and I have walked a minimum of 8 km a day for my entire adult life). I'm still afraid to touch door handles (not that this is necessarily the way I got sick in the first place). If I watch a TV show wherein someone has a breathing issue, I actually experience extreme anxiety and I must change the channel or leave the room.

Maybe if I'd contracted this illness earlier in my life, I would have had an easier ride. Maybe if I'd been farther along in my transition to midlife there wouldn't have been so much disequilibrium to maneuver around. I will never know. What I can say is that, since that illness, I am existentially fatigued. Since that illness, I have experienced chronic pain to some extent or another. My fingers are always swollen. I've experienced physical injury more frequently. My vision has taken a hit. There are very occasional moments when I revert to my previous body-state, and it's stunning to me. I have always been so young - so lively - in my body. Now when I stand up after periods of sitting, the bones in my feet hurt. I can't eat food as I did before (which is to say, always without issue).*

I realize it doesn't sound like we're moving in a fun direction with this post. Bear with me. It's going to be long because I can't devalue my evolution in sound bites. And really, necessity is the mother of invention.

I went to a rheumatologist recently. I didn't think I had a big-ticket autoimmune condition but, at a certain point, one must rule things out. I'm happy to report that (in the words of the doctor): I can't say what you do have going on, and it's apparent that you're experiencing periods of intense chronic pain, but it's not being caused lupus, scleroderma or rheumatoid arthritis. Intriguingly, he also told me that my flexibility is off the charts (though I've witnessed its regression) and that, while my joints may hurt, there's no evidence of arthritis in my body. How he can know that without an MRI (which I didn't have) is beyond me, but I'll take it.

I don't expect someone to fix this issue for me. I'm on a journey, with my body and we're the only ones in the car. Sometimes it's lonely. I'd really like a map, I think. And then I remember that I have one, in the form of my asana practice.

I've spent so much time in the last 5 years, considering the trajectory of yoga asana. When I became a teacher, I was by far the youngest practitioner in the room - like by 10 years. Generally the Iyengar method won't permit one to train as a teacher before the age of 30 (that's how it was back then). I convinced them that I was up to it. I think of myself as being part of a yogic silent generation - that between the first-generation, Western masters and today, wherein a naturally acrobatic 26-year old learns the Ashtanga 5th series and calls it a teaching and media career.

When I first learned asana (do you sense something about walking barefoot for 3 miles in the snow?), there was no disconnect between the pranic elements of the practice and the movement. I truly can't believe how many people do 2 hours of yoga, 6 times a week as some sort of misguided physical fitness. As an Iyengar practitioner, I have always been exceedingly aware of the relationship between physical movement and potential injury. That's what we do really well in that methodology. I was also excellently taught.

Don't kid yourself. The asana you do healthfully at the age of 26 will hurt you when you're 45 if you're not adapting to the evolutionary landscape of your body (which may include elements of "falling apart" after a certain age - perhaps for a certain reason - or not). We can view yoga as a metaphor for the Self (which I do) but it is also a biomechanical practice. I have no idea why so many people feel that they can do extremely acrobatic postures, simply because they have natural strength and flexibility, without considering their intrinsic biomechanical abilities and potential limiters.

There's a truly ground-breaking series I found recently, written by Toronto yoga teacher, Matthew Remski, called What Are We Actually Doing in Asana (WAWDIA). He's also writing a book on the topic. As an early-adopter, and a practitioner who has broken from the broader Toronto "yoga community" (for various reasons - not what this post is about), this is what I've been waiting on for years. The deliciously, in-depth articles (and I can almost assure you that they will not appeal to the casual yoga-doer), illuminate topics such as prominent, Toronto (former) Ashtangi, Diane Bruni's life-changing injury (which led her to leave Ashtanga altogether). Diane was the teacher I took my first Ashtanga classes with in the Fashion District 20-plus years ago.

Between my own propensity to view the biomechanical element of yoga practice (you know I'm a technician by nature) and my recent physical "set backs", I've come to see my practice in an entirely new light. The joy of youth is in its expansive potential - particularly physical. But as one ages - a slow process of punctuated moments - one's yoga becomes about adapting to the new normal. As one simple example, how do I find the endocrine balance (best provided by inversions), when a headstand may now cause me days of back pain, after the fact? How do I adapt to being someone who could do that headstand with joyful abandon (and no small amount of ego, as I now understand), who knows that what was once healthful is, right now, potentially harmful?

Well, first off, I recognize that what's harmful right now, for certain reasons, may not always be that way. I'm open to the notion that this transition may propel me into a new state that is closer to my former one than the one in which I currently find myself. And then, I adjust. It's not rocket science (though it is some beautiful physics). One day, this body will fail me - I will leave it. Until then, I'll use yoga to maintain it, to find my own deepest awareness with breath and movement. My practice is as beautiful today as it was 25 years ago, for entirely different reasons. For one thing, I don't spend every moment wondering why I cannot move further into a pose. Now I know that the pose is always where I am. Striving is such a waste of energy but only experience and constancy will teach you that. Secondly, one's practice becomes ever more elegant with time. One learns how to transition from pose to pose with subtle efficiency, to be in poses with the appropriate props or un-propped enhancements (increasing awareness of muscular contraction vs length).

Practically, the way I have adapted headstand (cuz that pose is bananas delicious) is with my fancy headstander (scroll down to mid post). I will never regret having spent on this baby and I recommend it for many intermediate / advanced practitioners who want the benefits of headstand without the potential joint compression. (Note: There are some peeps who shouldn't ever do unsupported headstand for any number of reasons. Neck compression is no joking matter.) FWIW, when I use the headstander (and I do lots of variations using it), I do put a block under my head because a) for me that's not an issue - my issue is in my shoulders and upper back and b) yogic perspective is that the endocrine benefits of headstand are augmented by weight on the head. Mind you, by using the prop, I can control the amount of weight on my head without compromising the softness I must maintain in my shoulder area to avoid triggering pain.

I could write a long post about the ways I've adjusted the postural elements of my practice - in fact, I think I might!

But I do want to leave this endless diatribe with one other thought: What I have learned about aging and pain that comes and goes is that this isn't the time to overdo (see above) but it's also not the time to underdo. I know that I must maintain my momentum, my strength, my flexibility and balance - and to increase them, to the best of my ability. For a while, I was afraid of active practice because I knew less about the origin and nature of my pain than I do now (not that I have it all figured out). I may be in pain if I practice. I may be in pain if I don't. I may not be in pain in either scenario. But I must do yoga, not only for my mind and spirit (because it is my connection to my understanding of "God" and universal energy, because it is my second language) - but also because it is a physical practice to encourage biomechanical health. And now that I'm doing it rather actively again, without fear (but with modifications, as necessary), I feel the expansiveness it provides.

So that's today's book. I realize that these yoga posts have limited appeal, especially given their interminable length and subject-matter, but I would so love to hear your perspectives on your own practice. Do you have chronic or frequent pain? How does yoga (or your yoga equivalent) intersect with it? Do you modify? How does your ego muddle through aging as it pertains, not to wrinkles, but to physical ability in your method of fitness? Or to the expansiveness of your mindfulness, more to the point. Let's talk.

*Just want to add, that even though this is how I often feel, people are always shocked if I discuss this with them because I "seem perfectly normal". Just goes to show how you can never tell a book by its cover.


  1. I don't do yoga, but I do crossfit... and I'm new to it, at 42 (and after 7 years of being virtually inactive, due to injury).

    Working through the things my body is naturally good at and not letting pride lead me to poor form is important, as is the realization (after 5 months) that I've got my feet under me, and now it's time to turn my attention to the weak parts of my practice.

    I am naturally strong - but also naturally inflexible. The years of inactivity and two c/s have left me with extremely poor core strength. And I can't do high impact, because of my injury. So - I have to be conscious of not muscling up a weight with poor form... I'm not in this to hurt myself, I'm in it to become stronger and have more endurance.

    Lately, between prayer for guidance and other things, I have found that the crossfit is providing some psychological benefits to the neglected parts of my self, the parts of my self that I find inconvenient and try to hide.

    I also have to confront fear and my desire not to ask for help/bother people - had that realization out of gym this weekend. If I'm going to hit handstand (by walking up the wall) I need to ask for a spotter - I'm afraid of falling over backwards. I'm strong enough to do the move - just scared.

    Your body knows things that you try to hide from yourself, I believe this to be true. It's a good journey, worth while.

    Best of luck on your own!

    1. You're SO right about confronting the elements of yourself that you might try to hide! And to ask for a spotter during handstand is safe, helps you to achieve a totally amazing goal and (maybe) introduces you to someone new with whom you can commiserate about the scary poses. Cuz everyone's scared by something.

      How awesome that you're rediscovering your body, after illness, with a form of fitness that encourages strength. BTW, we do a lot of handstand in Iyengar yoga - with some terrific propping and progressive variations to facilitate the pose safely and to instill confidence. You might want to do a bit of reading online (not sure what's out there but I suspect Yoga Journal would have something useful, if nothing else). When teaching the pose, we show students how to use belts around the arms, for stability, walls in a variety of ways, bolsters, blocks. It's one of the poses that makes use of props most inventively. There might be some good instructional crossover to make use of. Best of luck to you too Hearth. xo

  2. I liked this post, found lots to think about and much to relate to (I've had joint and soft tissue pain for years, periodically (ha!) and then increasingly as I approached menopause and now beyond -- never to the extent of my two sisters who have fibromyalgia, but I keep it in mind and try to listen to what my body needs). I don't have anywhere near your depth of understanding re yoga, and, frankly, don't have time to think rigorously through what you're exploring here. I do find a worthwhile struggle in knowing when to lean into an activity or a pose and when to rest where I am (my language is already becoming inadequate here). The idea that one enters the pose at the moment one wishes to leave the pose has stuck with, and puzzled/challenged, me ever since I heard it a month or two before I ran my marathon last year. It's tricky when you're a person, as I am, who can always suspect oneself of not doing enough. I often accuse myself of laziness and I've been known to foolishly ignore a reasonable fear simply because I know full well that I'm too chicken, generally.
    Okay, that's enough, because I'm getting sloppy in my articulation and probably diverging too far, but I did want you to know that your thoughts hooked me. . .

    1. I didn't know that your sisters have FM. I've seen (with work colleagues and yoga students from the past) how utterly challenging that its.

      And that notion about leaving the pose as soon as you find it is a brain teaser - I agree. Mr. Iyengar used to say that the minute you find it, it's done. Mind you, we Iyengar peeps still tend to stay in those asanas for a stupid amount of time thereafter :-)

      You are the least lazy person on the planet, fwiw, so I recognize that your concerns are internally valid, but if you can try to see yourself from the flipside, you never have to worry about underfunctioning again! Thanks, as always, for your excellent comments Frances. Sorry it took me so long to formulate a response...

  3. I don't do yoga at all but I still find these posts very interesting!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, and commenting, G!

  4. I am very interested by the yoga posts, and would like to know anything and everything you have discovered about pain and its origin, about backing off and pushing through.

    1. Hey Lisa: When I write these, I always keep you in mind. Please email me if you have specific questions you'd like to chat about re: yoga and pain management. Also, you are IDEALLY positioned to have access to the most wonderful yoga (and some wretched stuff too, alas). If you'd like to discuss methods and studios, I'd be happy to chat more. Kxo