"Less is More"
A special article from fellow Ashtangi, Jan Christie
Jan has been practicing with Diana for about 12 years. She completed Tim Miller's Primary Series Teacher Training, and went to Mysore to study under Guruji. She is an attorney and a writer.
It's December 28, 2013. The tree is dry and pungent. I feel compelled to undress it and carry it out, clear the decks for the New Year. Yet there are four days remaining before this year is over. My husband Herman tells me he enjoys the bright stillness around the tree and the warmth of the fire at midnight. What devil compels me to yank off the ornaments and drag it out?
Ahhh. It came to me during Mysore practice this morning. It is monkey mind, spring -loaded and hurtling forward. Quiet little monkey, there is unfinished business. Months ago, I promised Diana and Pat that I would write about my journey through back surgery and my return to practice. Unfinished business.
So my fellow Ashtangis, at this year-end I set out to tell the tale. Some of you have been delivered back to the practice following chronic or traumatic injuries. Some of you thrill with the perfection of your mature practice. Some of you have just stepped onto the mat for the journey back to yourself. I share my experience with each and every one of you, in gratitude for all I have received.
I was called to the mat at age forty-nine in the year 2001. Diana was my teacher then as now. Her strength, grace and beauty inspired me. I sweat and I strived and I poured all my pita into the asana practice. Asana practice opened the doors to the seven other limbs of Ashtanga. Diana taught ahimsa, the principle of doing no harm. That seed was sewn in my heart. But Monkey propelled me through first and second series like a Santa Ana wind. It was a fabulous ride! My middle-aged body flipped and bent like nobody's business. The practice became an addiction. I couldn't get enough.
Advil helped. Don't scold. You would take Advil too if you had to get your fifty-five year old body into dwi pada shirsasana every day. Monkey Mind insisted on conquering asanas. My old thought patterns came with me to the mat. The agni burned through physical knots like a brushfire. Mental knots withstood the heat. We know not how the Jungle Physician works. All is coming.
One morning in early 2007, while stretching forward into janu shirsasana, something happened. Pain shot through me. Prana evacuated my body. Diana quietly appeared.
"Do you want to try moving through closing sequence," she suggested gently.
It was all I could do to crawl out of the shala. By the end of the day I lay in bed, tears streaming down my cheeks. The pain was fierce.
I went to see my yogi chiropractor. She says she didn't perceive the seriousness of the injury because I had gotten myself in there on my hind legs without assistance. WE both hoped and believed this was all about tight hips and overworked psoas. All was coming.
The next day I resorted to western medicine. My friend Dave Kiff recommended Dr. Ashkenaze at South Coast Hospital. Tap tap with the reflex-checking hammer. No response from my right leg. No nerve function. The MRI confirmed it. A ruptured disc. Dr. Ashkenaze recommended surgery to remove the disc from where it was seated directly on my nerve.
"What will happen if I don't have surgery?"
"You will have continuing pain and you may have lasting nerve damage. But eventually your body will reabsorb the disc material."
"What is the long-term prognosis with surgery and without surgery?"
"Since you have delayed for a week now and you are experiencing nerve damage already, probably no difference other than the pain."
I rejected surgery. There was nothing for it at that point but rest. Three months without practice. Cold turkey.
MORE OR LESS?
My healthy body must have gobbled up the disc because three months later I returned to the mat. It was not long before I was onto second series. Why not? Hadn't Dr. Ashkenaze said that back bending was safer than forward bending?
More than five years passed before the pain returned. More Advil. So much Advil that my skin broke out and my throat began to swell. There was only one thing more painful than practice – no practice.
Sadness and fear took root in my heart. I knew the day was approaching when I could not continue. When that day arrived, the pain manifested in electric shock waves down my legs into my feet. Time for another MRI.
Dr. Ashkenaze was impressed that the nerve had recovered substantially. Five years after the disc ruptured, my right leg could be held to waist height. "It must be the yoga," he said.
The picture of my back was shocking. I'm not that person! I'm an Ashtangi! How could my spine be crumbling like a broken tinker toy? How could it have failed me like this? My vertebrae were toppling over where the discs had deteriorated. Monkey mind was not having it.
"You are at risk of paralysis," Dr. Askenaze warned. He advised me to "Stop yoga. No bending, twisting or lifting. Schedule surgery."
What kind of surgery?
"Spinal fusion. L-4, L-5 and S-1." He looked at my face.
"Not the simple disc removal we talked about five years ago."
Monkey mind rebelled. I recoiled.
"I encourage you to get other opinions. Anyone who sees that MRI will agree that you need surgery."
It took several months for me to process. I listened to the doctors. I told you what each one had said. You helped me to process the information. With your help, I finally decided to have the surgery. Whether or not you agreed with my decision, you helped me to reach it. And you supported me every day. All had come.
Monkey was angry, refusing to see his own part in it. Blame the doctor, the body, the teacher, the practice. Without asana, Monkey was louder than ever. No doubt many of you felt that. My apologies!
There was a puja for me at the shala the day before surgery. Monkey didn't want to go but sat tight while your prayers were received.
A LOT LESS
On October 16, 2012, I checked into Mission Hospital. Neurosurgeon Sylvain Palmer scrubbed in. "We are waiting for Dr. Lu to arrive." Dr. Lu was the vascular surgeon. His job was to vertically incise my abdomen below the navel and pull the muscles apart so Dr. Palmer could operate on the front of the spine without as much risk of severing arteries. After inserting metal cages in the disc space, filled with synthetic material that encourages bone growth, then pinning the front of the spine with metal pins to hold it in place, the surgical team would flip me over onto my front-side and complete the operation from the back of the spine.
Until the moment they knocked me out, Monkey was considering the option of backing out. AT about 8 am, the anesthesiologist silenced Monkey.
Eleven and a half hours later I struggled to regain consciousness. It was 7:30 pm. Monkey was back. "What happened? Something must have gone wrong! The surgery was supposed to be no more than four hours."
Dr. Palmer smiled. "Everything is fine. Just took a little longer than anticipated."
If Monkey could speak, he would have demanded to know what they were doing in there all that time. "Did you have a sack lunch? Was Dr. Lu late? Did I stop breathing? WHAT?"
But the hospital staff didn't want to hear from Monkey. They administered oral pain medication and I slipped into sleep.
In the morning they got me up with a walker. I was weak, but able to get up and go to the bathroom. Even take a shower. My skin was white and I sweat a lot. They showed me how to wear the black back brace that had been specially made for me, and advised me to wear it twenty-four seven. My body felt completely reorganized. The muscles stiffened around the hardware. There was numbness. I felt like a Rodin sculpture, solid bronze.
The Tsonga appeared at the hospital. Merry, Carol, Joy, Robbie, Jennifer, Maria, Alice. You surrounded me with love. You stood face to face with Western Medicine. I felt your concern. Like me, you wondered if it had been worth it.
Two days after surgery, at about midnight, the ICU resident announced they would wheel me down into the bowels of Mission Hospital for a CT scan. Blood tests showed that I had elevated enzymes consistent with pulmonary embolus. Herman was seriously worried about a clot in the lung. He looked on the verge of panic. I suggested he call Nagaraj, who had graciously offered to help in any way. An hour later, Neemu and Nagaraj flanked Herman and the three sentinels followed my gurney into the medical maze. Cha ching! Another hefty charge to Blue Shield of California.
A week passed in the hospital, though it seemed like one long day. I came home with a walker and an electrical stimulation machine. I was supposed to use the walker because, as my hospital wristband stated in bold print, I was a "fall risk." The e-stim machine was like a bulletproof vest worn by a cop. It sent electric current to promote bone growth. Dr. Palmer believed it would help my body make bone, so I committed to two hours every day in that thing.
Herman turned down the sheets and served coffee in bed. He answered family calls. The dogs curled up next to me. Breath was what remained of my practice.
Since I have multiple layers of addiction, I took only a few Percocet and none of the Valium they sent home with me. My biggest fear was falling into dependence on prescription drugs. You talked me through it. We laughed together at the absurdity of it all. Life continued and so did your practice. I wondered if I would ever make it back.
Less than two weeks post-op, I was darn proud to be med-free and able to take care of my personal needs. Then my husband decided to point out that our financial condition was deteriorating with me out of work. I started to freak out. There was nothing I could do at that moment about work or finances. I started to cry. A low point.
Monkey suggested that I fold laundry to deal with the frustration. I wasn't totally in the moment when warm clean sheets fell to my feet in front of the dryer. Without a second thought, I bent over and picked them up. HOLY COW!!!! I was totally NOT supposed to do that! I had been thoroughly warned that bending over could undo the entire operation.
I called you for support and you talked me off the ceiling. You suggested that maybe it would be a good time to take just one teensy Valium. No harm, no foul.
After conquering constipation with prunes and vitamin C, the high point of the first couple weeks was my afternoon shower. I got to sit on a stool with a cap on my head. I couldn't bend forward at all. It was impossible for me to sit in a tub, since I could not bend down to sit on the floor. Shaving my legs was not an option. Regardless, a hot shower was a blessing.
The hospital's home assistance physical therapist came to show me how to put on my shoes and sleep on one side, never on my belly like I wanted to. He demonstrated how to pick things up with a long steel claw. He checked the back brace, asked if I was wearing it twenty-four seven. Was I using the e-stim vest? We snailed it across the street to a very flat park that had only a tiny rise over some tree roots. In all seriousness, he instructed me not to walk over that tiny rise. I was only to walk on absolutely flat surfaces.
I wasn't allowed to drive. Neither could I pick up dog poop. My friend Debbie picked me up on Saturdays and drove me to Chapparosa Park where we walked on a very flat trail. She picked up my dog's poop. I will always love her for that.
Before I was allowed to drive, about five weeks after surgery, my friend Melanie took me for a mani-pedi. I had to ease into the chair sideways. But did it ever feel heavenly to have my feet done! No one had touched them for weeks, including me.
The first three months were ever so slow. Dr. Palmer prohibited any stretching or pulling. He insisted that walking was the way to undo the stiffness that results when the body clenches into itself. First five minutes every hour, working up to twenty minutes every hour. I lived for those flat moments in the sun, outside. I learned to appreciate the therapeutic value of walking. Breath and walking were my practice.
At about six weeks, Dr. Palmer allowed me to throw away the back brace and start driving. Wahoo! He also sent me to the real physical therapist. The one who would coach me back from total deconditioning.
Jonathan Yeh, my PT, is part Jungle Physician, part western medical practitioner. He listened when I told him about my practice, the injury, and the surgery.
"Well, I think it makes sense to go back to what you know. I think we should work toward getting you back to your yoga practice."
JOY! CHEERS! Twelve mental backbends in a row! Practice!!!! YES!
You all nodded knowingly when I shared the news. You were sure that I would return to practice. You couldn't possibly understand what it was like inside my body.
Debbie took me to Whole Foods and we bought tiny Christmas trees. I watched as Herman set ours up on an end table. Christmas 2012. Merry, the shala's de facto concierge, brought bright red and green Chinese ornaments. My friend Carol went to the hardware store for lights. It was not necessary to climb up on ladders in the garage for our stash of decorations. You decorated the tree and I made Chai.
Like my little tree, I had become smaller. I didn't know it then, but part of the toll of this kind of surgery is a physical and spiritual shrinkage. All energy is concentrated on self-defense. Only recently have I fully realize how small this ordeal made me.
Six months of physical therapy, including some Bikram yoga. (Yes, Bikram!) It was as if my body had been reshaped out of solid metal -- the parts forged together in a pattern I didn't recognize. Jonathon and Dr. Palmer explained how the brain triggers the nerves that trigger the muscles and the muscles send the stimulus back to the brain. Thanks to eleven years of practice, my brain knew what to direct the nerves to do. Slowly I began to feel the connections again. Very slowly.
At last I re-entered the shala and rolled out my mat. It was in May 2013. Over lunch at Coyote Grill, Diana had convinced me that Ashtanga is still Ashtanga even without Vinyasa. She invited me to stand on my mat, breath, and see what happened next. She welcomed me back, whatever the practice may be.
Monkey demanded a blind-fold the first day back at the shala. He felt uncomfortable with your concern, your fear, your sympathy, your judgment. Monkey always wants to avoid acceptance of limitations and vulnerability.
Breath subdued Monkey. The fusion and scar tissue subdued Monkey. Not so much rock and roll when you have a broomstick at the base of your spine. But I was awakened to the practice. At home on the mat. Breathing. Sweating. Moving.
The pure joy of being there with you was overwhelming. Before long I was able to stand on my head. First series was more than enough challenge. Diana encouraged me to listen to my intuition, develop my own practice. I became my own doctor. The day I showed up on the mat was the day I moved on from what western medicine had to offer. I had to take responsibility. It is MY practice.
Re-acquainting the body and the mind has been quite a project. The body feels it was whacked with a sledgehammer. Not painful. Just awkward. Nothing is where it used to be. The nerves have to reroute to get a result. Some days my practice may appear normal on the outside, but feel ever so lopsided internally. On the other hand, there are days when I know I have had a neurological breakthrough even though I am falling out of balance. All is coming.
I have been told that it will take three years for my old practice to return. Frankly that seems optimistic on most days. It gives Monkey hope to think of returning to the old practice. But when I'm on the mat, it's only today. I breathe; connect in ways I never connected before. Move out of the lower back. Discover the thoracic. Redistribute prana. Expand. Come to life. Each day is a revelation.
It is now eight months since my return to the shala. Today my practice is joyful and therefore beautiful. It is not the practice I once had. But it is MY practice. Not Monkey's. I don't practice every day. I don't push beyond my limits. Sometimes I get frustrated and go for a swim. Sometimes I go back to the gym and strengthen weak areas discovered in practice. Sometimes I jog with my dog Bella, who doesn't give a damn about asana. I stay in the moment.
I take joy in your accomplishments. Eric and Linda aspire to the likes of Maria and Jacinthe. Merry is back from her shoulder separation and doing dwi pada again. Jennifer's awesome backbends demonstrate her open heart in the face of crushing losses. You continue to amaze me.
LESS IS MORE
A month or so after I returned to the shala, Diana announced that David Swenson and Shelley Washington would visit in November 2013. Diana could see that I was not ready for a weekend with the masters. "Just come on Thursday night," she whispered.
I looked at the schedule. Thursday night with David and Shelley was billed under a theme – "Less Is More. "
Ah, Diana. You ARE my teacher.
I had been absent from the mat for a few days and thought I'd better practice on the Wednesday before the workshop. Shelley surprised us all, even Diana, by coming to Mysore that day. I was delighted to see her again, having shared time in India with her years ago. We see each other at workshops, at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence.
Diana saw me come in that morning. She whispered to Shelley about my injury, my special needs.
Shelley looked concerned but gave me a few adjustments during practice. She saw me move my mat from its original position between Eric and Linda to a more kaphaesque spot in the back of the room.
After class, I thanked Shelley and shared with her that Monkey made me move my mat. That I sometimes suffer ego attacks when I see other Ashtangis doing what I once was able to do.
"I get it", she replied. Then she told me about her shoulder injuries. "I can barely do first series! It's not easy going to Mysore with these limitations!"
Thank you Shelley! You told me I'm not alone. You have a Monkey too. Everyone has a monkey!
If you attended their "Less is More" workshop, you heard the wisdom. ALL is coming. Not just the good, but the bad and the ugly too. It is ALL coming. And the practice is what prepares us.
Many thanks to Diana Christinson, Dr. Ashkenaze, Dr. Palmer, Jonathan Yeh, Shelley Washington, David Swenson, and each and every one of you for sharing my journey. It is by sharing that pain is diminished to half and joy is doubled.
Love to All and Happy New Year!