Injuries, Pain, and Practice.
As many of the yogis in the studio know, my partner, Ben, underwent two back surgeries in the spring of 2017. After a decade of increasingly dibilitating and mentally exhausting pain and nearly a year of suffering through basic functions like walking, he was finally rolled into his first surgery in April. He woke up from the surgery and the searing sciatic nerve pain was mostly gone. Over the next week, I watched as his cautious optimism gained a little traction. Ben was laughing and enjoying just being without pain for the first time in months. He was nearly through the first month when he started having pain again, this time worse than before the surgery. Like a light switch, his entire demeanor changed to worry, sadness, frustration, and disappointment.
His surgeon confirmed what he already knew - that the discectomy had failed and he would need a spinal fusion at L5/S1. Ben's back would be filleted open, the disc between the two joints entirely removed and filled with a mortar-like material, then two titanium rods screwed into the bones of both L5 and S1. After the surgery, he had to stay in bed for weeks and use a walker. He was not allowed to sit. We developed a system of getting him out of bed where I would squat down and hug him, his arms wrapped around my shoulders, and we would stand together so he could go to the bathroom or take a little sojourn with his walker around the house. He lost his mind a few times. So did I. We watched a lot of Party of Five.
After a few weeks we ventured outside of the house together, Ben with his back brace and walker, down to the church and back, about a third of a mile total. The first few times, the journey took us 20 minutes. We built up to walking to the end of the street, then crossing the street, then all the way to the horses on the county section of our road. Every day, Ben got a little bit stronger and the fire in his eyes burned a little brighter. Our families and friends witnessed him coming back to life little by little - the stress and mental struggle of dealing with chronic pain subsiding inch by inch. Eight months out from surgery at this point, he's physically doing really well. He's able to walk at a pretty good clip, to jog a little here and there, and he doesn't have to think constantly about how little movements might send him into a pain cycle that may last for weeks. Ben's back continues to get stronger and his neural pathways are creating new connections for ease of movement every day. Mentally, his mind is now free to wander into to the creative, abstract and cerebral cloud that is so natural to him.
It would be easy to say that it's all over now, that this was one of the big tests of his inner and outter strength, a test for the depth of our relationship and our combined ability to receive help from our community, and now everyone will live happily ever after forever and ever. But that's just not the way life works. Injuries, pain, and loss, as all of us know, are a part of life. These realities will always be with us, maybe in small ways like stubbing your toe or waking up with a stiff neck. Maybe they'll be there in big ways like living with a chronic condition such as arthritis or neuropathy, or maybe we're in the midst of a bad breakup, a death, a failure, or situational depression. The thing is, pain is the messenger to a dysfunction of body, mind, emotional state, or all three. The problem will remain even if the messenger is quieted. What we can learn from these experiences of being in pain due to an injury or a chronic condition is that we cannot control the external stimulii (the pain or injury) but we can choose how to greet the presented circumstances*.
This, too, is a part of your practice and journey. Life is never a linear progression from one thing to the next. We often fall down, get diverted, and lose direction on our path, but there is always a choice: either remain where you are or figure out how to stand up and continue. Either way, it's a choice of how you want to spend your time. So keep moving. Keep reminding yourself to stay present. The only thing that will make it worse is by not doing anything at all.
Here's what I've learned from Ben's chronic pain journey and my own (numerous) injuries throughout the past 17 years of practicing yoga
I. Build your team.
You need to have people supporting your efforts. Classes are a great place to be surrounded by like-minded people. Find an acupuncturist, a chiropracter, a therapist, a physical therapist, or anyone else you trust and like to work with. Let the people in your inner circle know what's going on with you. It's a great idea to keep a journal - one to two sentences about your activity and your pain level during and after activity every day keeps you aware and accountable.
II. Let a little bit be enough.
10 minutes of concious movement a day is better than 0 minutes of conscious movement a day. You can always add little by little. Our culture is one that's pretty extreme and fast results-oriented - beware the tendency to think that if you're not doing something really intense that you're not doing anything - remember that our species is built to walk far distances at a relatively slow pace for a long, long time. Once you have a little momentum going, it's natural to want to add a little more and to push yourself - that's great! Remember how slowly you started (or started again)? Continue to use the mindfulness you have cultivated as you add, little by little, more time, more distance, more intensity. Slow progress is sustainable progress.
III. Accept that your practice won't look like it did before your injury (or when you were 25).
Bodies age and get hurt. This isn't to say that you can't be a badass past a certain point (there are plenty of very impressive athletes and yogis well into their advanced years), but YOU are changing, growing and learning, so your practice should evolve as well. Remember when it was a good idea to eat entire bags of potato chips and watch movies all day on a Saturday? I bet you have probably grown past that, at least to some extent, and now your Saturday involves things that both need to get done and things you enjoy doing. Do you really need to do that complicated yoga pose right now, or can you enjoy trying a slightly less intense version of the same pose? Will you feel more joy or accomplishment from getting your leg behind your head than you do from just feeling like your hamstrings are not guitar strings?
IV. Watch your pain response (and your reaction to your pain response).
Sometimes you'll overdo it. That's the nature of learning. Approaching your practice with mindfulness means that you are aware of your inner narrative pushing you to live up to past expectations, to compete with others, or to rush ahead. When you innevitably push a little too far you will feel pain - the practice is noticing what you do with that pain response. Do you shut down? Do you become sad? Do you feel scared? Are you anticipating something? How about when you do something great and nothing hurts or, even better, you feel awesome? Continued awareness leads to insight, insight leads to wisdom, and wisdom leads to contentment no matter the circumstance.
V. Remind yourself to breathe.
Your lungs are receptors for your brain and heart. Once your oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio drops too far below normal (meaning you have an excess of carbon dioxide) your nervous system automatically kicks into fight or flight mode. This results in all kinds of haywire things happening in your body; you'll notice stress, weight gain, muscular & mental tension, vascular restriction (your extremities become colder), digestion dysfunction, eye strain, insomnia, etc. When you breathe well you allow your lungs, heart, and brain to tell the rest of your body, "hey, sister/brother, you're doing ok right now and you can relax." This is super important for both recovering from an injury and working with chronic pain. Your body wants and is pretty darn capable of healing itself - build good conditions and let it do its job.
*Here's a great article about testing the skillful use of mindfulness as an effective way to treat chronic pain : https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201603/mindfulness-meditation-provides-pain-relief-without-opioids.