I was sitting in biology class when the first pain hit. It was a weird, burning pain that shot from my lower back, all the way down the side of my leg. I actually jumped, startled and whispered to a friend beside me that something weird was happening to me.
I was a sophomore in high school when my chronic back pain first began. At fifteen-years-old, doctors were baffled as to what could be causing it. I was first diagnosed with a very early case of Bursitis in my hip, an inflammation of the fluid-filled pads (bursae) that act as cushions at the joints. My nickname in high school became “bursy” as I struggled to sit through classes. The pain got worse when I sat down for long periods of time. I would take hall passes just to walk the halls and stretch my legs and back.
At the time, my family had a Wii video game console, complete with the balance board. This is how I discovered yoga. It was 2009, a long time before the “yoga-craze” hit. The program taught me how good stretching along with the breath can feel, and I experienced long term, pain-free days for the first time in nearly a year. I became addicted to this new way of dealing with pain. The balance board helped me learn where to place my weight in poses and ultimately helped my pain dissipate. I stopped taking the medication the doctors had prescribed, and as long as I practiced yoga regularly, I was fine.
Unfortunately, in 2015 I tore three ligaments in my ankle as a result of not taking care of a sprained ankle. I’ve told that story before, but I don’t think I mentioned that my dreaded back and hip pain returned while my ankle healed in a medical boot and I wasn’t able to keep up my yoga practice. I tried to find videos online to follow along to, somehow without using my foot, to no avail.
The pain became so bad that my parents insisted I see a specialist. This had been going on for six years, after all, and my miracle cure of yoga was not able to help me. My father and I took a road trip to Duke University in North Carolina. I remember not being able to sleep in the hotel that night, fearing that the only cure would be to put giant needles in my hips. I sat by the over-chlorinated pool and took my medical boot off, sinking my feet in the water. I remember sitting there for as long as I could stand the pain in my back, looking at my feet in the water, one swollen and bruised, the other just fine. I returned to the hotel room hours later after limp-wandering around the hotel, to a fitful night of little sleep. The next morning we arrived at Duke Hospital. After a few tests and consults, I was referred to a specialist. One funny part of this trip is that all of the doctors kept thinking I was there for my obvious ankle injury, with my giant medical boot and crutches. I lost count of the times I said, “No that’s being taken care of, I’m here for my back pain.”
We showed the specialist all of my scans and tests from all those years. She had me lay on my back and moved my legs and back in different directions, asking what hurt. She pushed a certain spot on my back and I screamed. After six years, I found out that I had a bulging disc in my back. We traced it back to a particularly competitive volleyball game in high school. I played back row (libero) and therefore spent most of my playing time throwing my body strategically to the ground to “dig up spikes.” I knew I was in pain after that game, but as a teenager, I thought I was invincible and never connected the two. To give myself some credit, the chronic pain did not show rear its ugly head until a few months after that game.
The doctor’s diagnosis? Physical therapy. Here’s the thing, I was already in physical therapy for my ankle. So, I spent most of my senior year of college going to and from hours of physical therapy. They always let me pick which I wanted to do first, ankle or back? I remember one particular machine that I was strapped into took my spine and stretched it out for a half-hour at a time. The pain relief was near-nirvana. I loved that machine...until they took me out of it and as my spine collapsed again on that disc the pain brought me to tears every time.
Eventually I “graduated” physical therapy as one of their most complicated patients. I got a t-shirt for my efforts. Once free from physical therapy and the dreaded medical boot and crutches, I became determined to never let my body get the best of me again. I became even more obsessed with yoga, even entering teacher training, to share the “gospel” of the pain relief it brought me. Unfortunately, that did not work out for me financially but the yoga studios of Huntington will always hold a special place in my heart, and my back.
I am sad to report that I did not quite keep my promise to myself to not let my body get the best of me ever again. I know I cannot fight every disease and problem with yoga and meditation, and I lost some battles in 2019. Much more personal struggles than I care to share here. But, it is 2020 now and I am ready to roll out my yoga mat again.
The point of this column was to encourage anyone who has never tried yoga to try it and I apologize that it became more about my own struggles with chronic pain. As I sit at my desk writing this column, pain is shooting through my body, but not as bad as it was yesterday, because I spent an hour on my yoga mat last night.
Yoga is not all about chakras and transcendental meditation as popular culture would have you believe. As I’ve grown older, yoga has become a self-care practice that I do at home. I miss my yoga studios back home and elsewhere, but financially, at-home yoga is a great choice for me right now. My favorite internet yoga teacher, Yoga with Adriene on YouTube, is all about home practice. Her dog, Benji makes appearances in nearly every video. She makes videos for literally anything you could think of. For example, yoga while sitting, yoga for people with chronic pain, yoga for diabetes and more. She truly understands that not everyone wants to twist themselves into a pretzel. I think my favorite thing about her is that she doesn’t take herself and the practice too seriously. She makes me giggle in downward dog, calls tree pose, a “Texas T” and encourages you to move around in the poses. The main saying on her channel is “Find What Feels Good.”
Each New Year, she produces a 30-day yoga journey. It is made for beginners and experts alike. For experts, it is time to revisit the basics. For beginners, it is everything you need and more. With the amount of time I have spent off my mat, I am counting myself as a beginner as I practice 2020’s yoga journey, entitled, “Home.” I really do encourage anyone who has never done yoga, even if you think it is stupid, just to give it a chance. It is about so much more than getting into ridiculous poses. It is about checking in with your body and yourself, which in my opinion is vital for a healthy mind and body.
— Contact Emily Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice