Dammit, It’s Backbend Week!
My initial training was by instructors schooled in the Iyengar yoga lineage. In that practice a four-week schedule of postures is followed:
Week One - Standing Postures
Week Two - Forward Stretches and Twists
Week Three - Backbends
Week Four - Restorative Asana (Movement) and Pranayama (Breathing)
Four weeks in a month, yet it seemed to me that it was always “Backbend Week”. I think this was an indication of how much I disliked backbends.
We would do backbends over bolsters, over the back of chairs, even on a wooden contraption that I would swear was made by the same people who made the medieval torture device “the rack”. Why anyone would subject themselves to such extreme postures was beyond me.
Some years later enter COVID-19. My minimal case of COVID a few months back has left me with a few lingering issues: Diminished smell sensory capability & ongoing mid-sternum chest discomfort that hinders my breathing. These are two quite common COVID “Long Hauler” symptoms. Fortunately for me both are relatively mild compared to others who have found post COVID symptoms totally debilitating. (I suggest you get vaccinated!)
I will discuss my efforts to rebuild my sense of smell later. Right now, let us talk backbends.
Treatment techniques for COVID Long Haulers aren’t yet refined. Breathing exercises seem to be a quite common theme though, and for weeks now I have been doing them on a more focused basis led by my own yoga instructors. In yoga speak: “Pranayama”.
Yesterday we set up for an extremely deep back bend for my Pranayama breathing exercises. This took about all my yoga “props”, and by the time I was done it was quite the contraption. My body shape, remarkably like that “unpleasant” contortion that I used to experience in the Iyengar yoga studio. An openness and stretch across the chest par excellence. I will be damned if I did not feel significantly better afterward!
Maybe it should be “backbend week” every week...
Readers, this is a “don’t try this at home unless you have a lot of training” post!
"Today Is The Day!"
I threaten to quit yoga every day. My plan is to put all this exercise equipment on Craigslist, buy a Rascal Scooter, and ride around Walmart eating a donut. “Today is the day” I will say to Briel who snapped this Zoom image of me using a foam roller on my “bad leg”. (I don't really have a "good leg".)
Yet, I keep going. I keep going because yoga has been so beneficial to me. Beneficial from a physical perspective, and more importantly, beneficial from a mental perspective.
Yoga is a mixture of strength and ease. Sthira and Sukha in Sanskrit. It’s facing challenge and then going a bit more. It’s down regulating, and breathing, and letting it all go. Discomfort versus comfort. In between is … life.
I am still going to eat that donut though.
In some ways I may not be the best person to remind you to take care of your body. My own body has, in horse parlance, been “Ridden hard and put away wet”. It has suffered from multiple broken bones, destroyed ligaments, repeated hernia surgeries, exposure to too much noise, too much sun, etc. I even did significant damage to my teeth when younger with too much drinking; breath mints are full of sugar.
Yes, the man with metal plates holding his face, arm, and leg together is here to tell you that, unless you work your body, it will slowly deteriorate. The same goes for your mind, intellectual stimulation is key.
Exercising body (and mind) requires a willingness to push your edges. You need to reach a point where you are comfortable, and then, with great caution, push past that a tiny bit. That might cause you to reach the “I feel that moment”. Stop there. Stop before discomfort. Most certainly stop before pain. Never pain. We do not want any “ouches” immediately, or a day later. We do not want to push any one edge too much, or too repetitively, that may cause injury too. This is where advisors come in.
Advisors might be a trainer, a doctor, a spouse, or friend, or all the above. A good trainer might suggest that you have no real need to get into XYZ Instagram ready pose. A good doctor might remind you to be grateful for the health condition you are in. A good spouse or friend might point out that you have become just a bit obsessive. Your advisors are your safety valve. They keep you from doing something dumb. And if you do insist on doing something dumb (like me), they can help pick you back up.
Push edges! Have advisors! Stay safe!
Strength versus Flexibility
Back in pre-COVID days, I once dropped into a power yoga class at an out of town studio. On
the mat in front of mine was a body builder type. I looked like a 97 pound weakling compared to that
guy. Interestingly though, Mr. Charles Atlas had significant range of motion limitations compared to
me. His muscular structure limited his ability to move.
Fast forward to my recovery from the accidental orthopedic trauma I incurred in July
2020. I have lost quite a bit of my muscle tone in the six months since; I can see that in this picture.
The first few months I could barely move due to pain and swelling. Subsequent to that my physical
therapist (PT) instructed me to build flexibility first and wait on building strength. It’s only recently that the PT said it was OK to work on building back my strength. Her concern, that building strength back too quickly would lock in range of motion limations.
So what’s the net result of all this?
Well I am still very weak compared to before my accident. I can’t on a moment’s notice pop into
challenging power poses like wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana). It’s only in the last few days that I have
attempted them at all. I have quite a bit to go. I have in fact become the 97 pound weakling.
Surprisingly though, I think there has been benefit to losing muscularity. Witness these time stamped
pictures of the shape of my back. Taken by my own yoga instructor Briel Beaty, they show how my back
shape has moved over the last few months. This is something we have been working on for a few years,
attempting to soften the kyphosis "forward head" poor posture shape of my spine. Yes, it moved some, but never as much as recently.
How did this happen? I posit it’s a strength versus flexibility phenomena. As my muscle tone atrophied
it also slowly released the shape that it was holding my back into. With consistent daily yoga practice,
changes in my back at long last started to take hold. Now on to building strength to lock those changes in!
Fred Astaire I Am Not!
It has only been a few weeks since I stopped extensively using the cane for walking. Every now and then it is still useful when my formerly broken left leg tires out and gets swollen. I am a long way from dancing with it!
The cane has found another purpose now, for exercises to rebuild my left arm mobility. This is a movement derived from my most recent physical therapy instructions, balancing my spine on a foam roller and taking my arms overhead!
Coming up on the 4 month anniversary of the accident that took a team of orthopedic trauma surgeons at Penn State Hershey to put me back together.
Fellow yoga instructor Briel Beaty has worked with me 5+ days a week since then, starting when I couldn't tolerate more than a half hour of practice and was taking heavy duty painkillers.
I hit another milestone this past Friday, my first side plank (Vasisthasana). Right arm only, still building strength back in the busted up left arm. Nonetheless an incredible moral booster.
These pix from the journal we have been keeping since that first day after I got back from the hospital, now some 238 pages of text and pictures. An incredible journey.
Yoga For Recovery!
Zoom Screen Captures Showing Range Of Motion Improvement
A lot of changes in my life since my last blog entry!
On July 20, 2020 I had an awfully bad accident that sent me to one of Pennsylvania’s trauma centers. A broken tibia in my left leg, and a shattered ulna and dislocated radius bone in my left arm. I spent 12 hours in the OR, had six hours of orthopedic surgery, and was in for an eight-day hospital stay. It is like nothing I have ever experienced. Today, nearly two months later, I continue to mend.
Yoga has been a key part of my rehabilitation.
I started daily yoga practice the day after I returned from the hospital. Led by instructor Briel Beaty, we began with a half hour a day. Then 45 minutes, and now the last few weeks, an hour a day. These two pictures show an example of the progression in my capability as we have practiced.
We started with me sitting in a chair, then eventually I was able to get on the floor, and of late have been able to stand and do modified yoga sun salutations. The latter is somewhat complicated as I cannot put any weight on my left arm yet; the bone needs to heal more first. Oh, and there is the darn glaucoma thing too, shouldn't be doing too many deep inversions. Anyhow, it's all yoga, and it's all good.
I still have a long way to go with my recovery. My walking without a cane needs work, and periodically my arm reminds me it still needs a lot more time. In fact, I am typing this today with just my right arm; too much screen and keyboard work yesterday. My bad, second time in a week I have over done it.
Lastly, from a yoga instruction front, I am excited to say that I am starting teaching again!
I have been asked to resume in-person yoga teaching with a group I had worked with pre-COVID. This is a fun and interesting class for me. It is part spiritual and part asana (physical). Due to COVID we will be practicing outside for the near term, so as it gets cooler outside I will have to get creative in keeping people moving too! &
We are going to get my men’s yoga gang back up too! Yeah!
Yes, this will all be most challenging as I am unable to demonstrate many poses now. That will be a good driver for refinement of my language.
Isn’t that what we all strive for anyway, to be clearer with our intention?
My yoga practice needs “re-visioning”. Not because it lacks variety or direction. No, it needs to be revised because I just learned it may be counterproductive to my eyesight.
A few days ago, my optometrist handed me a diagnosis of glaucoma. It came after a follow-up visit with a more extensive peripheral vision exam, and a set of detailed photos of my optical nerves. My optical nerve in my right eye is clearly damaged, it has gaps in peripheral viewing capability and the pictures show deterioration. Totally sobering.
The clue in the first visit to the eye doctor that he should dig deeper, increased intraocular eye pressure using the “puff of air” glaucoma test. I am now on eye drops to reduce this eye pressure. Apparently, I will need to take these drops for life, or at least until I have cataract or another laser surgery at some distant point.
Now here is the thing, glaucoma is contra-indicated for a lot of the yoga I do. See: Head-down yoga poses increase eye pressure in glaucoma patients from the American Optometric Association for example. Being upside down in even a “simple” down dog has been shown to increase intraocular pressure. And you know I love being upside down. In fact, I was hanging upside down in aerial yoga just an hour before my second visit with the optometrist, and my eye pressure was in normal range during that office visit. Will that be my last time for aerial yoga? The blog post before this one was all about down dog. Maybe those were some of my last "dogs" ever?
What I do know, is that many of the most pivotal times for me as I journeyed towards becoming a yoga instructor, were when my own asana (physical) practice was paused. The times that I had a sore elbow, or stiff shoulder, or bum knee. The times that I was a bit emotionally broken for some reason. This was when my own instructors drove home that yoga was more than down dog, more than headstand, more than asana. It was then that I learned that yoga was about the philosophy of life as a whole.
My life as a whole is pretty good, and I take the glaucoma thing as just one more chapter yet to be written. Let’s see what happens.
Every Dog Has Its Day
As I move deeper into yoga as a teacher and still (always!) as a student too, I find myself in conversations and practices that not long ago would have been unfathomable. Yesterday was one of those times. Yesterday I spent just about an entire practice in Downward-facing Dog Pose, or Adho Mukha Shvanasana.
I think this started out with my instructor Briel suggesting I stretch out my legs in Down Dog so we could move on with our morning practice. Next thing you know we are having conversations about how Down Dog is cued by different instructors and practices, trying those implementations along the way. Most importantly, we examined how I should do it for my own body; a body with tight hamstrings, tilted pelvis, and a spine and neck exhibiting kyphosis. We snapped screen captures off my Zoom feed while I attempted all these Down Dog variations.
“You know this is supposed to be a resting pose.” I jokingly reminded Briel at one point, as I did Down Dog over and over and over, for almost ninety minutes. In fact, in Ashtanga yoga it is the point where you catch five breaths before you move on to the rest of that exhilarating practice. One of the pictures above is Down Dog after a full cycle of an Ashtanga Sun Salutation (Namaskara) A.
Now I cannot imagine ever teaching my own yoga students Down Dog for an hour and a half. It is good though, to go back and look at these foundational postures every now and then. Subtle shifts in our body and mind occur as our practice, as our life, evolves.
So next time your instructor, maybe me, tells you to go into that “simple” Down Dog, pause for a moment. Pause for five breaths worth of moments actually and think about which “Dog” is right for you.
Hey, you know what, it’s Father’s Day Weekend! The Father's Day gift that keeps giving is … having your children be embarrassed by you. So here goes with a video of me hoopin’!
Actually I am way behind on hoopin’ with the pandemic and all. It shows, I got a bit of the COVID-15 weight gain thing going on around my waist. So, like all “Quarantined Dads Worldwide”, I need to get up and move this weekend. Shoot some hoops, go for a walk, hoist a beer. Maybe even some yoga?
Embarrass your kids, embarrass your spouse, hell, go ahead and embarrass yourself to people that you don’t even know on social media.
You only live once. OK, maybe a few times if you are Hindu. But for most of us, just once.
Use your time with this life wisely.