August 2, 2013

Brokeback Yogi. ~ Erica Leibrandt

I imagine myself in the womb, an aquatic jellybean, waiting to uncurl, breathe and standup straight and tall, reaching my hands toward the sun.

But even then, in my semi-formed state, there was a kink; or rather, several kinks. My vertebrae, the binding of the book that was my body, were crooked. If you’ve ever tried to read such an ill-made volume, you know, it doesn’t hold together very well. Pages slip out and are lost, the cover becomes detached and the whole thing seems to disintegrate in your hands like a knocked-down spider web.

It would be years before my condition was given a name, “scoliosis and kyphosis,” twin curvatures of the spine, one forward as you will see in a hunchback and two from side to side which were accurately called an “S” curve.

In my early youth, these abnormalities were not visible to the casual eye and the constant agony I suffered was attributed to “growing pains,” pains which I was told would recede with time.

They didn’t and by 13, I found myself locked in a full body brace. This brace did about as much for my social life as a case of leprosy and though it did untwist my knot of a spine to some degree, it left me with a strange relationship toward my body.

I thought of it as something broken, burdensome and somehow very separate from me. The bodies of my peers ran and leapt, climbed and threw and mine just mostly hurt.

I hated it.

As an adult, released from the brace, I started going to the gym and got in shape, but the undercurrent of my training was always punitive. I was disconnected from my body and treated it as an annoyance, the maintenance of which was just a daily chore.

After I worked out, I always treated myself to a cigarette. Sometimes, I had back spasms and I was unable to stand up straight for days at a time. Then, I starved myself so I wouldn’t gain weight as I tried to recover.

I went to my first yoga class because that’s what everybody at the gym was doing. It was in the sweat drenched spin room, with music from the step class next door making the walls shake.

I lurked around in the back of the class, alternately condescending about the idea of yoga as “exercise” and pissed because everyone else’s heels touched the floor in down dog and I couldn’t even get my legs straight. The only reason I went back was because the yogis looked good. Maybe I could look that way too.

I went back and back and back in search of that yoga physique. I was the irritating student who scoffed at breath work, rolled my eyes at the teachings, skipped savasana and refused to say namaste.

I just wanted a work out, for God’s sake!

Couldn’t we dispense all the hippy dippy bullshit?

After class I’d hurumph out the door, light up a smoke and swear to switch to Pilates instead.

Then the girl who taught the class I went to, left. I saw it on the schedule and figured I’d give it one last try. Maybe it had been the teacher who was so annoying, not the discipline. Maybe this new teacher would be less “kumbaya” and more “drill sergeant.” I didn’t really trust anyone who told me to be kind to myself.

I got to class early to stake out my usual place as far from the teacher as possible. When she came in, my spirit sank. Not only did she not resemble a drill sergeant, she looked as meek and mild as a country mouse. Slightly overweight, big thick glasses, plain brown hair. It did not bode well for my dreams of getting ripped.

After introducing herself, she mentioned casually that no student in the class would be allowed to leave before savasana.

“If you feel you won’t have time for it, it’s best to leave right now,” she said, smiling gently.

Huh? Maybe there was a little drill sergeant in there after all.

During savasna, I lay there forcing my eyes to remain closed. My body felt like it was vibrating with nervous energy.

“Who has time for this crap?” I wondered.

“Is it over yet?”

“Can I leave?”

“I have got to get out of here!”

I dreamed of cigarettes and get-a-way cars.

The teacher finally rang her bell, told us to move to seated and place our palms together.

“Yeah, yeah, namaste, wrap it up already,” I thought miserably.

But when I stood up, as restless as my resting pose had been, something had changed. Somewhere inside me there was a tiny silent space. I found myself smiling and holding the door for my fellow students.

Each time I went back now, that tiny silent space seemed to grow. Months and then years passed. One day my heels hit the ground in down dog. Then my head met the floor and my feet floated up just an inch or so in wide legged forward fold. I was doing a headstand… kind of.

My side crow became airborn. I reached milestone after physical milestone, my back hurt less and less. My smokes fell by the wayside, I stopped eating animals, I learned how to teach yoga.

I taught it and felt like I was home.

But then something started feeling bad. When I bent forward or did runner’s stretch, there was uncomfortable tension like a piano wire being turned too tight deep in the back of my left leg. I ignored it. I continued on a grueling schedule teaching up to 12 classes a week and practicing on my own as well. The pain got worse. Lightening bolts began shooting down both legs, and my feet grew numb.

Still, I wouldn’t stop. My husband begged me to go to the doctor and I refused.

“They won’t help me,” I said.

I hate doctors. Images of that brace and all the years of x-rays and adjustments stood prominently in my mind. Then, one day at the grocery store, I felt what seemed to be a searing electrical shock starting at my waist and raging all the way down my body. It brought me to my knees. I lay on the floor of the floral department and cried. After a few minutes, I managed to stand, limp out to the car and get myself home.

The doc told me I had herniated two discs and spinal stenosis and that I needed to stop teaching and try and heal.

“For how long?” I wailed.

The thought sent me into a tailspin.

“Who was I if I couldn’t teach?”

It was unthinkable. A darkness began to close in around me.

My back, again, always my back. Betraying me, at war with me, that essential pillar upon which the rest of my body depends— flawed, unreliable, useless.

I tried physical therapy, steroid packs and steroid shots. Nothing touched it. I was forced to take a leave of absence from work, found substitute teachers for my private students and wondered how long it would take for everyone in my yoga life to forget me.

When I passed my studio on the way to somewhere else, I turned my head and blasted the radio.

I scheduled surgery and continued to wait, in pain, every day stretching out interminably.

One morning, I was flipping through a bunch of yoga photos my sister had taken of me at Gilson Beach. There I was, in beautiful back bends and arm balances with a big smile on my face. But, I realized looking at them, that behind the smile, there was fear. I peered closer. An understanding washed over me. As much as my life with yoga was better than my life before yoga, I had still been disconnected. I’d been forcing my body to do things, not allowing it to.

I was afraid that, having found this one thing I could do, if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t exist.

I had my surgery six days ago and I’m still in pain. Maybe it will go away, maybe not. Just walking up the stairs is a major accomplishment at this point. I really don’t know if I’ll ever do a headstand again, but I am at peace. My body doesn’t define me. It never did. I get to choose how I live inside it, this falling to pieces old book with my story written on every page.

We have heard it so many times; yoga isn’t about the poses. I never understood that until now. The silent place inside that the poses helped me find is still in there, it always was.  It was my anger and my fear that was keeping me from finding it, not my bum back. That yoga teacher, long ago, in the lousy spin room being passed off as a studio had it right after all. I close my eyes and make a silent promise to her.

I will be kind to myself. I am not afraid.

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Assistant Ed: Steph Richard/Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: via Pinterest}

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