The Moving Crew

An Injury Teaches Mental Flexibility

By Susan Okie
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I took up yoga to cultivate balance and mindfulness, but one morning during practice I paid a high price for forgetting to attend to my body and its limits.

My husband and I -- both physicians -- were guests at a bed-and-breakfast. Too impatient to wait for my husband to finish using the one yoga mat we'd brought along, I assumed the wide-legged standing triangle pose on a slippery wooden floor, tipped backward and rapidly slid into a split that was way beyond my strength and flexibility. I tore a hamstring muscle high at the back of my right thigh. That slow-healing injury weakened the muscular support for my pelvis and, over the ensuing months, precipitated low-back problems: a herniated lumbar disk that produced severe pain down my leg, numbness and tingling in my right foot.

Over the past year, the process of recovery has taught me new lessons about body mindfulness -- and what it takes to return to physical activity. I had to give up, at least temporarily, activities I love -- whitewater kayaking, certain hard-won yoga positions -- and learn other ways of maintaining strength and flexibility. Although like most doctors I'm a control freak, I had to surrender part of my autonomy, recognizing that my physical therapist knew more than I did about what forms of exercise were safe for my back. Eager for quick results, I had to learn patience, accepting that herniated disks heal slowly and that setbacks, when they occurred, weren't my fault. Above all, I had to strive for a delicate, dynamic balance: brave enough to challenge my body with progressively harder levels of exercise, but mindful enough to back off if a new move triggered pain.Recovering, my therapist warned me, would require a willingness to change my lifestyle permanently -- walking daily, sitting for shorter periods, modifying my work space and driving position, strengthening and maintaining core muscles, and trying out more challenging activities one at a time, like a baby being introduced to new foods.

I've never been much of an athlete, and my efforts to recover have deepened my respect for what real athletes must endure in coping with repeated injuries that compromise their ability to do what they love. It's hardest to handle the uncertainty: I want to peer inside my spinal canal, watch what's happening to the disk, objectively measure the impact of the treatments I've tried, such as steroid injections and acupuncture. I want to know whether my back will heal completely and how long that process will take. I'd welcome a guarantee: total recovery in exchange for following some pre-specified regimen. Instead, like other mortals, I have to give it my best shot without knowing if I will ever be able to return to performing a headstand, sitting through a 12-hour plane flight, or doing the Eskimo roll in my kayak. Unlike thousands of Americans who suffer from the same condition, I'm fortunate to have been able to find and afford excellent treatment, and to have a job that allows me to adjust my activity level and schedule.

I may not be back to yoga classes yet, but I've come to see this past year as yoga of another kind. I may have temporarily lost some physical flexibility, but I've gained mental flexibility. I can apply mindfulness techniques learned in the yoga studio to Pilates exercises, weight lifting and even sitting at the computer. I can practice patience, testing my endurance during a brief flat-water paddle and hoping for the day when I can again brave the rapids in my kayak. I can walk on the towpath, enjoying sunlight on the river and savoring the knowledge that walking no longer hurts. And I can remember that listening to my body is a skill that will stand me in good stead as I get older and continue to look for ways to stay active and avoid injuries.

I won't go so far as to say that falling out of triangle pose was a gift. If I could, I'd go back to that morning and patiently await my turn to use the yoga mat. But the injury taught me that thoughtful preparation and paying attention to my body will help protect me, even if they won't always keep me safe and pain-free. I'll be back in yoga classes one of these days -- starting over at a lower level, adjusting poses, listening to my back. If I'm lucky, I'll end up not only physically stronger, but with a healthier respect for my body, a deeper understanding of my patients, and a greater appreciation of what it takes to exercise again after an injury.

No online discussion today, but you can send comments and fitness-related questions to Join us for the next Moving Crew chat Tuesday, Feb. 6.

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