I know how lucky I am to have survived a near-fatal pregnancy 17 years ago. I know that most women who go as far over the edge as I did with eclampsia-turned-HELLP-Syndrome don’t make it out of the ICU alive.
Six weeks and 203 pints of blood after my ordeal began back in 2000, I was discharged from the hospital – a “miracle” by some standards. But there was a long-term price to pay for beating the medical odds and that bill came due about seven years ago.
During all the internal hemorrhaging a decade earlier, a necrotic process had taken root in my major joints – ankles, knees, hips and shoulders – resulting in difficulty walking, chronic pain and several labrum and meniscus surgeries.
I was also diagnosed with an autoimmune illness similar to Rheumatoid Arthritis (Ankylosing Spondylitis) and began giving myself weekly injections of low-dose chemotherapy to keep my inflammation levels under control. I ate my vegetables, drank my kale juice, and limited my pizza intake. (I’ve had a lifelong love affair with dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella.)
But I was in denial – deep, deep denial – about the inevitable deterioration of my major joints when it was determined that pretty much all of the cartilage was gone from my shoulders…and then ankles…and then knees (the hips are still working hard to hold their own). I made it bone-on-bone for several more years. I swam. I did a gentle-but-restorative form of yoga known as Kaiut. (Most of the positions are done sitting or lying on the floor, so Kaiut is perfect for me.)
I assured myself that my Kaiut yoga practice would save me from having to undergo the 5-8 joint replacements that my orthopedic surgeon warned me I’d eventually need. He said I’d know when it was time. I bet him ten bucks that I’d avoid all replacements through yoga. He said he hoped I was right.
Turns out I was wrong.
In January of this year, I was finally able to admit that I did, indeed, need to begin the process of replacing my major joints one by one or else face the rest of my life in pain and, most likely, in a wheelchair. I began with the knees, six weeks apart, this past spring. It was as (temporarily) hellish as I had been warned. But I am convinced that all that Kaiut yoga – while it didn’t allow me to avoid joint replacements – did, in hindsight, help me prepare for them. And that was good enough for me.
Five weeks after my second total knee replacement, I received a text from Jeff, the owner of my favorite yoga studio, who is also my favorite Kaiut instructor. He offered to give me a free private lesson if my husband could get me there. (I was still unable to bend my newest knee enough to drive myself.)
We arrived three days later for that session. To say it was amazing would be an understatement. Jeff walked me through a series of poses, all of them lying on the floor with my feet on the wall. I was shocked at how much I could do even with the limitations of surgery. Two days later, I was back in class on a regular basis.
The sequence of Kaiut poses changes every two days, so I am never quite sure what each class will entail, let alone how much of it I’ll be able to do. But I love being there anyway if only to soak up all the good yoga vibes.
To get on the floor at the beginning of each class, I stack four bolsters against the back wall, sit on them and then slide the rest of the way down. At the end of class, Jeff and someone else hoist me up to standing by my elbows (my shoulders being too deteriorated to be pulled forward by my hands). If there’s a standing pose or a pose done on all fours, I do Legs Up the Wall instead.
Today, sandwiched between my husband and a pal, I heard Jeff give the cue to get on all fours. As I prepared to put my legs up the wall, I began to wonder if I was deluding myself in thinking that I could actually regain full mobility, imagined that I might be headed for a wheelchair regardless of how many joint replacements I get. Almost immediately I heard a very loud, very insistent voice in my head yell, “I REJECT THAT!”
And then I got mad. Mad at my medical circumstances, but madder at my lapse in optimism. And that was the moment I decided to try getting on all fours.
I rolled sideways from the bolster I was sitting on to another bolster as padding for my knees. I wound up diagonally across my mat, my hands on my husband’s mat and my feet on my friend’s mat. The thought of shifting my body and bolster so I was facing forward seemed too difficult, so I stayed put. They didn’t care. They could tell this was something big for me – my first attempt at putting weight on my new knees, now 10 and 16 weeks old. Trembling, I pulled another bolster under my arms and leaned forward, breathing heavily, straining to hold the position, catawampus though it was. My heart raced as if I were sprinting, but I was determined to hold my amended position as long as the others in class were sitting back on their heels.
As soon as Jeff said, “Now come out of the position and stand,” I flopped onto my back as if I’d just finished a marathon, ready to give myself a nice long Legs Up the Wall break. But no sooner did my ass hit the floor than Jeff was over at my side saying, “Nope, I want you standing too, Lauren. You can do this.”
My first three weeks back at yoga class, Jeff had let me do pretty much whatever I wanted, taking breaks as needed and ignoring the poses I couldn’t yet do. Standing poses – I assumed Jeff understood – were off limits given my crappy ankles, but this morning, he decided otherwise.
I’ve been working with Jeff for just over two years now, so he knows my mobility issues well. He asked my husband to help hoist me to standing and had me – and everyone else in class – move right into a pose facing the wall. That got me breathing even harder, my body having atrophied over the previous three months of recovery and heavy pain medications. At times, I couldn’t even keep my hands on the wall, letting them fall at my side while I leaned against the wall with my head (definitely not part of the pose). When we were finally instructed to release the pose, I was exhausted, but in the best of ways.
I hadn’t strained like that in my 2+ years of having a consistent Kaiut yoga practice, and I have to say IT FELT AWESOME! Not because I had strained, but because I had overcome my own mental block. That one yoga class this morning was more powerful than any of the physical therapy sessions I’ve had to date.
While yoga’s goal is typically inner peace, sometimes the goal should be discovering what you’re capable of by being challenged to go beyond your self-created limitations.
Namaste, Jeff. Namas-freakin’-te! Woot woot!