Happy Friday! I’m delighted to be in Lenny today, with the story of how I healed from chronic back pain. If you want to go back and read Part 1 of the story on Longreads — all about my dance career — clickhere.
I’d love to hear all about your woes of pain and (hopefully) recovery.
We converged on New York City from every corner of the globe: from college dance departments in Ohio and Michigan and Minnesota, and conservatories in Florida and California and North Carolina; from Athens and Stockholm and Tel Aviv, and tiny towns in Brazil and Ecuador and Italy, all of us sweeping into Manhattan, that sliver of an island, from the outer boroughs for morning class. In our bags: cut-off sweatpants and bottles of water, tape to bandage split and bleeding toes, matches to soften the tape, apples and bags of tamari almonds from the Park Slope Food Coop, sports bras and tubes of mascara, gum, cigarettes, wallets full of cash from late nights working in bars and restaurants, paperbacks and copies of New York Magazine, and iPods for long subway rides. The bags weighed 10, 15 pounds.
My piece about dance, injury, chronic pain and identity is up onLongreads! Click here to read on.
A million Fifteen years ago (when did we all get so old?), I was a professional modern dancer in New York. A hundred thousand ten years ago, I got injured, and the injury — two herniated discs in my lower back — eventually ended my career.
I did everything shy of seeing a Shaman I could think of to heal, but nothing worked, until —
I went to Versailles saw a brilliant but terrifying yogini/witch in Paris, who taught me how to sit (see above) and stand (see below) anew. She also taught me how to dress like a real Parisian woman.
I just wrote about it for Racked. I’d be delighted if you took a peek.
Many of you know that I have a fondness for pools. Today, my husband and I decided that we are officially old to go for an early-morning swim. Arrive after noon or 1pm, and it’s impossible to not have a head-on collision in the water get across the pool. In typical bureaucratic fashion For some mysterious reason, 99% of pools in Vienna are closed for most of September and October (probably in order to clean a summer’s worth of crap out of them give the lifeguards some time off). As a result, we’ve been forced to swim at a pool in Germany at the very edge of the city. It takes us a good 40 minutes to get there. For New Yorkers, this is nothing, so forgive me for the complaint. But this is Vienna, and there is literally a pool up the street. If only it weren’t closed forever under construction until 2014.
After we did our laps and were feeling smug for having gotten off our fat asses stretching on the side, I noticed something sweet as can be: A group of 10 or so middle-aged women were learning to jump off the diving board.
Now, if I’m being generous, this diving board was about half a foot two feet off the ground. We’re not talking about Greg Louganis here. The gaggle of ladies lined up like they were in nursery school, and one after the other, sort of…fell into the pool. They even had a special preparatory stance: Arms out to the side, legs scissored open. Most of them stood on the board, looked out at their shivering cohorts in horror — how I can I possibly do this? — opened their limbs, took a big breath in, sealed their mouths shut, and slid into the pool. Or crashed into it. One woman, who was wearing pants, a dress and a bathing cap, got onto the board, stood there for some time mulling it over, dismounted, watched a friend jump in, and then tried again. On the second go, she made it into the water.
They were so pleased with themselves! So proud, as they got in and out of the water, in and out, in and out.
It got me thinking about being bold — about taking physical risks. Of course I don’t know the first thing about these women, but I cannot imagine that there was some vital reason that they learn to jump off a diving board at age 40. But they were doing it anyway.
Because of my back injury, I’ve taken very few physical risks in the last few years. At first this was earth-shattering frustrating. I loved trying the hardest yoga poses, the weirdest, most exhilarating partnering, leaping higher, faster, more boldly. The bruises on my elbows and scratched knees were proof. And then I just…couldn’t.
In the last few weeks, I’ve rolled out my yoga mat for the first time in over 5 years. And I’ve practiced the most rudimentary poses you can imagine taken some real risks. The practice lasts about 12 minutes looks nothing like it used to when I could last more than 12 minutes balance on my hands, but I am spreading my limbs, and taking a big breath in (and out). There is no reason for this. Just the willingness to jump in again.
I promised I’d be back telling you about my visit to Noëlle, the Spine Whisperer, so here I am, belatedly. This post will be in two parts, because we all know what short attention spans we have when it comes to blogs how busy we are!
A short recap:When I flew from New York to Paris to see Noëlle in 2009, I was 31 and at my wit’s end. I had had microsurgery for two herniated discs in my lumbar spine, done numerous rounds of unsuccessful cortisone shots, years of physical therapy, acupuncture and massage. I had ingested enough Aleve to wonder why I didn’t yet have an ulcer. And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, too many hacks healers had seen me in nothing but my undies.
Six months after my surgery, when I felt worse than I had before he cut me open, my surgeon, who I thought really overused his hair gel was a perfectly lovely man, said, “You’re the patient I wake up at 3am and worry about. There is always one.”
Let me tell you: You might want to kill your doctor at that point don’t want to be that patient. So when my friend Alison told me about Jean Couch at The Balance Center, and then both Jean and Alison told me to brace myself to be yelled at in French that not all was lost (!!!), I packed up my bags and headed to Paris.
I’ve already told you that Noëlle was Iyengar’s first Western yoga student and that she appears in Light on Yoga. But what I didn’t tell you was this:
For twenty-plus years,Mr. Iyengar journeyed back to Paris to teach Noëlle’s growing crew of yoga students, but after watching them struggle through standing poses, inversions and backbends, he’d bark the same few words at her:
DON’T YOU SEE THAT YOUR STUDENTS AREN’T ON THEIR AXIS?
She didn’t understand what he meant—they were doggedly following his every instruction, after all. But then she slipped her bare feet into her master’s shoes and realized how deeply sunken the leather under the heel was. In his everyday life—and while practicing standing postures—Mr. Iyengar’s weight came pouring down through his two broad calcaneous bones.
When Noëlle let her weight sink into the soft grooves of her teacher’s shoes, the rest of her body followed suit, like a surfer adjusting to the sudden swell of a wave. The most significant shifts occurred in her pelvis and spine—her pelvis was forced back in space (as though she were preparing to sit in a chair, or the opposite of “tucking”), and her spine, that delicate string of vertebral beads leading up to her skull, had to wander up out of the pelvis in a fresh and unfamiliar way…
In other words, she’d have to — wait for it — stop tucking.
With this half-baked discovery, she set out on a new quest. Without abandoning her loyalty to Iyengar’s teachings, in 1982, she journeyed to Setúbal, Portugal and spent the next several years studying a small group of stevedores. These men—including one named Miguel, who, simply by example, would become her new Aplomb teacher, as well as her future husband—carried loads of fish in buckets on their heads from the fishing dock to the factory every day. Each trip was over a mile long and involved steep steps. Surely people who carried buckets on their heads without dropping any fish must know something about proper alignment, she reasoned.
Here’s where Noëlle’s brilliance came in:In order to practice any of the yoga postures correctly, she realized she’d have to take a step back. Before learning to balance on her head, or fold in half, she’d have to understand this first: how to sit and how to stand.
This discovery helped meget out of pain.
Tomorrow I’ll give you a rudimentary lesson, so come on back for some instruction. But if you’re dying for more info THIS INSTANT, watch these videos put together by my brilliant American teacher, Jean Couch(who also studied with Iyengar, but was one of Noëlle’s first students).
Seriously, don’t even bother getting jealous, because here’s all I’ve seen: the inside of an apartment; my computer screen; the rain. The timing of this trip is a little wonky due to a tight deadline for a piece I’m super excited about—news on this later—but suffice it to say, one doesn’t come to Paris to see one’s own words being written and then deleted on a screen.
In the span of three days, I have managed to eat one croissant and a sort of embarrassing amount of paté, so things are looking up.
Also, today I saw this insane osteopath, which is what I’m here to tell you about.
When I came to Paris three years ago in an enormous amount of pain and completely desperate for someone to heal me, the first thing I told Noelle was that I had had surgery and that it had been a failure.
“Don’t you have peasants back in the U.S.?” she asked. She said “paysan” because this whole conversation was being conducted in French, so this might not actually translate as peasant, but suffice it to say, I took her to mean someone with miraculous hands, but no medical training. In other words, someone who would be arrested for touching you back in New York.
Her “paysan”—who turned out to be an osteopath—came highly recommended, so even though I had been traumatized by a particularly bad one in New York who shoved his fingers where they shouldn’t have gone botched my X-Rays, charged me $500 and called me “sweetie,” I went.
M. Balard wore a loose-fitting blue silk shirt and black slacks. His brown hair flopped on either side of his head like a puppy’s ears. Like Noëlle, he didn’t care about MRIs or X-Rays.
The office windows that faced the bustling street were slightly ajar. I stripped down to my bra and underwear—the French don’t believe in gowns—and positioned myself on his table.
His approach was positively acrobatic: He twisted me into positions I was convinced would land me in the ER; he shook my pelvis in a way that even the most adventurous sex never had. One of the most scandalous maneuvers involved me sitting with my legs straddling the table while he stood behind me with his arms wrapped around my torso in a giant, backwards bear hug. Together we would curve to the right, forward and then to the left in a quick, rolling motion, like I was back in a modern dance class. I basically spent the whole session hoping he wouldn’t paralyze me.
He did five or six different crazy things, collected my money, and sent me on my way.
But slowly, I started to feel better, so I returned several times for more.
A week before leaving Paris—I spent two months working with Noëlle—I went for a visit. By then things were on the up—hours or a full day would open up before me uninterrupted by pain. I credited Noëlle and M. Balard in equal measure. My life—or, a life, for this didn’t resemble any life I had had before—was coming back to me. Happiness doesn’t begin to touch the surface of what I felt. Free at last was more like it.
“I need to see you one more time,” I said, opening up my datebook.
“No,” he replied. “We’re done.”
In all my years of forking over enormous sums of cash—and a little piece of my hopeful heart—to healers, never had one of them refused my money.
“Everything is in its right place now,” he said. “Now your body has to teach your mind how to not be in pain anymore.”
My pain pathways, he explained, were overdeveloped, so they would scream at the slightest disturbance. But when these pathways started to understand that there was nothing wrong—the bones and ligaments were now finally where they should be; I was no longer technically “injured”—they would learn to quiet down, and the pain would slowly recede. I literally just had to believe it, to convince my brain that that was true.
It turned out he was right.
So every time I come back to Paris, I go see him and we do our weird acrobatics. Today he told me, with a huge roll of the eyes and this funny “bof” sound the French make, that everything felt so much better than it had three years ago.
This doesn’t mean I’m never in pain—I’m lying in bed as I type this—but it doesn’t last, and I tend to still panic panic less. There’s hope.