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 me get 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).
See the old lady pictured above, in the tacky, collared shirt, adjusting the guy in green in what looks like a Catholic (see cross) yoga class for old people (see all the grey hair)? My dear friends, I present to you: Noëlle Christiaens-Perez. On Monday, I am off to Paris to pay her a visit.
The story of Noëlle will emerge over the next few weeks and months here, but suffice it to say, she
tortured me and made me cry is one of the people who miraculously cured me of four years of chronic back pain. As many of you know, at age 27, while working as a professional dancer and yoga teacher, I herniated two discs in my lumbar spine, which caused crazy amounts of sciatic (or nerve) pain down my leg, and made even the simplest things — carrying groceries, sex, sitting through movies — super challenging. For four years, I did everything I could think of to fix my body: physical therapy, acupuncture, eating less pork and more Omega-3s, drugs, modified yoga, meditation, wishing on stray eyelashes. Finally I broke down and had surgery, but it was ultimately deemed a failure. All in all, I took my clothes off for more healers than lovers, which was nothing short of depressing, considering I was a single, twenty-something New Yorker. I did, however, discover one perk of undressing in an office rather than in a bedroom: you were happy when the examiner told you what was wrong with your body.
(This is the part where I’d roll my eyes, but this is all true, so just hold on a sec.)
A wonderful friend who had also had a back injury derail her life in her twenties pulled B.K.S. Iyengar’s iconic book, Light on Yoga, off my bookshelf. She turned to p. 170. (Dear reader: Go ahead, open yours, I’ll wait.) I didn’t know that anyone other than B.K.S. Iyengar — in nothing but his skivvies and his thick unibrow — was pictured, but there was Noëlle, at age 30, in Paschimottanasana, seated forward bend. Her face is being crushed into her thighs, because Mr. Iyengar is balancing in a quasi-handstand on her back, his hands scooping around her ribs.
They looked like a Chinese circus act.
Noëlle, I found out, was B.K.S. Iyengar’s first Western yoga student. We’re talking 1959 here, people.
When I met her in 2009 in Paris, she was 84 and living in a tiny flat near the Eiffel Tower, running the Institut Superieur d’Aplomb. (Have I mentioned that she’s French?) The whole thing was beyond strange — for now, I’ll just say that she was eccentric — but I was desperate. The kind of desperate that only comes after years and years of wishing you lived in a different body.
But after two months of intensive postural work, Noëlle got me out of pain. How? We didn’t do a single yoga pose. Instead, she re-taught me how sit, stand, and walk, and I felt like I had been reborn. On Monday, I’m going back for a tune-up and to conduct some interviews with her for my thesis-slash-book on the subject.
One day soon I’ll tell you all about it, because don’t we all want to live without pain?