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.
When I was 26, I taught prenatal yoga. I knew absolutely nothing about babies or pregnancy, but I was already teaching yoga, my older sister was pregnant, and I was eager to channel my interest and excitement about my sister’s impending arrival into my life. The thought of having my own was not even on my radar, so instead I took a weekend-long prenatal teacher training. In three days I was certified, so I waltzed into a room full of pregnant ladies and proceeded to tell them what to do.
They were very kind to me, these women who came week after week for close to six months, folding themselves into odd positions I thought—I had been told—were good for them. The truth was that I had absolutely zero understanding of how moving through a sun salutation felt for someone who could smell the fries from the deli six floors down and across the street, or for someone with a foot lodged under her rib. We balanced and OMed and practiced bizarre “labor-simulating” exercises, in which the women squatted against the wall and, in yoga speak, I encouraged them to breathe through the sensation for a full minute (the length of a contraction, I had read). No one ever reported back about whether these exercises were, in the heat of the moment, of any help at all.
I loved teaching these classes, not so much because I wanted to be one of them but because these women were on the precipice of something huge and scary and wonderful and unknown with an inevitable ending and beginning—and I wasn’t. I didn’t need to worry about my water breaking on the subway, or of a long, difficult birth, or of an emergency C-Section. I certainly didn’t struggle through downward dog, unable to see my own feet, pondering the sleep deprivation ahead. Sore nipples and colic and an altered relationship with my husband never crossed my mind (mostly because the idea of having a husband at all was unfathomable).
All of this meant that I could sit with my legs folded in lotus and my hands pressed together at my heart, and with total unfounded assuredness, tell these women who were inching closer to the edge of the diving board that they were strong and capable and could handle it all.
And then I could leap up in my little body—all mine and unchanging!—and go on with my day.
Of course there invariably came a morning when someone wouldn’t show up. And then wouldn’t show up again. And again. And we all knew why: She was having her baby. How or when or who had appeared we didn’t know, and given that this was before the age of social networking and mass emails, we rarely found out. The silence around the birth was the most remarkable part. After months spent together, watching each other’s bodies morph week by week, exchanging complaints and tips, cultivating a community that was built exclusively on this common, I’m-so-glad-to-not-be-going-through-this-alone, you-have-that-problem-too? experience, one at a time, they would step off the precipice—on their own—and never come back.
Obviously they didn’t come back because this was a prenatal class, so they no longer belonged, but something much more profound had happened: Most of them were first-time mothers, so they no longer belonged in their old lives either. They had crossed over into another reality in which their lives—as everyone says but is utterly incomprehensible before it happens—werenolongertheirsalone.
Nine years later, I am on that precipice, and although I know more now than I did then about everything from the stages of labor to the dangers of Mastitis, the extent of this change makes no more cognitive sense to me now than it did then.
Yes, I have a wonderful husband and the pregnancy was planned. We have a car seat (but no car) and clean baby clothes folded in drawers and lots of friends with kids who are offering advice. My parents are here, cooking and freezing meals. I have spent months reading Ina May Gaskin and Naomi Wolfand Rachel Cusk and making choices—choices my mother maintains do, despite the fact that I claim to not know what I’m doing, add up to some kind of parenting philosophy already—but I do not think there is any possible way to wrap my head around the fact that a person (a person!) will come out of my body and the world I know will end and another one will immediately, indelibly begin. How completely the former will feel wiped out, we can’t yet know, but I see my friends waving at me from across the precipice, laughing and knowing and waiting for me to say, “Oh, now I see.”
Right now I see nothing. Or rather I see a whole lot of fleeting, made-up images that may or may not correspond to reality.
And more than that: the (perhaps arduous, perhaps joyous, perhaps terrifying) journey to the baby’s arrival—what my body is about to go through, and when—is a total, enormous blank. It is a story that will one day mean everything to me and my husband, but which no one yet knows. Never have I both wanted and not wanted to know a story more badly.
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.
The other day, along with the rest of the yoga world, I found out that OM Yoga Center is closing its doors after 15 years.
OM was where I got my first job in New York at age 22 (this was back at the old space, on 14th Street), and where I did my yoga teacher training in 2003 (at the new space, on Broadway). In working on my thesis/book about the back injury that ended my dance career, I’ve been writing about those early days in NYC at OM. Below is a tiny excerpt. (Eric, who is mentioned, was my first ever yoga teacher, a wonderful man and teacher who opened and runs Solaluna in Oberlin, Ohio.)
This little ditty begins right after my first class at OM. Enjoy!
For all the slick yoga practices I’d seen in that room at OM, there was no pretension or false gravity to the place. The digs were on the shabby side: inside both the studio and the foyer, white paint was peeling in thick slabs from the walls. Class cards had clearly been cut up into wallet-sized shapes with a pair of scissors. The whole place reeked of grease—grilled cheese and bacon and egg sandwiches from the deli housed on the first floor.
And then there were the signs around the entryway alluded to the place as hOMe. As humiliating as this sounds, the play on words worked its magic on a lonely 22-year-old wannabe New Yorker.
I hadn’t thought I could be a “real” yogi like Eric—a calm, sober ascetic—but these people were different. They wanted to move, to try crazy physical things, to strengthen and stretch their muscles, to breathe deeply, to quiet down, to rest—and then go on with their days, just as I did. Perhaps the effects of the practice would seep off my mat, but other than the hope that all those downward dogs would strengthen my arms, this wasn’t my concern at the time.
Not to mention the fact that, much to my amazement, yoga—this ancient, stoic ritual, which I had thought required arrows and diagrams and a loss of affect—could be fun. Not just eat-your-vegetables fun, but joyful, exhilarating, laugh-on-your-mat, I-want-to-go-back-for-more fun. Was I being disloyal? Was this really yoga? The class schedule read, OM yoga is a practice of flowing yoga asanas informed by precise attention to alignment and supported by the relaxed wakefulness of Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
What was “Buddhist mindfulness meditation?” Had we done that? I had no idea. But I couldn’t ignore how revitalized my body and mind felt. What did it matter what it was called?
After class, in the crowded foyer, I waited for the 6pm crew to rush in and begin ohming before approaching the cute boy at the desk who would later become one of my very dearest friends. “Are you hiring?”
Soon I was checking hundreds of frazzled New Yorkers into class. This meant that I could pay my rent and practice yoga for free, which killed two birds, as it were (although as a yogi, we didn’t talk killing). What I didn’t know then, however, was that the actual practice of asana was only a tiny piece of the riches I would incur from OM over the years: Within a few months, I would know everyone’s face and name, and they mine. New York was full of strangers, aggressive bodies trying to take your seat on the subway or cut in front of you in line at Rite Aid, but people exited the elevator on 14th Street and smiled. They were happy to be there. (Of course many first-timers were scared, too, but they usually came out of class feeling better.) Here was my New York family. This family—unlike my own biological one—put the body at its center, as its driving curiosity, its reason for being. OM became a sort of Cheers, me its sober, friendly bartender, dishing out the drug, at $15 a pop.
Of course, later, when I had been in New York and at OM a while, I found out the truth: that people could surprise you with kindness at Trader Joe’s, offer up their seat on the 2 train, and be rude beyond belief at yoga, but for now, I chose to believe that sitting behind that shabby desk or on my mat behind a closed door, I had stumbled upon a little patch of magic.
When I excitedly called my parents to tell them the good news—I must have reached them from a corner payphone because there was an awful lot of noise in the background and I didn’t yet have a cell—my mother paused, then in her overly fretful voice said, “You’re working at a yogurt shop?”
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: NoëlleChristiaens-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 miraculouslycured 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?