by Ann Chrapkiewicz
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If I had not broken my back 13 years ago today, we would not be here. At least not in the way we are today.
It might sound extreme, but it is true.
If you were in class last year on this date, you may have heard me tell the story. March 17, 2016, was actually the first time I had been inspired to share the details and the importance of that injury in a group setting. It took 12 years for me to fully realize how crucial the injury and the healing process were. Crucial not only in my passion for the yoga, but in my faith in it, in my ability to encourage those who cannot touch their toes, in my desire to learn and study and practice more deeply, and in my faith in the person who is sure this yoga is impossible for them.
And so the story goes….
In 2004, I lived in Ann Arbor in a most wonderful co0perative housing community called Black Elk. I was working on an M.A. at UM-Ann Arbor and had been practicing Bikram Yoga for almost a year. I had by that point nearly eliminated my destructive bulimic thought patterns with a near-daily practice of Bikram Yoga, and I was already signed up to go to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in Los Angeles that summer. My stress-induced poor breathing was 90% healed. And my ability to focus on reading, writing, and graduate seminar discussions had improved about 5-fold.
More deeply, I was also able to much better manage my sensitivity to civilization’s heinous destruction of habitats and abuse of animals, the earth, and any less-than-privileged segment of society. I was disgusted with American imperialism and oil-greed and quite emotionally reactive to it. Plus, I was a near-evangelical vegan at the time. (Luckily many of my housemates were, too; we learned how to cook delicious, multi-course meals for all 20+ of us most nights of the week.)
Back injury or not, I do not know how I would have survived the intensity of my mind at the time without Bikram Yoga.
Then, one fateful morning…
In a house full of artists, activists, and students, I was one of very few early risers. 6:00 am Bikram Yoga? You bet! I would be so focused and relaxed and energized for my classes later that day.
March 15 and 16 had been pretty pleasant – probably in the 40s or 50s. Spring seemed to be coming, as it so often does in these parts, even sometimes in January.
So at 5:30 am on March 17, I walked out of the side door and onto the long wooden porch with a bit of a bounce in my step. I was ready to start the day in the best way I could imagine.
I started down the first of the five wooden steps.
The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back, at the bottom of the stairs. I had no idea what had happened. Looking back, I am sure I passed out. I still do not remember the fall or the impact.
Can anyone hear me?
I tried to get up, but the searing pain in my back was so intense.
I called out for my housemates several times. “Can someone help me?” “Is anyone awake?” “Hello?”
I thought I might be lying there until someone else woke up. But that might be a few hours.
So, somehow (extremely slowly is how), I peeled myself off of the hard, cold ground. I noticed that the wooden steps were covered with the thin, nearly-invisible sheet of ice.
It did not even cross my mind to go back in the house to lie down. I moved like a snail to the car and put my body in it, one inch at a time. My lower back hardy let me move. Luckily, in the wee hours of the morning, there wasn’t much traffic to look out for; turning my head to one side or the other was nearly impossible.
“Just do what you can.”
All of this had happened in less than 10 minutes. I still arrived to Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor with many minutes to spare. Lora, the owner, was teaching that class, and I told her that I had falled on my way out of the house. She smiled, calmly, and simply said, “Just do what you can.” No added worry, just warmth and reassurance.
The next 90 minutes were an experiment with a new body.
My back was screaming at me when I was holding still. I could get my arms over my head – that still worked. Half moon to the right: I could move my index fingers maybe 2 inches right of center. And half moon to the left? Well, about a half of an inch before the pain got worse.
Then I tried the backward bend of half moon. I started going back slowly, not sure when it would start to hurt more intensely than my resting pain was. To my surprise, when I got back about half way into my “usual” backbend, the pain stopped. Completely. There I was, breathing….listening to Lora’s voice (“go back, way back, more back…”) and all of a sudden, I had a break from the pain.
Interesting, I thought. But then it was time to move on. The rest of the standing series is a bit of a blur, these 13 years later, but I know I was moving into about 1% – 10% of my usual depth. I have to say I didn’t think much about it. All I could do was respond to the sensations and try to breathe.
One thing I do recall is something that we usually call Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee Posture. What I was doing looked vastly different than the “ideal” posture.
Maybe We Should Call It Standing Separate Leg Chin to Chest Posture
The instructions for the posture – immediately following Triangle Posture – take about 30 seconds. In those 30 seconds, most people manage to get their forehead to the front knee, or at least pretty close to it. In those 30 seconds, all I could manage was to get my chin about 3/4 of the way to my chest. And that was difficult. I stopped and backed off when the pain worsened. And I had to suck in my stomach the entire time, or the pain doubled.