The short answer? Grade 3 spondylolisthesis at L5/S1 and the loss of the disk between those two vertebras.
The Nitty-Gritty Details? Well… it all started in utero… J apparently I was born without the little bone that connects the L5/S1 vertebras. But, who knew?? I found out I had this condition in 2001 after my first Mysore trip. I didn't think much of it and kept practicing, getting further along in the series and doing more and more intense back bending. Then I got pregnant twice/had two babies and the hormones made things a little unstable…but still I did my backbends. “Yoga will heal,” was my motto. And I still believe it, but I approach that belief a little more intelligently these days.
I had my “come to Jesus” moment in early 2012. Back in my heyday in December 2011, I flew to Mysore, India for a 2 month working holiday with my two sons. We met up with my husband who had already been there for several months doing yoga and studying Sanskrit. The two-month visit was both amazing and overwhelming. I was working full time for my American employer, doing 2 hours of very intense yoga and extreme backbends, and also assisting in the yoga school after my practice for another 3 hours. I was getting little sleep but living off the adrenalin that was all pervasive in Mysore. I was also counting the seconds until I could approach my employer on March 31st, 2012 to ask for a sabbatical from my job. I needed a rest!
On March 2nd, I returned to the US, and on March 9th my back decided that enough was enough! Wooooweeeeee, I had never felt so much pain in all my life. During yoga that morning I stood up from a backbend (as I had been doing for 18 years previous) and I suddenly felt the flooding of the most intense pain radiating out from my lower back, up to my neck and down to my feet. I could not move and was stuck in a slightly bent-kneed standing position. Tim Miller, my yoga teacher, carefully lowered me to the floor. I laid there until I could get enough pain medication into my system to tolerate any movement and allow two men to carry me to the car and take me to the emergency room.
An MRI was taken and we discovered that I had a grade 3 spondylolisthesis (a condition in which a vertebra in the lower part of the spine slips out of the proper position onto the vertebra below it), the disk had degenerated to nothing and the nerves were severely crushed. “If this would have happened to you all at once, you would have been paraplegic, there is no question,” the surgeon informed me. “You’re going to need surgery.”
What did it all mean? No more backbends, no more working towards Ashtanga Yoga certification from KPJAY (I only had two months and five postures left of the 10 year process), and most importantly, no taking a sabbatical from a job that offered fantastic medical benefits!
This event in my life was definitely not what I had expected. What I also didn’t expect was that I would react to it in the way that I did. I am sure that all the years of yoga prepared me for meeting this challenge gracefully. I accepted it. What’s more, so many good things have actually come out of this. I am holding off on the surgery and still doing a daily yoga practice (without the intense backbends!!), which actually feels much better for me. Sonia Jones introduced me to Pete Egoscue who developed a system of gentle exercises that bring the body into alignment. While my condition appears severe on paper, these exercises stabilize and strengthen the correct muscles and I can manage the pain. Pete Egoscue also told me that one of the best things that I can do for my back is to walk with arms swinging! I have to walk at least 20 minutes daily. I walk on the beach every gosh-darn day, rain or shine, high tide or low tide. During this walk I also stop on the beach in a secluded spot and do a short meditation. I can’t express how this daily walk has nurtured my soul. That ocean is like the mighty healer that takes any fears I might have and turns them to glistening sunlight.
And as time goes by, my body continues to heal and adapt. I saw 3 surgeons and found one that I resonated with. He said just keep active, doing what you can, and come see me when you stop being so active because of pain and we'll operate! Yikes! Maybe I will have to have surgery one day? Maybe I wont?
Slowly, slowly I have managed to start back bending again but I don't ever wish to go to the extremes again or adjust heavy people. Those days are over for me and I am okay with it. I realize that this practice is addictive in terms of wanting to do more advanced postures. That is fine. It is natural for us to want to progress and go deeper. I did that and I went to my limit and I learned something very valuable. Now, I do what feels sustainable and I am having a lot of fun and being compassionate with myself. Plus, I now do other activities rather than just yoga. Aside from my walk on the beach every night, I dance, do stand up paddle boarding, hike and backpack in the most beautiful places. I didn't do these other activities very much before hurting my back. So, in many ways, the injury opened up my world and I am grateful.
I also have adapted my asana practice to remove some of the intense backbends and to do only those postures that feel supportive of my body. That really helps during the healing phases. Now, I can do almost everything I did before the injury except for extreme backbends. Sharath is fine with that too. I also am working with a handstander, which has been so helpful because it strengthens the core and takes pressure off the disks when you're upside down.
The main thing I have learned from this is that the body wants to heal and it will if you let it. When I said that I am doing all these other things, like dancing, etc. I am not doing them so that they compromise the yoga asana. I am doing them to express joy, fun, and life, and I now approach my asana practice in the same way, instead of like an athlete.
Soooo, that's me and it is not a very common situation so I would say just keep on keeping on! But do listen to any pain and discomfort because that is the body's way of trying to tell you something important. Be compassionate with yourself and try to find the place that actually feels sustainable. Also remember that we never know how the story is going to end. We can have plans and ideas about the future, but in reality, we really know nothing and have nothing except this very moment.