By Ali Valdez
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” said the fair and boucle-clad damsel Blanche DuBois from the play A Streetcar Named Desire. This is a character built on the idea of her sheer survival relying on others taking care of her.
Well, I never really have.
I like people, but I fashion myself as self-reliant and independent. That’s my style. It is not easy to call up a friend, reach out and ask for help. I got a real taste of that the end of last year with undertaking a move that hit me with unfamiliar emotional weight creating the unpleasant sensation of fragility.
My whirlwind affairs this summer took a jarring hit when I was inspired to take action and remedy an increasingly painful compression in my lower back. This surgery was not new to me; I had contemplated it in the past but kept putting it off because it would mean stepping out of the physical practice of yoga and dealing with a lot of discomfort in recovery and it is a very high risk surgery.
Is there ever a good time when driving through life at one hundred miles an hour to pull up the emergency brake and not expect the car to spin a bit?
Surgery was great; efficient and effective. I instantly felt relief in my lower back. No more locking or forward folds dangling in vain. I was also on anesthesia and Percocet. But the reality of staring down the barrel of four weeks of limited mobility, brutal pain once the pain meds abated, and the inability to twist, sit up or even walk without assistance was a harder reality than the surgery or procedure itself. Swelling, reawakening of nerves or shotgun blasts of sensation firing at random inside my body made me feel like foreigner in a strange land. Luckily, I got by with a little help from my friends and family.
Being 100 percent dependent on others (including converting my antique Tibetan dorje bell into my “Help! I need to poop” distress cry and gridding the perimeter of my bed in clear quartz points ala Stargate) taught me a few things and surprised me as well, too.
Here is what I gleaned from the experience, and continue to do as I enter into a more mobile second stage of my recovery.
1) Family and Friends Will Reveal their True Colors. My family was terrific and some friends that I would never expect came out and offered meals, cards, flowers, and conversation making my recovery also a bit of a reunion. Getting the slower paced, I don’t have to be anywhere any time soon, quality back into conversations was nothing short of profound. They broke up the monotony of the recovery and prevented me from feeling sorry for myself. When I had to travel ten days after surgery (a huge no no!), I was able to get some awesome time reconnecting with my brother, his family, and my friends in Texas. Some friends never reached out at all; not even on Facebook to check in or inquire, even a few I would have hoped or expected to.
Perhaps at some point, I have played the role of the absentee friend. I admit on the other side, it stings a tad.
2) Don’t Underestimate the Capacity for Compassion in Children. I have had to have people clean and wash me, rewrap me, apply medicines, bring me ice bags, brush and dress me, camp out in my hot apartment at my beck and call and those people who have been graciously willing to do it have shown up in the forms of my seven year old daughter, fourteen year old cousin and seven year old nephew. This is no trip to the Space Needle, or movie night with Aunt Ali they have come to expect, but I cannot believe how floored I was at the doting, the caring and patience even little rabbits could muster up.
3) By All Means, RELY on the Kindness of Strangers. Maybe Miss Blanche was onto something. I still had an extensive training schedule in spite of the surgery and full recovery time of four to six weeks. It was not long before the reality of life set in and only one week before we were back to ‘almost’ business as usual (just with an icepack and brace plus Tumeric and naps). It was important before a big trip to Europe this fall for me to get my back fixed because it is the culmination of miles of those long haul flights that were creating discomfort. So the inevitable journey to the airport (several of them over a two week time span) came due and the only way my surgeon would even permit me to go, was my commitment to be taken escort by wheelchair. I have never been in a wheelchair. Even after surgery, still on anesthesia, I tried to walk out of the recovery room to the car and was halted if not almost tackled in the hallway, and relegated to the metal and vinyl chair. Nurses and people who work at hospitals are born caretakers; they make the business of human dignity and respect seem effortless, true.
But what about the mongrel hordes that comprise the summer travel crowd at the airport? How would I fare?
I made off like a champ, partially due to the incredible customer service from Alaska and United airlines and the airport service staff. There were times I got teary eyed because they were so nice, cheerful and made everything so easy. No one ever asked “why?” or looked at me funny because on the outside I look like someone who should be sprinting to the gate.
Now that I was out and about, I could see people noticing my tentative nature, the slow motion movement taking a step up and the slightly keeled over shuffling down the hallway and leapt in my advance to ease the way.
Simple things, like opening doors, helping escort or even carrying items were showing me to shit can the cynicism and embrace the beauty in humanity.
In the end, chances are when called upon, most of us are here to love and do the right thing for our fellow man. The Good Samaritan is still alive and well, flourishing in many pockets of our planet.
Sometimes the sweetest thing you can experience is gifted to you by someone you may never see again.
4) Enjoy the Art of Slowness. When you can barely move, there is nothing that is going to happen quickly. This is a great lesson in patience and being less in a hurry. Throughout my recovery, I kept thinking of that U2 song Running to Stand Still. There is nowhere to go, so ample time to contemplate, be in the moment, and not be in such a hurry to stuff one’s schedule.
5) Yoga Does Matter in my Healing. Although I did opt to have surgery for a non-yoga related issue, I want to evangelize the healing power of yoga. In my programs we teach all about anatomy, physical and subtle energy body systems. We teach about glands, organs, the brain, neuroscience, and other topics, too. People, including my surgeon marveled at what I was able to do and so soon. We also teach about the eight limbs, including nonviolence. Although I admit I was pushing the limit, at times had some concerns myself, I never did anything that I thought would reverse the effects of the procedure or incur damage.
But why practice yoga if it is going to mean a business as usual existence? Why can’t yoga enable the miraculous, the significant, the incredible because that is what the practice is touted to be. The effects of yoga and how my body works should enable a regular, serious practitioner like me the ability to accelerate their healing. This is not a message for the beginner or half-hearted practitioner; I offer this in light of the serious students who devote their life to the practice.
My surgeon remarked pre-surgery my condition was the worst of its type he had seen. He also saw me last week post-surgery and marveled at how beautiful the recovery has been. But I can say that the years of my yoga practice prepared me for the speed of my recovery and the ability to go above and beyond the usual prescribed path. Yoga is probably the reason I could go this seven plus years without doing something about my back and not be injured. I am not a doctor, nor am I suggesting I went into full drop backs the first month, but I will say like I would advise for any student, I made the right modifications to honor my healing and still do my work and be present in my body. When teaching, as an example, it was a new experience having someone doing the poses while I verbally instructed. When leading a lecture on Yoga Philosophy, I was seated part of the time when standing became too much. I always had meditation, Nidra and pranayamas and reading of texts to fulfill my yoga quotient so although I love the asana and am eager to get back, I never lost my yoga practice this past month.
I think the real yoga of the surgery was applying observation and mindfulness to its post effects and recovery time, taking responsibility for the healing and care of my body. Also I feel that my yoga was the splendor of seeing the best brought out in people and the value of family in times of need.
It’s easy to talk about compassion and living in kindness as a moral imperative for oneself; it’s something else being on the receiving end and being floored by seeing others operate in this expanded and beautiful way.
I live for the day I can do my Urdhva Dhanurasana and arm balances again; but I have loved the days surrounded by the acute awareness and sublimity that if/when in need, there is a community of caring and compassionate family, friends and cadre of passersby waiting and willing to be there for me. Thanks to everyone that has supported me through this process. I am so grateful to all of you. Namaste.
*My surgery story is shared in my next blog.