In the fall of 2008 I moved to Münster Germany to live with my German girlfriend at the time. I had a three-month visa and my plan over those three months was just to spend time with her, visit my brother studying abroad in Sweden and a friend studying in Rome. During my time in Germany I travelled to Oberhausen to visit some relatives. Oberhausen is a flat industrial area in Northwestern Germany that was a target of bombing in the Second World War. My two cousins Tobias and Davide took me to an old steel mill factory that had long been closed. Our plan was to hike up the factory to get a view from the top, which on a clear day you could see for a ways over the flat ground that extended far beyond the factory. That day, November 23 2008, was a grey cloudy day and we would not make it up to the top of the stairs.
There was an area of the abandoned factory that had been converted into an outdoor climbing area. Hand placements had been chipped into the brick and concrete walls, as well as bolts fastened into the wall to hook onto and belay down. We came upon several walls that were about 30 to 35 feet straight up. My cousins told me there used to be a train station that was connected to the factory that would transport the steel and coal out of Oberhausen. We speculated where we were standing was a storage unit for train carts. In this converted climbing wall I saw a path up the wall that would be easy for me to climb. My plan was to climb up to the top of the wall, walk along the top and take the stairs back down to the ground. As a kid I grew up climbing everything I could. I climbed all the trees in my childhood backyard, as well as the trees and boulders out in the hills where I grew up. When I went off to college in Northern California there was a cliff side I’d free climb up and down at the risk of my life, for a fall there would have spelled certain death. The wall I was looking at in front of me would be an easy task.
I started up the wall and for the very first time ever climbing anything, I had a gut feeling in my body that I shouldn’t be climbing up the wall. I ignored my gut instinct and kept going up. In no time I was at the top, but not the top of the wall. I was at the last notch chipped into the wall, and what I couldn’t tell from the bottom was that there was another several feet of distance between the last hand grip and the actual top of the wall. I was still too far from the top to be able to grab the edge and pull myself up top. My only option was to climb down the wall, which freaked me out because I couldn’t see where to place my feet because the holds protruded into the wall and not out of the wall. Back home in California I was use to climbing natural things, not man made objects. The cliff side I was used to climbing had protrusions to grab onto, which had their own risk of coming out of the hillside, but were easier to navigate going down. Being a California kid, the other thing I did not anticipate was how cold my hands would become while climbing this wall. The concrete wall was cold to the touch but I didn’t realize that stopping at the top of the wall and keeping my hands in one position pressed against the stone would make my fingers absorb the cold so that I lost feeling in my hands. Having numb fingers made the concept of going down the climbing wall even scarier.
After a minute or two at the top realizing my situation I asked my cousin Tobias to go up the stairs and walk along the top to where I was and see if he could reach down to help pull me up. He did that and by the time he got to me my hands were really numb. He reached down to me but he wasn’t able to reach far enough. I had to make a jump to get to his hand. The idea of going down without being able to see where to place my feet and with numb hands with no sensation of grip in them, felt like an impossible task. I made a desperate lunge up to reach his hand.
Thankfully I didn’t reach his hand because I probably would have just pulled him over the edge headfirst. I remember very clearly as I began falling the only thought I had was: “This will be interesting,” followed by the physical sensation free falling straight down. I don’t think I expected to die because I wasn’t scared when I was falling, but I did realize the extreme danger of hitting my head on the ground. Hitting the ground landing on my feet, my knees bent and I hit my chest on my knees and collapsed forward and rolled onto my back. I didn’t feel much pain and laying on the ground of pebbles my first reaction was to stand up. My cousin Davide was running towards me telling me not to stand up. I knew that he was right, so I just lay on my back and moved my legs to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed. I was relieved that I could still move my legs but my fingers still felt frozen.
I was in pain but not as much pain as you would think. I had a vice grip of pressure and some pain around my lower back, but it didn’t hurt too much if I didn’t move. The pressure was much greater than the pain. I felt like something was crushing me. I had landed on pebble like loose gravel that was placed there, meant to disperse and soften the impact of landing on the ground. I had a little scratch on my forehead where I had hit the ground after collapsing from my feet; luckily my head was fine. I believe that it is because of this gravel that I didn’t die. I will say that if it had been concrete on the ground I never would have climbed up the wall to begin with. An older couple that had been out for a walk and had stopped to watch the whole event take place had called for help as soon as I had fallen. It didn’t seem like more than ten minutes on the ground and I was being strapped onto a carrier and put into a helicopter.
After getting into the hospital and going through x-rays, the diagnosis was that I had a compression fracture on my 4th lumbar vertebra. The procedure to fix the shortening of the vertebra is to drill into the bone and insert a balloon that is then blown up to make the bone expand and calcify at its normal size. Luckily the doctors didn’t think I needed this procedure and instead thought the best course of action was rest and recovery with a back brace. I was measured for a spinal cast. This cast went around my belly with a brace running up the front of my torso and onto my sternum that prevented me from bending forward. The cast could come on and off and I only wore it when I was standing or sitting. I’d spend about a month in the cast.
The real pain of fracturing my lower back came in the hospital while lying on my back and other times when I’d move a little too quickly or reach a little too far for something. Especially at night in the middle of my sleep I’d be woken up in extreme, sharp pain. The night nurse who didn’t speak any English would have to come into the room and give me an injection in my belly with a long needle. Since she and I couldn’t communicate I assume it was probably morphine because I’d become super relaxed and be able to slowly go back to sleep. Due to the week in the hospital and months of recovery afterwards, I really perfected the ability to sleep on my back. This is a skill I still use to this day because you wake up less stiff than when you sleep curled up in a ball.
I am forever grateful to my girlfriend at the time who helped take care of me after my injury. Since I was in no shape to travel home for a while I got a medical extension on my visa. I spent a total of just under six months in Germany. For the three months in Germany after my injury I spent my time doing physical therapy and slowly building up to walk further and further distances. It took me about a month to walk a mile. I’d go walking to the parks and the lake in Münster, a cute college town with old Cathedral buildings. In the fall the leaves were yellow, in the winter everything was a white wonderland and in the spring when I left things were starting to turn green. By the time I left Germany I was back to being capable of riding a bicycle around town.
When I came home from Germany, three months after my injury, I started a job at a nightclub in San Francisco and was commuting 20 miles each way. I had to quit the job because of the driving. At that time sitting was still the worst thing for my back and I couldn’t maintain a seated posture for very long. I knew I needed something to help my back beyond just rest. This led me to a chiropractor that practiced a chiropractic system called the Pettibon system. The Pettibon system started with warming up my spine with spinal rotations, followed by chiropractic adjustments, then a device that vibrated at a high frequency which the chiropractor would run up the back of my neck and the back of my cerebellum (the back of the brain). The cerebellum controls the movements of the body and the body’s proprioception. Proprioception is the mind’s subconscious awareness of the body in space and time. It allows you to know where your body is without visual feedback and is necessary for many of life’s basic movements. The idea behind this technique is to temporarily disconnect the mind’s connection and proprioception to the body so that as the cerebellum begins to reconnect to the body you begin to learn and hardwire the new alignment of the spine. During this time of the mind-body connection being re-established you walk around wearing weights strapped to your head to strengthen certain aspects of the neck and spine to best realign the spine. Since proprioception is plastic it is malleable to change. What this means is that if you slouch or have bad posture, over time your mind begins to realign this tilt as straight up, so that when you actually stand up straight you get the neural feedback that you are leaning backwards. Think of an x and y axis like you learned in geometry class. Over time the y-axis begins to get tilted forward as the new straight line. The good news is that since proprioception is plastic and subject to change, you can train it to relearn to the correct alignment.
While the Pettibon system did teach me to stand more upright with my shoulders back instead of hunched over and pronated forward, I definitely would not give the Pettibon system credit for fixing my posture. For that I would credit yoga and my own constant vigilance to not slouch. It would not have mattered how many times I went through the Pettibon system if I spent the rest of my time in bad posture and didn’t work to strengthen my spinal erectors. Yoga helped me by improving my spinal and shoulder flexibility, strengthening the muscles involved in my posture, and most importantly improving my constant awareness of my posture. The combination of more flexible shoulders and back, stronger postural muscles and a greater awareness of my posture allowed for the natural kyphotic and lordotic curves of my spine to increase. This in turn allows the entire spine to bare the weight of the body evenly, instead of the bottom vertebra barring all the weight of the upper body. An example in architecture can be seen in bridges. The curve of a bridge distributes the weight evenly across the bridge, instead of barring all the weight in the middle and collapsing.
I had tried yoga a few times before fracturing my back, but I wasn’t yet into yoga as a lifestyle. Bodybuilding was my main passion at the time. When I decided to start lifting again it wasn’t much of a problem for my back. Bodybuilding has a lot of isolated exercises like bicep curls, bench press, lat pull-downs, etc., that don’t require too much twisting or torqueing from the lower spine. However, if I swung my bodyweight in a movement or used momentum I could feel it in my low back. I could work around this since I’ve always focused on controlled movements. I still had to be extra cautious when squatting and deadlifting, which were two exercises that I had to go light on for a while and be extra mindful in every rep not to lose the contraction and length in my low back. I did a lot of low back extensions and core work to build up the muscles around my lower back.
Prior to my injury I had enjoyed yoga the few times I had tried it due to its physical challenges. After the injury, I slowly began to realize that I needed more yoga as I began to grow more and more stiff in my spine, hips and shoulders. I started doing yoga once a week at the gym I was working out at. After about of year of this I slowly decided to expand outward and starting going to yoga studios. I did Bikram yoga for several months as there were several Bikram studios close to me. Once I decided to try out the studio YogaWorks, I found a teacher who resonated with me. I have been practicing with her as my primary teacher for the last 8 years. It was when I found my primary teacher that I really fell in love with yoga and knew that I wanted to teach yoga.
While I was no longer in day-to-day pain in my back, I still had a long way to go to help my body let go of all the protecting and stiffness in my lower back. My first priority for fixing my back was to improve my hamstring and hip flexibility. I’d show up early to class and spend five minutes in standing forward fold (uttanasana). By spending so long bent over reaching for the ground I was able to release my hamstrings, which would in turn release a lot of tension and pull on my back. I loved pigeon pose, double pigeon and seated tree, which helped me open my hips up. I needed side bending like parigasana and twisted poses like revolved side angle and ardha matsyendrasana. But my favorite pose for releasing back tension and pain was supta parivrtta utthita padangusthasana, translated as lying twisted extended hand to foot pose; in Western nomenclature more commonly referred to as supine twist. The ability to relax and extend my hamstring and spine while twisting out my entire spine was the release I needed. I love all the standing poses and inverting, but the floor poses in yoga are what really fixed my body and gave me the ability to progress into more advanced asanas (poses).
As I progressed in my practice and started to open my lower, I worked my way up to my shoulder girdle and upper spine. When I started yoga simpler backbends like ustrasana (camel’s pose) and virasana (hero’s pose) would cause jamming in my lower back and my heart rate to skyrocket. Simply leaning back while standing I could feel an immediate beating of my heart in my chest. I would come up from camel’s pose and be light headed and see stars. As I progressed in opening up my hip flexors and psoas in poses like anjuneyasana (low lunge) and hanumasana (front splits), deeper backbends that required more upper spinal flexibility became more available in my practice. Years later I bought a yoga wheel (a hard wheel 16 inches in diameter used to roll your back on), allowing my back flexibility to greatly increase. For a long time I had a limiting belief that because of my back injury I had to be extra careful in backbends and that I would never progress very far. My yoga practice had already shown me that I was capable of accomplishing poses that I never thought I’d achieve and I realized the same was true regarding backbends. I remember vividly in practice one day I realized that I would indeed be able to do lots of fancy backbends, and that it was matter of choice and diligence, both which I had in my power. I’m still no contortionist but to be able to stand straight up from full urdhva danurasana (full wheel) is a huge accomplishment for me. I’m getting closer practice by practice to achieving full kapotasana and full eka pada raja kapotasana. To accomplish such a deep backbend will be a huge milestone for me, a much greater accomplishment than the first handstand I nailed.
Now, instead of going early to class to warm up my hamstrings to release back tension, instead I go to class early to spend time warming up my wrists for inversions and my spine for backbending. While the areas I target to warm-up are different than when I started yoga, my methodology is the same. I find areas where I am stiff or sore, I find my weak spots and problem areas, and I warm up these areas first with simple movements so that I can be prepared for more complex movements. I’ve learned that to protect myself in deeper and deeper poses I need to create a balance of flexibility and strength to match the flexibility. I’ve learned that every day the body responds differently and to never reach beyond what the body is offering for that day. I’ve learned that despite a serious injury, patience and persistence will take your physical capacities far beyond anything that is even close within one’s current reach.
The real practice of yoga is to learn to apply effort but not to over exert, to aim towards a goal and to work diligently towards it but not to be attached to its outcome. Yoga is about celebrating where you are and what is possible in the future while finding equanimity with where you are in the past. Fitness in general is like riding a wave, at times you are on the crest of a tall and powerful wave, and at other times you are not riding any wave as you take the time to heal from an injury, or an illness, or consumed by work or social obligations. My wish is for you to also see that just as in fitness life is full of ups and downs, and to know that whenever you are down off the wave another wave is on its way.