It’s incredible how adopting a new practice can save your life. When I stopped surfing back in 2010, my life reached an all-time low. I’d been suffering for years with chronic pain but losing surfing was a death blow. I became almost forty pounds overweight, loaded on heaps of opiates, and required a cane to walk around due to my arthritic hips. I was living on 13th avenue but didn’t check the waves, or drive by the ocean for an entire year. I’d already lost so much: my job, sponsors, social life, well- being, and happiness. Not being able to surf was felt like soul strangulation. Being in endless chronic pain seemed, at that point, merely insult to injury.
Being told what you’re capable of doing by doctors can truly manifest into reality if you don’t question the validity of their claims. I’d put my faith in the hands of my doctors at that scary time and I, looking back, feel as though they just didn’t try hard enough. I’d been treating (and identifying myself) for Ankylosing Spondylitis, a nasty autoimmune affliction that causes widespread pain, arthritis, and even fusing of the vertebrae. Not a great prognosis, especially for someone as active as myself. My doctor said I should give up surfing. Gulp.
I was written a letter by another doctor at the Ankylosing Spondylitis study group I’d been participating in up at UCSF to inform Social Security that I was unfit for work and should be awarded Disability. I quit my job and was spending most of my days sleeping, surfing the internet, and stretching on the deck. I got to the point in which I’d had enough. I needed to take some action!
My mom told me about a “water yoga” class at our local gym–Inshape on 41st avenue– that she thought it might help me gently stretch my tight, aching joints and muscles in zero gravity. I was initially reluctant, but with some persuasive prodding from she “who knows best”, I decided to try it out. It was quite nice making the leap from random stretching to yoga in that heated indoor pool. I found the shapes that I was putting my body in were truly helpful and felt quite nice.
It was only a few weeks into practicing until the class was canceled, but I dragged my carcass into that pool every day, nonetheless. I also began to work out again. Within a month I’d lost 20 pounds. When I met with the hip specialist he informed me that Ankylosing Spondylitis was definitely not the issue; my arthritic hips were due to bone spurs on the head of my femur impinging the joint capsule, and there was a surgery that could possibly enable me to regain much of the athleticism I’d lost.
Suddenly, the darkness that had engulfed my life seemed livable. Successful surgery coupled with physical therapy would get me back on my surfboard, which would in turn improve my quality of life and social interactions. I began thinking of other ways I could manage my lifestyle to maximize my stoke. I thought of yoga again and got inspired. I decided that, once I’d adequately recovered from my hip surgery I’d start back up in a studio.
The surgeon had successfully shaved the bone spur from my femoral head and cleaned up dead cartilage. Because I went so long without knowing about the spurs, the cartilage loss was substantial, so they employed a, at the time, new technique called micro-fracturing. Basically, they fractured my hip in a score of places, where the body’s own healing abilities provided an enriched environment for tissue regeneration on the chondral surface.
In other words, the fracturing promotes blood flow to the area which produces a scab-like buffer in lieu of a sufficiently cartilaginous cushion between the bones.
In yoga class, I felt my worries scurry to the inactive realms of my brain. My nervous system was soothed with the deliberate yet controlled nature of my movements and breath, and the number of helpful shapes I could manipulate my stiff and sore body into for relief was vast. I’d been stretching hours a day before this, yet this guided union of concentration, movement, and breathing was like discovering a precious gem that had been buried underneath an outhouse…true sparkling diamonds in shit.
My first teacher, Janina, happened to be my close neighbor and wife to one of the older guys I looked up to in the water. Her sweet and relaxed personality was truly reflected in her teaching and I found myself eager to attend her classes. As I came to realize the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits of a regular practice, my spirit was invigorated.
For years I attended Janina’s classes, and as my interest and proficiency increased, I began trying classes taught by the other yoga instructors at Inshape. From there I tested out several other studios around town, such as Pleasure Point Yoga, Hotsource Yoga, and the Pacific Cultural Center. I’d never realized what a thriving yoga community we have here in Santa Cruz; it’s a beautiful thing!
I’ve been so inspired by yoga and grateful for its effect on my well being that I decided, almost a decade after my first class, that I wanted to devote my life to learning and living the practice that has served me so well. This Summer I signed up for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training with the fabulous Dawn Hayes, facilitated by Luma, located in Downtown Santa Cruz.
This series on How to Heal with Neal will document my growth as a student, experience as a teacher, touch on some of the most important aspects of my practice, as well as shine a light on the wonderful teachers and studios who’ve supported me thus far.
NEXT ENTRY-WHAT IS YOGA TO ME?