And The Evolution Continues…

The following piece is specifically intended for my monthly contribution to the gym I attend (where I have not been since early December!). In response to a photo on the gym’s Facebook page, I realized that my intense struggle with hip arthritis and the current recovery from my first hip replacement have resulted in a significant change in my outlook on movement and health.

Special note: Because this post leans heavily to the side of personal observation and insight, I here include a previous practice that reflects the theme of today’s writing. Thus, a reader may choose to try the routine before, after, or instead of reading the entire following discussion.

Now, back to the aforementioned photo, which read: “Exercise is a celebration of what you can do, not a punishment for what you ate.” Because these words crossed my screen at a time when I am homebound and tethered to a walker on which I carry a “reacher;’ unable to bend forward past the waist; and enduring extreme swelling in leg and foot, I reacted with a visceral power that surprised me.

If one were to cut off the end of the quote (i.e., “… for what you ate”), the statement certainly has applied to me in the past. As much as I cherish and am elevated by the true joy of movement, I also know that I sometimes would beat myself into submission through physical activity: I ran, jumped, lifted, danced, and shook away frantic anxiety, anger, or fear. When at a loss for what to do or where to turn, exercise was a trusty battle partner—one that I would send in to destroy negativity, but ultimately would bring harm to my body.

For the past 15-20 years, I have been essentially free from that mindset. Yet, when COVID struck at just about this time last year (March 2020), I became very anxious—despairing, even—over the loss of access to a pool. At that time, however, I was still able to take long walks and, despite the pain after each outing, I committed myself to 45-minute walks almost every day. 

That turned out to be the precisely wrong thing for my already deteriorating hips.

Cut to September 2020: Increasing pain and lessening mobility reduced the walks to 15-20 minutes.

By November, they were officially off the activity list. December was the turning point of no return: Most movement that involved placing weight on my legs, save for errands, was eliminated; only Pilates and kundalini yoga remained accessible to my body.

And then: surgery on February 19, 2021.

The recent days of early recovery and rehab have been eye-opening. At first, I worried that my usual vitality would send me through the roof: How would I expend pent-up energy, both physical and psychological? But the extreme state of a body that has been hammered and sawed upon (and filled with drugs) inherently diminished my fervent need to bounce around.

What was crucial to me, however, was the need to maintain circulation (to help with swelling and digestion) and overall positivity. Additionally, I learned that both anesthesia and the prescribed oxycodone place significant strain on the lungs. Thus, I began to create short practices to address both: lots of seated upper-body movements (culled from kundalini kriyas) and pranayama sets. 

By revitalizing and strengthening the body in this way, my spirit has entered a wonderfully centered and open-hearted state. My past tendency to use exercise as a weapon against all that troubled me seems now an unfortunate, misguided approach to the wondrous miracle that is the physical body. Now, the innate ability of the body to heal from trauma (coupled with outside aid) colors my every choice: If I do x, will it set me back? If I do y, am I introducing kind, supportive energy, or am I unfairly frustrated with my body?

At the age of 57, I consider all of the above to be a clear message and exceptionally generous gift from God and the Universe.

Movement, mobility, health, positivity: These are wildly phenomenal treasures that deserve—need—to be celebrated. And by doing so—for example, through exercise—one bolsters their quality and increases their presence. When “what you can do” becomes limited, think not of loss; rather, find the challenge and opportunity in creating a path for change. When the body falters, it needs you and your mental and spiritual strength: Give it, live it, and share it.

Silent Sundays: Fill With What You Will

Two days after a total hip replacement, I enter today’s writing with one thing in mind: Where once my hip held unresolved emotion and pain, now it will be consciously refilled with only that which will aid and better myself and others. 

In kundalini yoga and studies of somatic and cellular memory, the hips are said to be the storage unit for emotional “baggage.” About midway through my experience with hip arthritis, it occurred to me that perhaps the deterioration and subsequent loss of the “hips I came in with” was a truly divine gift. I do recognize that so, so many of the emotional reactions I have had throughout my life thus far are a direct result of previous events and circumstances. If given a chance to clear the clutter of long-past, unnecessary feelings from the hips, why not?

Given that the first hip to be replaced is the right one (read into that what you will), I have begun to hone in on the more aggressive reactions and emotions that have heretofore been part of my life. The right side is said to be the masculine side—aggressive, hot, active. (Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a debate about gender roles or traits.) Certainly, despite my overall mental and emotional stability, I have retained the ability to flare, to roil, and to strike when stricken.

This is not to say that I will never again become angry or defensive or vehement: My aim, however, is to fill the new hip with a solid set-point of kindness, beneficent strength, and peace.

Today’s suggested practice involves self-contemplation; seated auric clearing; pranayama; and basic mudra. The contemplative aspect introduces your own ideas into the practice: What would you remove, and with what would you fill the space of unwanted thoughts and feelings? Who would you be, base level, with that which you will into your life?

Then, when you have integrated your motivation for meditation, begin to clear the auric field around you. I have offered several previous practices for energy clearing: Fundamentally, if one does large, vigorous, multi-directional moves with the arms, the magnetic field is cleared of stagnancy, blockages, and negativity. If you are physically capable, allow the torso to join the movements; if you need to stay somewhat stationary through the core, engage the arms more powerfully. Actively move and clear for 3-5 minutes.

Then, with the left hand resting palm up on the left knee and the right hand palm down on the right knee, begin deep breaths in through the nose, and slowly, deeply, and fully through rounded mouth. As you breathe, align your breath with your “willed fill”: As you inhale, draw your intention in through the left palm; upon the cleansing exhale, envision all that you wish to eliminate through the right palm. Stay with this meditation, eyes closed and gazing at the Third Eye, for 11 minutes.

When you are finished, simply sit and allow the breath to resume its normal quality, or feel free to enjoy Svasana for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

How to Hang On–Day 30: This Moment

Today, I am immersed in duality.

Not wanting to move, but fidgeting incessantly; needing to complete multiple pre-surgery tasks, but tethered to online word games; nerves are kicking, but emotions are numb.

This dual nature is part and parcel of Life: in humans, in the environment, in politics, in socio-economics, in romance, in each and every one of us on many levels. Yet with duality comes dissatisfaction: One yearns to remain on one side or the other, to choose their comfortable spot. But as always, one must swing back and forth between states, which themselves are ever-changing.

And yet, my experience of this two-sided feeling somehow keeps me in the moment. As I wrangle with which way to turn, how to feel, and what to think, I can not bemoan or become nostalgic for what was; nor can I imagine or dream of what will be. I can stay only here and now, watching and waiting as my body and mind try to decipher their dueling nature—as I await a new experience, a new phase.

Whereas I have signed off from each day of the How to Hang On series with “’til tomorrow,” I won’t be doing that today. For tomorrow starts at dawn (or thereabouts), when I will be carted off to the surgical center by my best friend: The day will see me undergo my first surgery, my first anesthesia, and my first new hip. The eve will be a “girl’s night,” with my buddy enjoying wine, and me and my body trying to understand what is going on through a drug-induced haze.

One thing is clear, however: I am fortunate, and I am grateful.

’TIl next time… 

How to Hang On–Day 29: Prep

Oh, goodness: The day after tomorrow will bring me a new hip…

And until that time, no rest for the weary!

Apparently, surgery entails not only appointments galore, but household preparations beyond belief. Today was Day 1 of the nitty-gritty: Start with pre-surgery nutrient drink (I lasted 3 sips); order the “hip kit”—tools to help with dressing, reaching, washing, etc.; field calls concerning insurance and payment; move car into distant spot, so that other tenants can have “prime” parking during my non-driving weeks; and on and on it goes…

But more than once in the midst of all of this, I found myself marveling—yet again—at the abundance of gifts and blessings I have been receiving: not only during this challenge, but throughout my life. Those unappetizing, gag-reflex-inducing supplement drinks? How dare I complain, when a less fortunate person, somewhere, would surely regard them as bounty, The financial drain of the surgery? I can respond only with gratitude that my family can help. And the inconvenience of the tasks required to ready my apartment for post-surgical-me? Lucky to have a place to live, with help all around, every day.

Thus, as tired as I am, as precarious as my hip is, as drained as my energy reserves are: I feel astonished by the life I have lived… and the opportunity to begin again, with vigor and fresh humility..

’TIl tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 28: Breathe, Please

Now, more than ever, as the anticipated day draws ever closer, conscious breathing needs to be front and center. Even low-key excitement can shorten and abate the breath; when the mind gets hold of anticipation, the body reads “fight or flight.” In those moments, one must remind oneself to regard complete, calming breaths as a decision. 

As I marveled this morning about how still and even-keeled I felt inside, I suddenly realized that part of the stillness was the very little movement through my belly, ribs, and chest. When I scanned a bit further, I found that my breaths were far from full and far from deep.

Ironically, when I met with the surgical nurse yesterday as part of pre-surgery protocol, she mentioned the importance of breath in pain management. I assured her that breath work is familiar to me and part of my daily practice. So, when I discovered this morning that my breath had taken a back seat to thoughts of Surgery Day, I inwardly chuckled and lightly chided myself for the lack of my supposed discipline.

So, my light movement practice this morning gave way to a focus on pranayama. One of the simplest, most effective combinations I enjoy is the following:

Begin with chest openers: spinal flexes, arm swings (criss-cross in front), arm circles, and modified back bend or Camel Pose.

Sitting, place on palm on the belly just beneath the navel, with the other hand resting on top. Inhale into the cradle of the palms for a count of 4; exhale for 4 (breathing through the nose).

Repeat 4 times.

Continuing to breathe through the nose, increase both counts to 6; repeat 6 times.

Now, release the hands to the knees, left palm up, right palm down: Breathe in through the nose for 6; pause for 2; exhale long and steady through rounded lips for 8. Repeat 8 times. (The hand position and breath change represent taking in and letting go; this is a particularly beneficial breath when coping with anxiety or distracting thoughts.)

Close with a trio of breaths that alternate nostrils. Using the right thumb to close the right nostril, place the left palm on the knee, palm up, index finger and thumb touching. Breathe in and out through the left nostril, very slowly, for 3 rounds (no count). Change hands—left thumb closes left nostril; right hand lies palm up with Gyan Mudra on right knee—and repeat through the right nostril.

Then, using the right thumb to operate the right nostril, right ring finger to open and close the left, place the left hand on the knee, palm down, no mudra. Close the right nostril to breathe in through the left; close the left to breathe out through the right; then in through the right, out through the left. Repeat the entire round 5 times.

Finally, sit quietly, left hand resting in the palm of the right, with the hands in the lap. Touch the thumb tips together, send your closed-eye gaze up to the Third Eye, and breathe in and out through the nose. Stay here for as long as you like, allowing the body and mind to integrate the calming benefits of the pranayama.

’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 27: Stay Cool

Today was the final round of appointments before Friday’s surgery.

Yesterday, my low back decided to join the party: spasm deluxe.

I was concerned about driving, about walking, about standing, about waiting—would my back, hips, and legs keep me upright as I moved through this final, necessarily busy day?

For that has been my primary goal: walk into the surgical center upright, of my own accord (with the help of canes). To be so close, yet so far… that was the feeling with which I awoke today.

And yet: I managed. One foot in front of the other; one wobbly cane maneuver, then the next; one smile for the surgical nurse; and then another for the COVID test-taker. Each move along this baffling game board toward surgery demands, overall, one thing: Stay cool.

By “cool,” I mean centered–in mind, body, spirit: When body balks, move to mind; when mind meanders, shift to spirit. And when at all possible, engage all three—ultimate coolness.

Also, however, I am acutely cognizant that Cool abides vulnerability: I am learning how to accommodate that uncomfortable, unwanted state, all while staying connected to Cool.

’Til tomorrow…

Silent Sundays: Correction–In More Ways Than One (Or: How to Hang On–Day 26)

Back on Day 20 of the “How to Hang On” series, I made an error in counting–or so I thought. Consequently, there are two entries for Day 20, which means that every day after that is behind by one. Thus, today is Day 26 (although previous posts would suggest that it is Day 25). With that correction comes the topic of this Silent Sunday’s practice. When physical abilities become limited, one has to modify, i.e., correct for circumstance.

Yesterday, a friend was asking about cautionary protocols after surgery and during rehab. She ventured: “… And you won’t be able to do yoga.”

This is a common misconception: Many Western yogis view active vinyasa, “hot yoga,” or advanced Iyengar postures as the crux of yoga. As a former teacher and student of ashtanga (aka the original “power yoga”), I , too, was of that mind for several years. Because I was an active, athletic person overall, the quick pace and heat of ashtanga appealed to my energetic tendencies.

During this time, however, I also began studying Kundalini yoga. The mental and spiritual insight that I gleaned from the tradition was enlightening: Ever since, no matter my physical ability or mental state, kundalini has been a part of my practice. About 5 years ago, it became the core; when hip arthritis struck, it became my savior.

So, in answer to my friend, I was able to say that I never stopped practicing “yoga”: I, did, however “correct for” my increasing physical limitations. And, in so doing, I have realized that kundalini will continue to anchor my post-surgical rehab. Spinal exercises, pranayama, and upper body kriyas provide an energizing, clearing, and stabilizing foundation for my body, mind, and overall attitude. When pain subsides enough to allow, I add in movements to strengthen and soothe the lower body, i.e, the Lower Triangle of chakras.

With all of that in mind, today’s Silent Sunday offering is a sample of what I do and have done every day for the past couple of years: Even as my hips deteriorated to bone-on-bone status, I was–and continue to be–able to feed the following energetic nutrition to my body and spirit. This is the most recent iteration of the practice, which means that most people with upper-body mobility and the ability to sit and/or kneel can partake of the routine.

Always, every day, first thing in the morning–sometimes before donning clothes–I awaken my spine. Depending on what my body tells me, I begin on my back or kneeling: On the back, knees are bent, feet hip with apart; I then rock my pelvis forward and back, slowly and gently. Simultaneously, I consciously engage with the breath: inhale to tip the pelvis forward, exhale to retract it back toward me. Allow 1-2 minutes of this focused, warming move.

(If on all fours, similarly flex and extend the lower spine only, attempting to isolate the pelvis: inhale to lightly extend the lumbar spine; exhale to softly round.)

Then, I engage the full spine. On my back, I inhale to tip the pelvis forward; then, I exhale to begin rolling it up and away from the floor, incrementally continuing up the entire spine until I am in a modified Bridge. Then, inhale to lift the arms up and overhead to the floor; exhale to bring them back down, followed by the articulated roll-down through the spine–all on the same exhale. Repeat about 10 times.

(If on all fours, this would become a full Cat/Cow, flexing and extending through the entire spine. After about a minute, this would be followed by “Bird Dog”: extend the left arm straight ahead from the shoulder, while extending and lifting the right leg straight back from the hip. Take a full inhale and exhale, lower, and switch sides: Repeat 3-5 times on each side.)

At this point, I come to a seated posture. Typically these days (as crossed-leg pose is no longer comfortably accessible to me), I begin with legs extended straight out in front: When I need to, which is at about the 3-5 minute mark, I come into Rock Pose (or Hero Pose); I bolster by sitting on a block, feet pulled back to rest outside of my hips, tops of the feet on the ground.

Here begins another round of spinal flexes. At this point, having warmed up, the spine can begin to move more quickly and fluidly. Use this opportunity to ramp up the flow of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, both of which foster mental clarity. Inhale to open the front body with a deep arch through the entire spine; exhale to round and open the back body. Continue for 3-5 minutes.

Next, Sufi Grinds: Roll the entire torso to the right, making sure that the movement includes the pelvis. Inhale to press the spine and pelvis forward, then circle to the right; exhale as you round, tipping the pelvis back, and continuing the clockwise circle into the left side of the circle. Continue in this direction for 1-3 minutes, breathing deeply, and moving seamlessly; then, switch to roll counter-clockwise for another 1-3 minutes.

Now, I begin to engage the arms: Often, I have done so during spinal flexes; for the purpose of today’s practice, however, focus on each piece individually. Begin by clearing the magnetic field around you: Inhale to shoot the right arm straight up, fingers pressed together, palm up, facing left; exhale to quickly withdraw the elbow down to the side. Repeat quickly with the left arm: inhale up, exhale down. Continue rapidly, with powerful nose breath, for 1 minute.

Without a break, alternate the arms up and out to the sides at a 60-degree angle; both palms face inward, toward each other. Same speed, same breath: Continue for 1 minute.

Again, continue immediately: alternate arms up and out in front of you at 60 degrees. This time, the palms face downward. Move vigorously for 1 more minute.

From here, slowly slide out of your seated posture, and come onto the belly. With legs straight or bent at the knees, prop up onto the forearms. Breathe here in Spinx Pose, in through the nose, out through the mouth for 1 minute. Eyes may be closed, focused on the Third Eye.

Then, place the hands under the shoulders, but not onto the floor: Your upper body strength supports the lift. Inhale through the nose, then exhale to rock to the right, rolling the left shoulder and chest further away from the floor. Inhale back through center, hands and upper body remaining off the floor; exhale to tip to the left, rolling the right should and chest open and away from the floor. Continue back and forth for 1 minute.

Now, help yourself onto your back. Extend both legs straight up and together: Inhale through the nose to lower them both a few inches; quickly exhale through the nose to retract them back to 90 degrees. The approximate count is 3 to lower, 1 quick beat to lift. Repeat 10-20 times.

Next, life the upper body and support yourself on the forearms; elbows are under or slightly ahead of the shoulders. Stay lifted and open through the chest, shoulders rolled back: Extend the legs out at 60 degrees, and begin Breath of Fire. Continue for 1 minute; bend the knees slightly to modify; alternatively, do one leg at a time, each for about 30-45 seconds.

You may remain supported by your forearms, or, if feeling strong, extend the arms out along the floor while keeping the upper-body lift. In this position, “bicycle” the legs out at an angle of 30-45 degrees. Continue the full-leg, alternating peddling action for 1 minute: Then, reverse (as if cycling backward) for another minute.

Finally, lower onto the back. If your hips and low back allow, bring the knees in toward you. Inhale, then exhale to bring the legs down to the left; inhale up to center, exhale to the right. Alternate for 5-10 rounds, then lengthen the legs out (perhaps with a bolster under the knees), and settle into Svasana for 5-10 minutes.

Happy Sunday…

How to Hang On–Day 24: Massage (Not What You May Think)

As a massage therapist, I am deeply aware of and committed to the value of most modalities of bodywork: muscular, circulatory, psychological, and overall vitality benefits. When it comes to massage, when—if ever—can it be too much?

Clearly, a physical massage takes place on a body that won’t be damaged by tissue or internal stimulation. There are numerous contraindications to various styles of massage; an educated, observant massage therapist knows and abides by these boundaries.

The “massage” to which I refer today, however, is not of a physical kind. It is one that I had never heard mentioned before this morning, when a sensitive, intelligent friend informed me of its existence. In response to my umpteenth thanks for her help, she took a breath, and ever-so-kindly said:

“A rabbi once told me: ‘Don’t massage an apology.’” She went on to explain that overdoing a “sorry” takes away its integrity, its depth, its truth. She used this rabbinical admonition to gently let me know that I did not have to “massage” my gratitude.

What a wondrous gift this was! And what a wondrous rabbi, wondrous friend, and wondrous circumstance: Without arthritis, without looming surgery, without the need for help, I would never have become acquainted with such wonders.


’Til tomorrow…

How to Hang On–Day 22: Wondering…

In Pandemic Bubble Life—lockdown, quarantine, self-isolation—the past seems illusory, the future is uncertain, and the present exists in a vacuum.

Is that really any different than Life eternal, pandemic or not?

I ponder this, because life when injured or ill exudes a similar quality: one of illusion, foggy memory, and hope for a future that may only mean more illusion and diffusion.

To be clear, these thoughts bear no sense of despair: Rather, they seek only to manage expectation and to nurture the spiritual dimension of existence. As bleak as it may sound, expectation inherently invites disappointment; attention to the spirit, however, fosters possibility and hope.

With that in mind, I acknowledge the way that I used to live, pre-arthritis, pre-near-debilitation. That recognition affords me the opportunity to consider the ways in which I  might change, the ways that I choose not to, and the ways over which I have no control.

Today, 8 days pre-surgery, I wonder about where I have been, where I will be, and if wondering makes any real difference. How does one submit to the unfolding of Life? For me, that answer has always  been to have Faith—in God, in the Universe, and in that which can never be known… until it is.

’Til tomorrow…