On this April Fool’s Day, I am nearly six weeks into post-operative (hip replacement) rehab. The more-than-3-year journey that led up to this point has taught me many things. When it comes to fitness and exercise, for example, I have learned that so much of what one considers a workout to preserve or bolster health is the fun, often advanced stuff. What is essential for resilience of body and mind, however, is fairly simple, yet nonetheless challenging, especially when one is compromised.
Special note: Although this piece reflects my experience with osteoarthritis and post-surgical rehab, the routine is an efficient, effective alternative practice for anyone short on time; needing a mental or physical boost; or looking for an “off-” or “sick-day” source of circulation and limbering.
Since my mid-40s (I am now 57), my favorite forms of physical activity have been swimming, walking, and kundalini yoga. I considered these to be “softened” versions of what I had done previously: biking, running, dance, and full-body cardio moves, often with weights. And throughout my 30s and early 40s, I was an avid ashtanga yogi: I taught, practiced, studied, and thrived on the power of the fast-paced, acrobatic, contortionist tradition. I will always revere what the form did for my stamina, mental stability, and fluid strength.
But as with so much of what a younger body loves, there comes a time when a reprieve or retooling is necessary. With that admission, I grin a bit, sigh softly, and slightly roll my eyes as I imagine my late father’s satisfaction: Finally, he would be thinking, she has seen the light.
“Moderation in all things…”
That refrain, stated outright and continually, was my dad’s siren song. As an enthusiastic, curious, stubborn young ‘un (and even when not so young), I heard those words as a dampening, strangling threat to my own determination to try everything, and to do it with gusto.
But dang it if Dad was not on to something…
While I can not possibly regret the joy, emotional catharsis, strong muscles, or mood-balancing that extensive, intense workouts provided, I do question the near-obsessiveness that accompanied them. And when my hips tried to call a truce in 2018, I shrugged and assumed that they would be fine, that my ways would prevail, and that we—my hips and I—would find a way to continue on as always we had.
Cut to 2020, and my first desperate need for cortisone, shot straight into the withered, crying hip joints. Even then, I would not quit: Movement had always been my mental and physical sustenance, and pain seemed no reason to doubt that.
But by December 2020, when even the forgiving water of a compassionate pool could not assuage my pain, I knew that my approach had to change. Although it was too late to save my hips, I vowed to be kinder to my body once the hips were replaced. I had a new mission: Move for the mind, move for function, and move with the gratitude that only the threat of immobility can engender.
So, here I am, having stumbled through the first month of post-surgical recovery; recognizing progress, as I simultaneously contend with the ever-worsening pain and dysfunction of the other hip; and deeply considering how I will move forward, and what those moves will look like.
The following practice consists of the techniques and exercises that I have found to be invaluable to recovery. As such, I have realized their place in any day’s routine, for any body, at any age: For hard-core fitness folks, they may seem simplistic; however, to forget the basics is to forget one’s human-ness. Engage with the moves as if they are as vital to your health as a long run, heavy-weight session, or challenging yoga class: They are.
Start seated, on a chair, on the floor, or in bed. Close the eyes, and breathe: Inhale through the nose as you feel the chest rise, and the ribs expand; visualize the descent of the diaphragm and its gentle pressure onto the organs. As you exhale, be conscious of the belly’s retraction and contraction, and of the diaphragm’s slow, steady rise into its nest beneath the ribs. Take 3-5 of these deep, focused breaths.
With the abdominals, lungs, and attention awakened, shift your seat to ensure that you are perched atop the sit-bones: spine and head upright and aligned, shoulders and neck at ease. With the hands on the knees, begin Sufi Grinds: Circle the entire torso to the right, allowing the pelvis to partake of the motion. Inhale as the body circles through the front half of the circle, tipping the pelvis forward; exhale to circle through the back cross-section, tipping the pelvis back. Make 8-15 circles, then reverse directions, moving counter-clockwise, for 8-15 circles.
From there, bring yourself to stand. Taking a cue from qigong, place the hands next to the hips, palms up: Inhale, and arch the spine, pulling the elbows back. Exhale as you flip the hands, moving the backs of the hands forward as you round the spine deeply. When the hands nearly touch in front of the torso, inhale as you turn the palms up again, pull the elbows back, and arch the spine. Repeat for a total of 10 undulations.
Now, extend the arms straight forward from the shoulders, parallel to each other: left palm down, right palm up. Inhale: As you exhale, shift the weight into the heels as you do a slight squat, only enough to feel the bends at the ankle, knee, and groin; simultaneously, the left arm rises 30 degrees, as the right arm moves down 30 degrees.
As you inhale, straighten the legs, and bring the arms back to neutral, left palm still down, right one facing up. Immediately exhale into the modified squat: This time, the right arm lifts 30 degrees, as the left lowers 30 degrees. Inhale back to neutral. Repeat the squats with alternating arms for a total of 10-15 times.
Still standing, open the side body with focused lateral bends. Again, this variation stems from a qigong move for the Liver and Gall Bladder meridians: These energy channels are associated with the clearing, cleansing energy of Spring. Stand with the right hand a few inches above the left: right palm down, left palm up—imagine holding a ball between the hands in front of you.
Inhale as you turn from the waist to the right. As you do, the left palm turns up as the left arm straightens up toward the sky; simultaneously, the right palm turns down as the right arm pushes down alongside the hip and thigh. The fingers of the raised, upturned left hand face the right; the fingers of the lowered, palm-down right hand face extend forward. Exhale here.
Inhale long and deep to return the hands to “hold the ball” mode as you turn slowly through center; this time, the left hand is on top (palm down) with the right hand below, palm facing up. Exhale to push the hands into their opposing stretch on the left side: right hand and arm up, fingers pointing to the right; left hand and arm pushing down, fingers pointing forward. Move fluidly back and forth with the breath and movement: Complete 5 stretches on each side.
Next, still standing, bend forward at the waist, so that the torso is perpendicular to the legs: Feel free to bend the knees. Inhale as the left arm swings forward alongside the ear, and the right swings back to the level of the hips; exhale as the right comes forward, and the left swings back. Continue vigorously with powerful breath for 1 minute.
Then, help yourself back to a seated position. If you choose to sit on a chair, sit sideways, so that you can lean back 30 degrees. With the torso at a 30-degree lean back, raise both legs 60 degrees. You may choose to support the legs with the hands; have the hands by the hips; or, for a more intense version, extend the arms straight forward or up alongside the ears. In your selected position, begin Breath of Fire: rapid, equal inhales and exhales through the nose, with enough vigor to pump the belly. Continue for 1 minute.
Special note: If you can not raise both legs, do one at a time, Or, lift both legs, but let them bend at the knees. Either option will modify and ease the posture.
Now, gently resettle into seated mode, legs long and straight in front of you. If necessary, place a pillow or bolster underneath your bottom and/or knees. Interlace the hands behind your back, lengthen through the elbows to straighten the arms, and raise the arms up and away from the back. With the arms behind, fingers interlaced, and arms raised, ease into a forward bend: Keep the spine long; think of bringing the chest toward the feet, rather than the head toward the knees. Find your personal place of stretch, close the eyes, and breathe in and out through the nose: Complete 8 full breaths.
Finally, resume your favorite seated posture. Begin alternate nostril breathing: With the right thumb closing the right nostril, breathe in through the left nostril; block the left with whichever finger of the right hand feels natural, and exhale through the right. Then, inhale through right, close the right, and exhale through the left. Continue in this manner for 11 full rounds, finishing with an exhale through the left nostril.
Close your session in whatever way your energy dictates. Perhaps you feel inspired to move more: Do your thing!
Or, if you feel pleasantly still and seek to deepen the state, sit quietly, hands on knees, palms up, eyes closed: Focus on the sound and sensation of your breath. Finally, if you prefer to enter Svasana, lie on your back, arms a few inches from your sides, palms up, and rest. Whether seated or supine, enjoy the peace for as long as you like.