When Chronic Pain Took My Yoga Away.
Last year was a life-changing year for me, consumed with Yoga and meditation, a year that helped me cope with alcohol abuse as well as intense heartache.
Each class made me so much more capable of dealing with grief and any challenge that thrust itself into my life. I was becoming physically strong, so much stronger than I thought I could ever be. Then, in an instant, it all changed.
I woke up one morning with a headache I would never wish upon my worst enemy. Barely able to get out of bed, I sobbed until I could not sob anymore. I immediately went to a walk-in clinic and received pain medication through an IV and was told it would go away within minutes. It did not.
The next day, I went to my primary care doctor and was given a medication I was also told would cure it immediately. Once again, it did not.
A co-worker then recommended I see her neurologist, who told me it was a migraine, and after trying two different medications, I eventually became pain-free, but not until after suffering for 10 days.
A month went by, and then I was once again hit with another jolting headache. A second trip back to the doctor confirmed a chronic migraine diagnosis.
I continued going to Yoga as it always helped me move past any pain. However, I was beginning to see the connection I didn’t want to face. After each Yoga class, no matter how intense or subtle, a pain would radiate from my neck to my head and I would be left with a migraine.
I decided to see a chiropractor even though many New Age folks around me told me to resist. They told me to try Yin Yoga and meditation. But I knew already that even the easiest of classes or the softest of movements irritated my body. So I took the plunge and lay down on the chiropractor’s bed. With one crack, I felt my neck ease.
I then went nearly three months without a single headache with consistent chiropractic appointments, and was told, “No more Yoga.”
No more Yoga.
No more Yoga.
No more Yoga.
The thought scared me to death. Yoga was what kept me alive during a period of intense darkness. How the hell would I survive without it?
Occasionally, I would make my way to a Yoga class and then immediately regret it. The pain would come back with such a vengeance that I often would have to sit in my car afterwards for several minutes before I could drive.
More recently, I was hit with a type of head pain that made me consider going to the emergency room. My arms and hands went completely numb, and I was on the verge of passing out. I immediately went to my neurologist who diagnosed me with yet another chronic headache disorder known as hemicrania continua.
Sitting in a car for too long, being trapped at my desk for my day job, and sleeping the wrong way, all flare up this pain. Intense movement, or any movement, does the same thing as well — Yoga, walking or standing for too long, photographing an event, playing with my band, vacuuming my apartment.
This has all forced me to come to terms with the fact that this chronic pain is something that I will always endure.
So without Yoga, who am I and how do I deal with this pain?
My Yoga mat sits in the corner of my bedroom and I stare at it longingly. Occasionally, I unroll it and merely lie on it, hoping it brings me its past vibes. But I realize everything I learned from Yoga still applies to this new situation.
I have to learn to be present. When the pain hits, I realize that it will eventually subside and I can only sit with it. I also realize I am far from the only person enduring pain. W.S. Merwin, a poet who appeared in my favorite documentary The Buddha, even said about suffering: “It’s at once utterly intimate and utterly shared.”
I will always have my good days and my bad days. But Yoga has taught me how to enjoy the times in between. I can take great joy in my moments that are pain-free, and I do. I can live them so completely and happily.
And when I am debilitated, in bed for days on end, I can take solace in everything I’ve learned, and it will make those sweet days so much sweeter.
I may never be able to do a handstand ever again. I may never be able to step into another studio. But who’s to say I still can’t be the warrior that Yoga helped me become at a time when I didn’t think it was possible? Now, more than ever, I have to channel all that I was taught, minus acrobatic poses.
This is real life. And this is what my Yoga has become.
Chelsey Engel works full-time in communications with the United Steelworkers and is a soul/blues musician in Pittsburgh, Pa. A lover of all things music, human rights and bacon, she is a nerd living as a rebel. You can find her online at ChelseyNicoleMusic.