A try to take a yoga class every week, though lately I have been missing out because I’ve either been under the weather or under work pressure. Today, after a week of ups and downs, I need to stretch and breathe and take care of myself – not just my body, but my psyche too. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit for “union” and has the same root as the word “yoke,” as in the yoke that connects an ox to its cart. For me, in order to practice yoga, I have to start by disconnecting, before I can connect. In order to get to a class, I have to pull my head and my body away from my computer and whatever I’m working on. I have to change from my regular clothes and put on my stretchy yoga gear and I have to walk away from my home, as I rarely manage to practice in my own house. Once in the class, my placing my mat on the floor, I am creating my own space to practice, symbolically removing myself from the rest of the room so that I can center myself and focus on my practice.
For as long as I can remember I have felt physically a bit awkward and uncomfortable. As I child I wasn’t very good at sports. I was super-flexible and could bend back into the crab (or yoga wheel), do the splits and other bendy feats, but I’ve never had much strength, nor have I been able to run for any length of time. It always hurt my joints. Growing up, I often felt out of whack, and visited chiropractors and conventional doctors for various joint problems. They usually told me I was double-jointed and one told me that I was so loose now that when I grow old and my peers all have arthritis, I would finally be normal and be able to run marathons. I never bought that theory.
Two years ago, I had a bad pain in my left hip and it was becoming hard for me to walk and do yoga. A friend pointed out to me that hip injuries during yoga are actually common in middle-aged women, so I was very worried I would have to give up yoga. I thought I’d better see a chiropractor about it. I talked to my friend Cheryl, who is a retired chiropractor and can’t treat me any more, and she recommended a colleague, Theresa, who has a practice just around the corner from our house. I had to drive there, because my hip hurt. But it’s LA, and that’s normal here!
Theresa is a wonderfully warm, engaging woman, with large brown eyes that emanate intelligence and care. She spent an hour with me asking me about my physical condition and having me perform a few simple exercises and movements, after which she explained confidently that I have ligamentous laxity syndrome, or LLS. Whaa? I had never heard of this. But when she explained it to me, all the issues with my joints and physical discomforts over the years suddenly made sense. My ligaments are too loose, which means that although I am very flexible, which is useful in yoga class, this is not always a good thing. Our ligaments, the tissues that connect our bones to each other, are supposed to be fairly tight so that they limit the range of motion of our joints, thus creating normal joint stability. I don’t have that stability. This explains not only my looseness, but also the reason why running has always hurt, because my knee, hip and ankle joints were not being adequately supported each time my feet pounded the ground. It also explains why I have to crack my wrists, shoulders and back so much – they feel out of alignment and they often are. On the one hand it was a little scary to know I had a syndrome, but on the other, I was relieved and even excited to finally know what my problem was. Theresa explained to me that I would have to work my muscles harder to support the joints, to take over some of the burden the ligaments were supposed to carry. And in yoga, she explained, instead of dropping 100% into a particular pose (like a forward fold, which is extremely easy for me – I can usually place my palms flat on the floor with knees unbent), it was safer and better for me to go 80% into the pose and then engage my muscles to hold the pose. This would strengthen my muscles and help prevent further injury.
After a few months of work with Theresa, my hip healed, which was a huge relief. What was even more valuable about my visits to Theresa and this diagnosis was that around this time, my son Theo was starting to contort himself into strange positions to try to crack his back and wrists and make many of the odd, awkward movements that I’d made as a child – and still do now. He is very flexible and hates running too. It suddenly became clear to me that Theo has inherited my “syndrome.” I’m not happy about this fact as I know how uncomfortable he must be, but I am glad that I know what it is and what he can do to protect his joints. He has already started seeing Theresa, who is as warm, caring and good at communicating with him as she was with me. In fact, he had been having trouble with his back this week, and today he asked me if he could have an appointment with Theresa, the “chirocracktor,” as he calls her. Fortunately she had a slot free and we went to see her and have her give him an adjustment. I wanted to give her something to thank her for helping me and my boy (and also David, who has seen her for other issues), and ideally something pretty connected to joints somehow. I had a lot of trouble finding something that fit that description, so in the end settled for something pretty – an Indian silver ankle bracelet. Well, the ankle is a joint, so can I have that one?
Over the years when we have taken a trip somewhere, we have had to leave our cats behind in the house for a week or two. It is hard to find someone to trust to stay in the house and look after our beloved pets, but when we discovered our neighbor Frank’s nephew Franco, our worries were over. In his late 20s (I think), Franco works as a nurse, and it is easy to see why. With his gentle manner and warm, generous smile, I can imagine him putting all his patients at ease while he helps them deal with pain, injury, illness and discomfort. He is also very reliable and trustworthy, as we have learned from years of having him cat-sit our furry babies. When we get back from trips, the cats always seem happy and calm, the house is tidy and undisturbed. Clearly he has the same gentle way with our cats as he does with his patients.
Because Franco is usually in our home when we are away, we only see him occasionally, usually at gatherings of Frank’s lovely, warm, mostly Filipino family. Many members, like Franco are in the health industry and are naturally caring people. I often wonder who cares for people who are so good at caring for others, but with their family, they all really do look after each other. And, from the few conversations I have had with Franco, he does manage to care for himself pretty well too. He seems thoughtful about the types of food he eats, and he has been practicing yoga for a while now. When we’ve talked about it, it has seemed clear to me that he takes his practice seriously, which may be one of the reasons he has such a strong yet calming presence. Today, when I noticed that Franco was house-sitting for Frank and Tony, I realized I wanted to give him something, so I pulled out a yoga book by B. K. S. Iyengar, one of the great modern yoga masters who systematized over 400 classical poses, or asana, to help students gradually progress from simpler to more complex poses and develop their minds, bodies and spirits. By paying particular attention to the technique (especially correct alignment), sequence of poses, and the time each pose was held, Iyengar developed his form of yoga, Iyengar yoga, as a way of helping people overcome the stresses of modern life and achieve spiritual and physical well-being. He also introduced props like blocks and straps to allow the elderly, injured, tired and ill to enjoy the benefits of yoga without requiring as much muscular effort. As a nurse, Franco can surely understand Iyengar’s motivations in developing such a type of yoga. When I gave him the book, he admitted shyly that he hadn’t been practicing much lately. Perhaps the book will help him appreciate how much his yoga practice benefits not just himself, but all the people he looks after.
Since my mid thirties, yoga has been a key part of my life. Along with walking, it is my exercise of choice (I have never been to a gym!) and it also helps keep my anxious self somewhat in check. One afternoon last year, I remember being so upset about something that I called my therapist for an emergency session, but he wasn’t available at such short notice. So I took a yoga class instead. It calmed me right down and helped me find my center again – and at a fraction of the price of therapy. For me, yoga is a moving meditation practice that I can feel restoring the connections between my underactive body, my hyperactive mind and my fluctuating spirit. Although I only typically take classes once a week, if I miss a week I find myself derailing. I know that it is something I dearly need in my life.
That was not always the case. My parents lived in India in the 1960s, when my father was teaching English in high schools in Bombay (Mumbai), where I was born. He and my mother both became very interested in the physical and philosophical aspects of yoga and when we moved to suburban Scotland, my mother taught yoga and my father conducted seminars and wrote books about yoga and Indian philosophy. He even became the chairman of the Scottish Yoga Association for a few years. You might think that I would have started yoga at a young age, but instead I fiercely rejected it. We were the only non-white children in a small Scottish town, and the last thing I wanted to do as a child was some funny Indian exercise routine that would make me stand out even more from the other kids. I remember my sister, brother and I sitting in on one of Dad’s seminars and bursting into giggles when he started chanting “Om” with his students. It all seemed very strange and silly.
My parents practicing yoga together c. 1968
Now, I really admire my parents for being such avid, knowledgeable pioneers of such a healthy practice, and of course I wish I had realized its value at a much younger age. But at least I was able to find my own way to yoga and incorporate it into my life. I wasn’t able to fully share my appreciation of it with my mother before she died, but I have talked about it with my father, and I know he is glad I finally embraced it. He still practices the philosophical side of it and his best fatherly advice to me has often been drawn from his study of yoga.
Today I gave away my “spare” yoga mat to the yoga studio where I have been practicing for the last few years. I had bought the mat at a yard sale, thinking that it might come in handy if I ever needed to take a friend (or son?) along to yoga with me. But that won’t happen and if it does, our local yoga studio has spares. So I took it in with me this morning and offered it to the man signing students in, suggesting perhaps that he offer it in turn to a student who didn’t have their own mat. He seemed unsure and said he’d have to ask the manager – a reaction I found a bit disappointing, until I saw the basket of $30 yoga mats behind me. Of course, they’d rather sell their own mats to students, but maybe they’ll decide that they might win over a hesitant student, like I once was, by welcoming them to the studio with the gift of a free mat.