Breaking Up With Yoga

Twenty years ago I fell head over heels -- literally -- in love with yoga. It was a beautiful relationship, until it became abusive.

Twenty years ago I fell head over heels – literally – in love with yoga. After two previous decades filled with body shame and borderline anorexia, yoga taught me acceptance, and that strength was better than skinny. Through relationships, jobs, marriage, pregnancy – I practiced the day I went into labor – parenting, getting fired, my father’s mental illness, menopause, founding a company, and so much more, yoga was there for me, mentally and physically. Stepping onto the mat put everything into perspective. Stepping off, I took that perspective with me.

It was a beautiful relationship, until it became abusive.

If you practice yoga at a studio, you know what I’m talking about. In one corner there’s a man balancing his entire body on one palm. In the other there’s a back bending woman who looks like she should be in Cirque du Soleil. You want to do it, too. So you take risks. And you stop listening to your body. Or at least I did. 

It took years of balancing on the balls of my feet with blankets folded at the front of my mat before I stopped smashing my face into the ground trying to achieve crow pose. But when I finally got that pose, oh it was like flying. Same thing with tripod headstand. I probably did a thousand classes with my legs straddled and the crown of my head touching the floor before my teacher walked up behind me, gave my hips a little tap, and I found the balance to bring my legs up.  Putting those two moves together – headstand to crow and back up to headstand – triggered a sense of euphoria that I could only get on the mat.

But afterwards, after every class, I felt like I had pulled a muscle, inside my neck. A deep, throbbing pain, right above the inner tip of my left shoulder blade. I’d rub until it faded – there was a chair massage parlor next to my yoga studio that I visited regularly, where they dug their thumbs into the spot. But once the pain in my neck had dissipated, the tension in my shoulders would begin to build, so I would hit the mat again to loosen up. It was a vicious cycle, which I ramped up by increasing my repetitions, experimenting with more extreme classes like hot yoga, hoping that I could build enough strength and stamina so that I could fly in those poses without the resulting pain.

One weekend in November 2018, I did two hot yoga classes in a row – the next morning, I woke up feeling like I had a sinus infection. There was a pressure in my head that wouldn’t go away, and my right eye was drooping. I went to my doctor thinking she would prescribe me antibiotics, but she took one look at me and ordered an emergency MRI. Are your pupils always different sizes? She asked me. I don’t think so, she said. I would have noticed that.

You probably already know what was going on: I was about to have a stroke. The ER doctors put me on emergency blood thinners. That feeling of pulling a muscle? That was actually my carotid artery splitting, the inside folding up on itself to block the blood flowing to my brain by 75%. My neurologist – the head of neurology at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica – told me that all those headstands could be to blame. The one thing his young patients all had in common, he said, was yoga.

I was lucky to be alive. And after 10 days of migraine headaches, when I literally couldn’t open my eyes because the pain was so bad, the medicine began to work. I didn’t need surgery. The blood began to flow, pushing the kink in my artery back up and, over time – two years, in fact – healing itself.

I remember sitting in my neurologist’s office for my first follow-up appointment as he told me I was going to have to break up with yoga. No more down dog. Definitely no more headstands. I could walk and I could even run. But yoga was out.

So we broke up, yoga and me. I started hiking more. I began stretching on my own. I even tried meditation. But nothing gave me that sense of inner and outer peace that I used to get from yoga. And so, when my final MRI came back clear last year, I went back to the mat. Slowly. Tentatively. Gently. I was more respectful of my body. I didn’t invert or push myself. But I still got that sense of euphoria – only this time it was heightened by a sense of gratitude.

Now, after nearly eight weeks in quarantine, yoga has become even more important. I practice differently now – backing off on the twists to protect my lower back, using a block for supported bridge rather than upward bow – but I’m hitting the mat more regularly, and loving my bedroom set up of a carpet-friendly thin yoga mat and a lightweight block, which stow away under my bed.

Have you had any negative health impacts from yoga? What are the positives, for you? Tell me about it, in comments below!

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