Sunday, January 6, 2013

Waking Up

I have a confession. I am a yoga teacher who, three weeks shy of her 31st birthday, had back surgery. In the grand scheme of back surgery, it was minimal and non-invasive, but it was back surgery. And it changed my life. And I am finally waking up to the multitude of ways it changed my life, and all of the lessons touch on themes this blog has addressed over the years. Only a few of them can be addressed here, but there is no question this experience, the surgery and what led to it, has been a turning point in my life.

The first way it changed my life is that now I can walk again. I really did not want to get into it before, but for about a week prior to surgery, I could barely walk three steps without stabbing, shooting pain in my entire right leg and foot. Sciatica is a scary thing, and it can have so many causes, but as the orthopedist who looked at my MRI said, I was an easy diagnosis. I had a huge herniated disc. But just a few hours after surgery I walked down the hallway in the hospital. I walked slowly, and someone was with me, but I walked. The next day, I climbed two flights of stairs.  Today, two weeks after surgery, I took a 30-minute walk. 

It seems silly for someone who spent three days backpacking last year to be excited for a 30-minute walk, but that is a really big deal to me after the months of physical pain. And this is a great reminder that we cannot judge ourselves by what others can do. I was getting a bit jealous of a dog earlier today who is able to do upward facing dog pose and downward facing dog pose (there are reasons they have these names), and I was told not to stretch at all right now. But it was a great reminder to just be where I am. We cannot judge ourselves by how others are in yoga classes or at work or at life, and we certainly cannot judge ourselves by our pets. Some days a 3-day backpacking trip is where we are, and other days a 30-minute walk is where we are. Neither one is good or bad. It is simply our body, our situation, on any particular day.

But being able to walk again has not been the only benefit of surgery. It has woken me up to what it means to let go and feel true community and true gratitude. It has woken me up to the fact that we cannot always explain why things happen even if we think or know there should be a reason, but we can accept that they have happened and move forward.

I spent most of this holiday season flat on my back recuperating, but I also went to a Christmas dinner at which no one expected me until two days before Christmas, slept in three peoples’ homes (one of them twice), and had a friend come stay with me for a few nights, and have been driven to a variety of appointments by a variety of people. Never before have I had to rely on people so much. There are definite moments of frustration (on my part and theirs), but overall, I have seen that there are a lot of people willing to lend a hand, and that is an amazing feeling.

And it is not just an amazing feeling because all these people have taken care of me. Believe me, I am grateful for that. Supremely grateful. But on a deeper level, it is amazing and wonderful to be reminded of the willingness we have to help one another. I wrote about this on Christmas Day. But the past ten days since then have just been one reminder after another about the way we connect and help each other when it is necessary. I do not think we can write about this, talk about this, and live this too much. I want to shout from the rooftops about our need to connect, but alas, I cannot climb onto a roof right now. 

Acceptance has been another lesson. Not just superficial acceptance, but deep acceptance. I have missed a lot because of the pain and surgery. I missed two really big family functions and a lot of work. I missed spending time with friends and family over the holidays because even when I was with them, all I could think about what the pain or the fact that I had just had surgery. But a huge lesson we gain from yoga is the ability to accept where we are in life and let go of our expectations of what should be. This does not mean we do not try to change and work toward goals, but it means that sometimes life does not happen as we expect. And learning to accept that is a big step toward our own sanity.

Anyone who has been around me the past several weeks knows this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. I have been analyzing this situation from every angle imaginable. I have explanations for every twinge of recovery pain and have spent hours on online forums reading and learning about herniated discs and surgery. But guess where all that analyzing has gotten me? It has made me crazy.

These past few days, however, have been different. I still notice the twinges of pain and notice how drastically different my body is. But the need to understand why has faded. That is the lawyer need. We like to understand, as if that is ever fully possible. Sometimes we just have to be. Sometimes, we just have to accept that we do not fully understand. That is a scary concept to this lawyer, and I am sure to many others as well. But I am in a very different state of mind since making that shift. And not surprisingly, I am also in less pain.

No one has an explanation as to why I herniated a disc. No one has an explanation as to why it did not respond to all the non-invasive techniques of healing that I tried. Instead, I ended up on an operating table. But I woke up from anesthesia and the experience with a very different outlook. Sometimes these things happen, and there is no explanation, and the fact that you do a bunch of yoga and take care of your body in other ways does not change the fact that our bodies are fragile at times. And learning to accept that fact without trying to understand it has been a wondrous and valuable lesson. It has also been incredibly difficult, and believe me, not fully learned.

This weekend I finally feel like I am waking up from the fog of pain and surgery, and I am waking up to a world where I can be more accepting . . . or at least attempt to be. And still, I am sometimes jealous of dogs who can stretch. But overall, the experience has woken me up to truly understanding the lessons I have been trying to learn for years. Sometimes the universe operates in mysterious ways.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.


  1. This is a VERY powerful lesson on acceptance. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. Hope each day brings you closer to optimal back health!
    -Sani @ The Yoga Mat Tie

  2. THANK YOU for sharing this post & I'm sending some good vibes to you and your back as you continue to heal. "Walking again" and "awakening"! What glorious things to come of a tough situation. My mom's favorite expression is "a woman is like tea - you find out what she's made of when you put her in hot water." I had a herniated disk myself, and almost a year of immobility. I went through a back surgery too (disk fusion, invasive, yuck). I came to yoga a year AFTER my surgery and it has been a slow road but rewarding on so many levels. I like your phrase "deep acceptance" - that is a big part of my healing still, as is acknowledging and moving past fear. That tisk-tisk voice in my head saying: "Oh I shouldn't try camel (or 50 other asanas) because of my back." I think patience is also something I'm learning from all of this.
    Anyhow, I've rambled on. THANKS again for sharing this story! Have a lovely day :) - Katie

    1. Thank you, Katie. I appreciate it. This has definitely been a process, and a very slow one at that. I am glad you found yoga after your surgery, and I do hope it has helped.