Lessons Learned

If you read my last blog post, you will have learned that I was headed for spine surgery.  As it turned out, my surgery happened a week earlier than originally planned.  This was fine with me since by then I had reconciled myself to the need for the surgery and had also come to my wit’s end with the pain I was enduring.  It was not an easy decision to have the surgery.  Any time one is subjected to the vagaries of anesthesia and the dangers inherent in opening parts of the body that are otherwise not meant to open anything can happen.  These cautions become even more pronounced when working with the spine and the nervous system it is designed to protect.  Arriving at the decision to undergo surgery meant I had to surrender to the unknown and be willing to accept whatever consequences might ensue.  I have since spoken with many people who are daily enduring problems that surgery might fix but the fear of those consequences outweighs the problem.  For me it was the other way around: the prospect of a solution won me over.  As I said in my most recent post, I felt that the fact that a solution exists at all – and that I had access to it – put me in a far better category than those for whom a solution is not available.

At this point I am delighted to report that my surgery went exactly as planned and did, in fact, solve the problem for which it was intended.  I am beyond amazed at the miracle of it.  Despite our resilience, human beings are subject to a myriad of health problems.  Even as medical advances are made, new problems seem to crop up daily.  Yet there are also marvelous techniques now available that even a few years ago would have seemed impossible.  Here I am, not quite 5 weeks from my surgery and already I can walk a couple of miles pain-free and even do some yoga.  Nothing short of miraculous in my mind.

So what have I learned in this latest journey?  First of all, it really helps to be in good shape to begin with.  All my years spent touting the benefits of movement and working to motivate others has not been for naught.  The strength, flexibility and balance I have worked to maintain has definitely helped pull me through this.  The first week after the surgery was very difficult.  It is easy to understand how some people might succumb to that difficulty, stretching out or even hindering the recovery process.  Pain can create a vicious cycle – the more you hurt, the less you want to move, but the less you move the harder it is to get moving. Yet even while I was still in the hospital I was encouraged to move.  This is another change in the thinking of the medical community.  It used to be that after surgery people were told not to move.  Today, just the opposite is promoted.  Our bodies are meaning to move and the sooner one gets moving, the better for the body. It’s tough, though, to move when everything hurts.  So it became another opportunity for practice.  All of the lessons I’ve been writing about in this blog had to be re-activated.  Examples:  keep trying!  If you have to stop, then stop.  But try again later.  My doc gave me a simple rule of thumb, “If it hurts, stop.  If you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  That last part could be interpreted as license to stop trying, but that marker moves as the healing process progresses.  So what hurts today might hurt less tomorrow or the next day.  Each day brings another opportunity to try again.

Which brings me to Lesson #2 – the danger zone.  That first week was miserable, but by the second week I could already tell the difference. There was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel.  Healing was hardly complete but I could tell that I was getting better.  By the third week, I was actually feeling good much of the time.  That’s when the danger zone arrives.  I started to feel good enough to believe that I could do more than I should.  After a couple of episodes of over-doing (thankfully minor) I realized that I had to pull back.  This is when the full realization of aging starts to set in.  Although it is truly amazing that a person my age can go through a trauma like this and not only survive but thrive afterwards, I still had to respect the fact that healing is slower as we age.   It is so important to me to keep moving as much as I can for as long as I can.  Rather than invite set-backs that could be avoidable, I had to remind myself that I am in this for the long haul.  Feeling good will only get better if I have some patience and let it happen in its own time.  A fellow Pilates teacher said, “You’ll be that much stronger if you just wait until the time is right.”  Good advice.

And that’s Lesson #3 – I am continuing to get better on a daily basis and it was worth the wait.  Every day I feel stronger and more like my old self again.  It may take a little longer to get my fitness levels back, but come back they will if I just take it slow but keep moving forward.  Still I am changed by this as I am by every new experience.  I heard a great quote the other day:  an elderly woman was asked what it is like to be 89 or whatever age she was at that time.  Her answer, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been 89 before!”  A great reminder that as long as we’re on the planet, moving and breathing, life continues to be an adventure.  Each day is one you have never before experienced.  Stepping into the unknown can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning.  It can be scary, but we all have the capacity to be brave and do the best we can with whatever we have to work with on an given day.  Everything is changing all the time. So whatever you felt yesterday might be different today.  Treat every moment like the remarkable gift it is.

Surviving Winter – It Takes a Village

Ah, winter in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  This is an area characterized by challenging and unpredictable weather all year.  A few days ago our temperatures went from -21 degrees to +40 in the span of about 24 hours.  We often say that we can experience all 4 seasons in a single day, sometimes in a matter of hours.  A visitor once asked me “what is typical weather for this time of year?” and I could only reply “there is no ‘typical'”.  The best advice on any given day is to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  During my years in New England I kept a running log that included what I wore each day to accommodate weather conditions.  Using this guide I was able to decide how to dress within 5 degree increments of temperature change in either direction.  After arriving in South Dakota, that guide soon went out the window.  There are so many variables affecting outdoor comfort here that it is almost impossible to know what to wear.  Even though I subscribe to the theory that there is no bad weather – only poor clothing choices, it’s worth repeating that my best advice is still to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  Since I try to get outdoors as much as possible all year long, I also advocate carrying a backpack big enough to allow for the addition and subtraction of clothing as conditions change.

Having said all of that, there are hazards to outdoor activities in the winter.  After a stint of super cold and snowy weather it is not uncommon to experience a welcome break in the action featuring sunny days and temperatures that can even reach the 50’s.  As attractive as these periods of respite are, they bring with them a pattern of thaw and freeze that can create dangerous ice.  This past week pretty much everyone I talked to has had some kind of fall on the ice, myself included.  Each new storm spreads a new layer of snow on top of the previous layer of ice.  The new snow sometimes provides extra traction, but it also masks what’s hidden beneath it.  A layer of black ice underneath a shallow layer of snow brought me down.  Fortunately I was not significantly injured, but it was enough of a scare to drive me indoors to the dreaded treadmill.  It takes a lot to get me on the treadmill , but as I get older the possibility of serious injury from falling looms large.  As much as I love being outdoors, it’s not worth the risk.  A few mild and sunny days in a row can be sufficient to clear one of my favorite winter walking areas.  It’s worth the wait.

The good news is I don’t have to use the treadmill every day.  There are other indoor options.  It’s times like these that I am especially grateful for my yoga and Pilates practices.  Both disciplines supplement and support my walking so that I can stay strong and mobile throughout the long winter.  There are many other reasons to bring mind/body practices into your life at any time of year, but winter can be a particularly good time.  Despite the fact that we’ve passed the solstice (yay!) the days are still short.  Little by little we are seeing changes in the extent of daylight in the afternoons, but mornings are still really dark.  An article from Harvard Health Publications titled “Let the Sun Shine Mind Your Mental Health This Winter” points out that winter can throw off the circadian rhythms of our natural internal clocks.  This can affect moods and even overall mental health.  We’ve all heard of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” which, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a type of depressions that occurs with the changing of the seasons.  The Harvard Health article emphasizes the importance of physical exercise as an antidote for this problem.  Just 30 minutes of daily exercise not only helps relieve stress but also “may help your body release endorphins, your natural ‘happy hormones'” which can help elevate your mood naturally, without drugs.  The article further advocates yoga as a meditative practice that can help quiet the mind and mitigate symptoms of depression.

Another article in Harvard Health Publications titled “How Simply Moving Benefits Your Mental Health” provides additional support for exercise as a mental health booster.  The article states that regular exercise “can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive”.  In fact, according to this article exercise can “be as effective as medication and psychotherapies“.  Exercise boosts mood “by increasing a brain protein called BDNF that helps nerve fibers grow.”  The article specifically identifies yoga and other practices “in which you pay close attention to your bodily sensations, position in space, and . . . breathing as you move. . .  can reduce the severity of symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder. Changing your posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change your brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and lead to a feeling of well-being.”  The article goes on to say although you can practice these disciplines on your own, “a recent study found that when you try to move in synchrony with someone else, it also improves your self-esteem.”  I love this result!  Not only are mind/body movement disciplines shown to improve mental health, but moving with others makes the practice even better.  There are many reasons to take classes but here is another one we can add to that list.  Since “synchronizing” can imply mimicking, I don’t necessarily advocate doing this in a class, especially if you are new to the practice. However, especially in Pilates we do think about the rhythm of our movements so perhaps we could consider the class like an orchestra with each of us moving in concert with one another – not necessarily mirroring others but still making individual contributions to the presentation as a whole.  What a great concept!

If you still need more reasons to find a way to keep moving even when conditions outdoors may be discouraging, let me cite one more article in Harvard Health Publications.  This one, titled “Challenge Your Mind and Body to Sharpen Your Thinking Skills” by Heidi Godman, an intriguing title all by itself, highlights the advantages of both movement and social engagement. The article cites Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, who says “Until the mid-1990s, we thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with. We now know that the growth of new cells — a process called neurogenesis — occurs throughout life, even in older age.” And the good news is “researchers have found that physical exercise leads to the release of cellular growth factors that are important for neurogenesis.” Furthermore, the “combination of growth factors and new brain cells that comes from healthy living, challenging the brain, and staying socially connected in a meaningful way may actually help protect the brain or keep it more resilient against changes that cause dementia”.  Classes in yoga and Pilates accomplish all three of those goals – challenging the brain through connecting the mind to physical movement, social connections with other class participants and, as Dr. Papp puts it, “the grand poobah of them all: exercising.”  Seems to me that this is one more reason to give classes a try.  Although there are no guarantees, it certainly can’t hurt.

If you’re new to regular movement practices, my advice remains to take it slow, go at your own pace, don’t worry about what you look like and just keep at it.  Remember that the goal is practice, not perfection.  But keeping all of the advantages mentioned above up front in your mind might help keep you motivated when you’re tempted to quit.  And if you continue to practice you just might find that you begin to notice the difference in both your mental and physical well-being.  What is that worth to you?  Seems to me it’s priceless!