Inside My Injury: A Yoga Teacher's Journey from Pain to Depression to Healing - Yoga Journal

Inside My Injury: A Yoga Teacher's Journey from Pain to Depression to Healing

Yoga teacher Meagan McCrary's injury forced her to roll up her mat, but it helped her remember and return to many of the things she loved about yoga to begin with.
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Twenty-four hours after receiving an epidural in my lumbar spine for lower back pain, the musculature through my low back, butt, pelvic floor, hamstrings, groin, and the rest of my legs began seizing up. I was in excruciating pain. Something had gone terribly wrong.

I’m embarrassed to admit I went to a pain management clinic. I knew better than to receive an epidural from a random doctor. But, in my defense, I was in decent amount of pain and checked my discernment at the door. I had successfully received two epidurals in the past for the same type of pain, so when the doctor offered, I accepted.

Based solely on the knowledge that it had worked five years prior, the doctor injected the epidural at the same location (L4/L5). However, this time it wasn’t performed using an MRI, which is the norm these days, and I could feel it. The injection hurt and my legs began to throb immediately. But I’m a grin-and-bear-it type of girl. When the doc asked how I was doing, I told him I was fine.

See also 5 Steps to Recover from an Injury, On and Off the Mat

Yoga, Interrupted

I’ve been in chronic pain for almost as long as I’ve been teaching yoga. I haven’t had a consistent asana practice for longer than four months since I began practicing 15 years ago. Every time I’d come back from an injury, just as my practice would start to advance, something else would start hurting.

Early on, my right hip flexors and SI joint gave me issues. Teachers were constantly releasing my psoas, and I practiced with a rolled-up hand towel wedged in my right hip crease in an attempt to make space in forward bends. Then, there were the times I strained my hamstring attachments, leaving deep aches under my sitting bones.

Around the beginning of 2007, I started experiencing severe nerve pain under my right shoulder blade that radiated down my right arm. Fortunately, I found a brilliant Active Release Technique (ART) specialist who was able to substantially decrease the nerve pain at the time, and would continue to help me manage it as symptoms would come and go throughout the years. However, by 2010, I had constant nerve pain through both SI joints, my sacrum, and my tailbone that radiated down both legs, leading to the aforementioned epidurals in 2011. After some time, my back recovered and I returned to my bendy practice per usual.

Then, in March 2017, I did a photo shoot for Yoga Journal. It was a dream come true: I spent two hours in different variations of backbends and felt great. But about an hour into my three-hour drive home after the shoot, my low back began to ache. While I was used to chronic arthritis in my right hip and had experienced back pain before, this was particularly distressing. Weeks without much relief led me to that pain clinic—and to that fateful epidural that sent me over an edge I didn’t even know existed.

When I finally spoke to the clinic doctor three days after that failed epidural, he said the worst-case scenario was that I’d be in discomfort for two weeks. He also prescribed Gabapentin to block the nerve pain I was experiencing in the meantime.

Two weeks turned into two and a half months of the most intense pain of my life. I couldn’t drive, teach yoga classes, or see my private clients. Between the pain, financial stress, fear that I’d always be in pain, and medication, I began having anxiety attacks. Meanwhile, the hard realization that I had wrecked my own body began to set in, sinking me into depression.

The Journey to Healing Begins

Around this time, yoga teacher Alexandria Crow reached out to me, having read what I was going through via my Facebook posts about my pain. Crow has spent the last five years traveling to studios and speaking with students throughout North America and the UK about their yoga injuries. When she called me, she shared what she personally has been through—the damage her body has endured and the final injury she experienced that changed her approach to practicing and teaching yoga. It was the first time I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose body hurt—that many yoga teachers had similar injuries, and that mine wasn't due to a lack of proper alignment or strength.

See also 6 Myths About the Benefits of Yoga Practice

After all of my bouts of pain before, I’d always return to my yoga practice the moment I felt better. A friend pointed out that this pattern of mine was a bit like dating an abusive boyfriend. I kept going back again and again because I loved (and still do love) yoga. I didn’t want to believe that it was causing me harm. I believed that I was safe as long as I was in alignment. Plus, I’d convinced myself that my body liked making those shapes; it rarely hurt during practice, just the rest of the time. (Later I would learn about the delayed onset of sensation I was experiencing.)

Even when chronic arthritis set into my right hip and I was told I would most likely need surgery, I kept doing the poses. By that time, I was into the whole “yoga selfie” game on Instagram and becoming more and more identified with what my body could do. I had made it into both Om Yoga and Yoga Magazine, and was ecstatic to finally be featured in Yoga Journal. Little did I know that the shoot would also be the last time I’d do most of those poses.

Hurt, confused, and in pain, I felt betrayed by my yoga practice and no longer knew what to believe. A complete existential meltdown ensued as I was hit by realization after realization. This practice was who I was; I was praised for perfecting the postures, popular for the photos I took, and known for teaching precise alignment. It’s what I did. Heck, I even wrote articles about all of it for more than a decade. However, as I spoke to my doctors, started investigating and reading scientific articles, and began studying with Crow, I had to admit to myself (and my students) that I was wrong. I was doing the best that I could with the information I had, but now knew more and I had to do better. I couldn’t go back to practicing and teaching yoga the way I had been for over a decade.

I went through a period of panic followed by deep depression. I even had to stop following the majority of my yoga peers on social media as I mourned the loss of my old yoga life. Oddly, I still desperately wanted to do the movements and poses I saw on social media, even knowing intellectually that they were harmful for my structure. My body craved to do what I had always done and associated with feeling good. I was addicted to the physical sensations, as well as the praise and validation I received. And like all habits that become addictions, it was hardwired into my nervous system.

Unfortunately, so was the pain. After years of managing moderate chronic pain, exploiting my hypermobility, and pushing through numbness, my nervous system went bust. Not only had I damaged my physical structure, but also my central nervous system, causing an over-sensitized pain response. To this day, the slightest thing will trigger a pain cycle lasting anywhere from two weeks to two months. My physical therapy is as much about calming my nervous system and retraining my brain as it is physically stabilizing my pelvis and spine.

Diagnosis: Where I Am Today

Technically, I’ve been diagnosed with hip impingement syndrome and have a small labrum tear in my right hip. One orthopedic surgeon pointed out that I had a collagen disorder (hence my hypermobility), and I still experience back pain regularly. I’ve opted not to do surgery and have been in physical therapy and acupuncture for almost a year. And still, I have painful flare-ups. What I know for sure is that my road to recovery is going to be a long one.

I will say, however, that I’ve done more yoga in the past year than I’ve ever done. Unable to do much physically for the pain, I’ve learned to rely on my breath and now meditate regularly. I’ve also had to look at my patterns and behavioral addictions, acknowledge my missteps along the way, let go of who I thought I was and where I was going, and radically accept myself and my circumstances. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call my injury a gift, it took my body giving out for me to remember and return to many of the things I loved about yoga to begin with—the things that have nothing to do with perfecting the asanas.

See also Why Your Downward Dog Isn’t Necessarily Yoga