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Yoga Trends

How Yoga Saved My Life

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I’m ashamed to admit this: I used to make fun of yoga. I once even wrote in an article for a national magazine that only granola-crunching, Volkswagen van-driving, Birkenstock-wearing noodle necks (I did use the term “noodle neck”) bothered with yoga, clearly because they couldn’t hack a real workout. Of course, I had never actually practiced yoga; Down Dog was just a command I gave my pug. I am thankful to have lived long enough to know better. And when I say that, I mean it literally.

Two years ago I took my horse Harley for a ride in the Southern California canyons near my stable. That day I was particularly stressed and preoccupied with some now-forgotten problem. I hoped my headache would fade into the pounding of hooves as they beat across the trail. It is a remedy I’ve turned to throughout my life on hundreds of rides, since I was old enough to sit in a saddle. So when Harley balked at crossing a small creek, I was irritated and impatient.

“Don’t be a sissy,” I told him, jumping off to lead him through the water. “I don’t have time to talk you into this.” Harley seemed content to have me lead him, but when I skipped over a stone to avoid getting my boot wet, he suddenly reared back on his haunches.

Even as I write this I recall my shock and surprise when the bony force of his knee hits my back and the sickening feeling as I realize: My 2,000-pound thoroughbred is jumping the water. And he’s landing on top of me.

There is a sense of being flung, as if caught by tornado winds, and then dirt in my mouth, then the odd beauty of the angle formed by my arm, reins still in hand, as it pops out of my shoulder. Strangely, I feel no pain, aware only of how mammoth my horse appears as he stands over me. His muscles quiver. I think his sweat drips onto my face; perhaps it is my own. As his body pulls away, I see the flash of a steel-shod hoof as it strikes downward. Then I hear the crack of something, loud as gunfire, and look to see the bones of my left leg snapped apart like dry kindling.

Harley’s hind hoof had come through my left shin, cutting through the bones, muscles, ligaments, arteries, and veins. Three fingers’ width of calf muscle and sinew formed a gristly hinge. I remember feeling above myself, observing the way so much blood can form a kind of adobe as it flows into the earth, the opalescence of exposed bone, the leg separate and unmoving at the side of a woman’s body, which I recognized as my own.

I don’t know how long I lay there before I screamed for help. Time had no measure. I remember thinking about a conversation with a friend; it was like a home movie playing in my head. I was lamenting a string of bad luck that had come my way; she wasn’t sympathetic. “God touches us with a feather to get our attention,” she said to me. “Then if we don’t listen, He starts throwing bricks.”

My blood pooled around me. Harley put his nose to my face. I thought: the brick. Finally, this is the brick.

I was saved by Edward Albert, Jr., an actor whose face I recognized, a disorienting fact that made me think perhaps I was in fact already dead and had been sent to a special purgatory for Los Angelenos. He kept me from bleeding to death by pinching the artery with his fingers; his daughter directed the paramedics to us when they couldn’t find the trail. Edward never let go of my hand as we waited for the medi-vac helicopter to take me to UCLA’s trauma center. “Your life will change because of this,” he told me, “in ways you can’t imagine now.”

The doctors told me basically the same thing, but in a way that was meant to prepare me for life as an amputee. I had a “Grade III, Class B, barnyard open compound fracture” of the tibia and fibula. Only a Class C, a crushed limb, is technically worse, but the severity of my injury increased exponentially because it was done by a hoof: There was a high risk of infection, complicated by the fact that I lay in dirt and mud for more than an hour before the helicopter could reach me. A titanium rod was crammed down the center of my tibia to join the disconnected parts; it still runs through my knee and ends at my ankle, bolted in place.

The doctors sounded definite in their prognosis, and I had no cause to doubt them—they are well respected orthopedists. Even if the bone united, and the chances were not good, the soft tissue damage was extensive. Infection could take the leg, and maybe kill me in the process. A latent infection could occur even years down the line and, again, take the leg. Blood supply had been seriously compromised. I was told not to expect feeling in a large part of my leg; too many nerves and veins had been cut. I would never run again, that was for sure. In fact, there was a very good chance my limb would be a stiff, nonfunctional appendage even if no other complications arose.

The only bright news they brought was about the wonderful advances in prosthetics. I could run with a prosthesis—dance too, maybe. New prosthetics weren’t bad-looking; I could even ride with one, they said. All I could think was, “What do you know about it? You don’t ride, and you’ve got two good legs.”

It was under these prospects that I returned home to face long months of lying in bed—waiting, as I would tell friends, for my leg to fall off. I had the feeling that the reattached leg was not me but an attachment, something “other than” or “in addition to” me.

Four months after my accident, finances required that I start working again, which was only possible because I was able to do all of my freelance writing from bed. I received an assignment from a celebrity magazine to report on martial arts and yoga as fitness trends of the stars, all of which I did by interviews over the phone. And then I contacted a certain Sikh yogi named Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa.

“Why don’t you come down here?” was the first thing out of her mouth.

“I just have a few quick questions,” I told her.

“Oh, I hate to talk over the phone. It’s so much better if I can show you,” she replied.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell her that I had not been farther than the grocery store in six months, or that I walked with the aid of a leg brace and crutches, or that pain was constant despite the Vicodin I took every six hours, or that I felt exhausted even though I slept 14 hours a day. Maybe I was just too tired to argue. I got dressed; my clothes hung on me like laundry on a line. I drove the 40 minutes to her house, as directed.

Even before she opened the door, the scent of incense wafted through the open windows into the courtyard. A statue of Ganesha stood near the entrance; I grinned at what I thought was a kooky little elephant. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d smiled other than to put on a happy face for visitors. Gurmukh opened the door and didn’t bother with hello.

“What happened to you? Here, come, let’s sit on my bed. You can put your feet up and have some tea,” she instructed, and I followed this barefooted figure dressed in white down a hall.

I don’t recall exactly what was said in the hour or so we sat on her bed. I do remember the way she expressed no pity for me, and I was grateful, because the pity I felt from others made me feel hopeless, as if my very essence as a person had been reduced. It was as if she expected me to get well, it was just a matter of me choosing to do it. She told me she wanted me to take her yoga class the following day. I looked at her like she was crazy.

“People in wheelchairs can do Kundalini Yoga,” she assured me. “Even if you only do three minutes, those three minutes will help you. We always say, ‘Begin where you are.'”

When I returned to the car, I gripped the steering wheel and cried. I felt like a wanderer caught in a storm who had just found shelter and, now safe, could admit how terrified she had been.

For my first yoga class I positioned myself at the back of the room, crutches against the wall. Someone helped me sit on the floor, my bad leg stretched out in front. To begin we put our hands together in anjali mudra (prayer position), thumbs pressed to the center of the chest, and closed our eyes. I listened to the others as Gurmukh led them in the chant, Ong Na Mo Guru Dev Na Mo, which she said meant we were bowing to the great infinite wisdom found inside ourselves. It struck me that I had not prayed with my hands together since I was a child. It felt good.

While I couldn’t manage most of the class, I could do some of it, especially the breathing exercises and mudras that had us hold our arms in certain positions. We inhaled the word sat, exhaled the word nam, which together mean, “Truth is my identity.” In that class I experienced a sensation that was not unlike falling in love.

From then on, I was there at least three days a week, sometimes four. I would have lived there if I could. I threw myself into this alien world, following all the advice given to me: I took cold showers each morning before meditating for half an hour; I ate a largely organic, vegetarian diet; I saw a Sikh chiropractor and an acupuncturist and took supplements to support my immune system. Most of all, I did yoga every day, even if it was just a simple spinal flex. In class when others were in asanas I could not do, Gurmukh told me to hold the posture in my mind, mentally going through it.

“If your yoga teacher told you to eat peanut butter and stand on your head, would you do it?” my ex-husband joked, echoing the sentiment of other friends and family who weren’t quite sure how to take my lifestyle shift.

The answer was yes, of course I would take any of her advice, for one simple reason: I was feeling better. I was able to bend my knee—which had been traumatized by the surgery to insert the titanium rod—and actually sit cross-legged in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). I was needing my crutches less and less, so much better was my balance. And in my regular medical checkups, my doctor was noticing a change: My wound was looking healthy, there were no signs of infection, and there was substantially less swelling in the leg than anticipated. I had movement in my toes and was even beginning to rotate and flex the foot. But what I was feeling on the inside was even more profound. To say that I felt calmer and more optimistic is one way to put it, but it was more than that. It was almost as if something inside me had been frozen, and I was feeling it melting.

In the next year I went through two more surgeries: one to take the screws out near my knee, which then allowed the bone to shift down toward the break, an excruciating event that happened in one sudden movement when I stood up, and another surgery to replace the titanium rod with a larger one that would stimulate growth. My doctor warned that the first rod was nearing failure, and if it broke my healing would again be in jeopardy.

But even after the surgeries, there was little evidence of growth, despite the fact that I was doing all I thought I could for my healing. Bone-graft surgery was scheduled; they would take marrow from my hip and put it on the break. Even my usually stoic surgeon said it was a painful process.

The prospect was depressing. I continued with my yoga, which led me to the healing meditation practice of Sat Nam Rasayan, which is where another practitioner meditates on your problem with you. During one session Hargo Pal Kaur Khalsa, one of America’s few expert practitioners of Sat Nam Rasayan, told me to release an intention into the universe. As I lay in Corpse Pose, what looped through my mind was the image of Michelangelo’s creation painting, where God and Adam stretch to touch fingertip to fingertip.

Some weeks later Hargo Pal and Gurmukh took me to see Guru Dev Singh, renowned in the Sikh community for his mastery of Sat Nam Rasayan. I don’t remember much of the day, since I was stretched out in a kind of twilight that is not quite sleep and not quite meditation. If a room can be dense with mental energy, this one was, with 50 people sitting or lying down, quiet as stones.

At a break I was introduced to Guru Dev, whom I expected to ask me about my leg. He didn’t. He just wanted to know about my horse. I told him Harley had been a racehorse bound for slaughter when he was rescued by a woman who gave him to me. I made a flip comment about me saving him because broken-down racehorses don’t have much value.

Guru Dev stopped me. “No,” he said, “you did not save him. He saved you. He is your guru. You know what is ‘guru?’ Guru means that which brings you from darkness into the light.”

My pre-op appointment came a few days before the bone-graft surgery. It was just a routine check; I’d had x-rays less than a month before, but my surgeon, who is a careful record keeper, ordered some anyway. When the film came back, he stood for several minutes looking at the pictures against a lighted screen.

“Well?” I finally said. “Anything you want to share with the class?”

“Huh,” he said, still looking at the film. “Huh.”

I got up and stood beside him. He pointed to my bone. There, in the gap that had remained vacant all this time, was the fuzzy image of something. From each end of the bone came a cloudy white form that peaked stretching out to points that touched at the tip. Michelangelo. I let out a hoot, and would have jumped up and down if I could have.

“Pretty good,” agreed my surgeon with his usual reserve. The surgery was canceled, and I went home with very precise instructions from my doctor: “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

I am sometimes asked if I think yoga cured me. Yes, it did, but not in the obvious sense of giving me back my leg. I also had the best of Western medicine on my side. But even though Western medicine has made it possible to reattach a body part, the brain and spirit can’t so easily reintegrate that which has been made separate. Yogi Bhajan, the man who is credited with bringing Kundalini Yoga to the West, says that yoga is the inner science of the Self. This is the science that offered me a posture for life, and created a whole person.

More than two years after my accident, the bone is now solid. I walk with a slight limp that tends to get worse when I’m tired. I indeed can’t run, but I can dance, and I do ride, five days a week. And while I still can’t achieve some asanas, neither can half the class. Every day, each of us just has to begin where we are.