Yoga – My Tangled Path Back to Myself
Today's guest blog post comes from a member of the Talking Yoga community, yoga teacher Christy Tennery-Spalding, shown here hiking at Fushimi Inari Tori. one of the most famous Shinto sites in Japan. (Photo Credit: Dan Tennery-Spalding) You can read more about Christy in her bio at the end of this post.
It takes a fair amount of courage to detangle your worth from your ability. When I talk about yoga as union, what I’m really talking about is witnessing ourselves and each other as holy, interconnected beings. In a culture that insists we’re never good enough, this is a radical act.
Our culture does not offer us the experience of inherent beauty very often. In the west, in particular, our worth comes with caveats, as something attached to productivity. The quest to subvert this norm, to claim my holiness in the midst of deep imperfection, is what led me to yoga. There, I found a new home on my mat, and the tools to wake up to my innate brilliance.
By the time I was twenty, I’d lived eight years with a daily pain level of six or above (on a scale of one to ten). My spine had developed a scoliosis curve that no over-the-counter painkiller would touch. My mind experienced depression, PTSD and anxiety. I missed class, work, and all sorts of fun.
Around that time, an orthopedic surgeon, practically licking his chops, told me that if I didn’t let him operate, I would be fitted for a walker by the time I was thirty. Aside from this threat being inherently ableist, as though a life with disability was a fate worse than death, I simply didn’t accept it as fact.
I told him to give me a year. If I couldn’t find a suitable solution on my own, I would return, and let him fuse 14 vertebrae. I never saw him again. Instead, I began a yoga practice.
This is the part of the story, where I’m supposed to tell you about how the clouds parted, the birds sang, and I fell in love with yoga. Truthfully, I hated literally every second of my first class. I could barely touch my toes and was in complete agony. I also hated how bad I was at it, how it felt like another thing I was failing.
But I kept showing up. It didn’t matter that I mangled the geometry of the poses or that the meditation at the end of class felt like wrestling every thinkable inner demon. I rolled out my mat, took a breath, and committed.
While not every class felt like an outright fight with my mind and body, many did. My accidental mantra for first year was, “I hate this.” I resented my teacher and my fellow students who seemed not to struggle as deeply as I did. Mostly, I resented my own body for its refusal to be as willowy and flexible as my classmates.
But I kept at it, determined to find relief. Eventually, I found the right teachers and a studio that felt warm and welcoming. Over time, I found things I actually enjoyed. I liked the chanting. That “legs up the wall” business was as close to peaceful as my little PTSD-ridden heart had felt in years. Flying into Warrior III felt deeply empowering. I became the only person in my yoga teacher training class who could pop right up into wheel, thanks to my flexible spine — even though I still needed two bolsters for seated meditation.
As it turns out, my scoliosis had given me some gifts after all. The anatomy terminology was a breeze, after years of studying my own skeleton. I was able to not just see, but understand poses from the inside out, since I lived so much of life from my interior experience. When I decided to become a teacher, I could relate to my students who struggled on a deep level in ways that my naturally bendy compatriots couldn’t.
More importantly, I stepped into my role as the powerful healer I was meant to be. With every sun salutation, every ujjayi breath, I experienced attention from myself that was loving, instead of critical. I began to trust my inner knowing and my ability to offer myself comfort.
And when comfort wasn't available, I learned to offer myself forgiveness and compassion. I could be present with myself, even under less-than-perfect circumstances. While my pain levels lessened and I began to get stronger, the scoliosis wasn’t gone completely. It likely never will be. A few years ago, the nerve pain in bottom of my foot was so intense that I thought I had a stress fracture.
I’m not “fixed.” Through yoga, I accept that I never will be. I understand that it’s a process, and I cultivate non-attachment to the outcome. But through yoga, I also understand that I was never “broken,” either. To say that yoga changed me is the understatement of a lifetime.
It’s as though I rebuilt my skeleton from scratch, albeit with different materials than the orthopedic surgeon would have chosen. I crafted it from self-respect, sincere curiosity, and deep intuition. Because yoga taught me — still teaches me — that I am precious and wise. Yoga offers me the opportunity to be my own best expert in my experience. I don’t need to listen to threats of being disabled. I can celebrate that status, and allow it to let me serve in my unique way.
Yoga continues to teach me that everything is connected. This connection means that I am not just a collection of sub-par connective tissue and mis-aligned bones. I am love in motion, holiness personified, regardless of what poses I can or can’t do.
My x-rays still make people cringe. People tell me that they don’t know how I live like this (answer: happily, as a matter of fact). What I know is that I would still be asleep if it weren’t for my scoliosis and this healing journey. I might still be wasting my time.
Worse still, I might still believe that I am only as good as my accomplishments. I might have gone through life forgetting my highest ability: to show up with love instead of fear.
About Christy Tennery-Spalding
Christy Tennery-Spalding is a self-care mentor, healer, activist, and writer. She works with world-changing individuals to help them craft amazing self-care practices. She is the creator of Hella Metta, a meditation program to cultivate fierce lovingkindness. In her free time, she enjoys frolicking in redwoods and soaking in hot springs. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their feral cats, Dorothy & Harriet. She makes her online home at ChristyTending.com.