Earlier this week, I met my former yoga instructor (now friend) for coffee. She asked me if I was still practicing yoga, and I said yes–but that I was doing it on my own, not in a group, and that I was not following any formal routines or strict series of poses. Instead, I now pay attention to what my body needs at any given moment, and use that as the basis for my ‘spontaneous’ workouts. If my body can do something, I do it. If my body can’t do something, I don’t do it (because I know that attempting to do so will only bring physical harm). I have fun with what I do, and I love the fact that every one of my ‘workouts’ is unique.
What I was describing, she told me, was the true essence of yoga–and she was very happy that I not only found it for myself, but that I continue to use it to improve my life and to keep on moving, despite the ever-present pain and disability.
When I talk about the fact that I now exercise on a regular basis, through alternate days of walking and yoga, I often receive angry messages from readers. These people tell me that it is not possible for someone with severe RA to exercise the way I do, hence I must either have non-severe RA (whatever that means, I don’t know) or that I must not have RA at all. Some go even further, and accuse me of being irresponsible for communicating my message that yes I am a person who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, and that yes I still continue to exercise!
But maybe this last piece is the part they understand the least. You see, I really don’t see what I’m doing as exercise. I see it as moving. And I see it as continuing to do everything within my control to keep on moving–because I know exactly what it feels like to not be able to move.
Case in point: I have been living with severe muscle contractures in my back for the past few years. This means that my back muscles are in a constant state of tension, i.e. they are both losing their elasticity and starting to shorten. Last year both my rheumatologist and my physical therapist told me that there was no pill or injection that could counteract what was going on in my back, and that the only way for me to be able to keep on moving was to, well, figure out a way to keep on moving. More specifically, I had to start doing range of motion and strengthening exercises for my back.
And yes, the thought of moving something that hurt so much seemed–at the time–completely illogical. My back screams out in excruciating pain when I move it, and you’re telling me that the only answer is to move it more? I have since found out for myself that yes, moving it more is indeed the right answer. (And this, from someone who had to undergo months of physical therapy treatments where electrical currents were used to perform the initial stretching of my back muscles–to call these sessions torture is not an understatement–so that I could then try to maintain such flexibility on my own.)
After months and years of working on this one specific part of my body, I have reached a point where I am now able to move my back with much more ease…but the trick is, I have to continue to do my range of motion and strengthening exercises…all…the…time…so much so that if I go more than 48 hours without working on my back, it starts to seize up. (Hence, my alternating days of yoga practice that I mention above.)
What about my walking? I’ve made no secret of the fact that over the past half year, I’ve started walking long distances on a very regular basis. Again, some people take this as a sign that I don’t have RA, or that I am in remission (both statements are untrue). I still continue to have significant pain in my toes, ankles, knees, and hips–this remains unchanged. But I have also considerably strengthened my legs, and this counts for a lot. Most importantly, it allows me to not have to use my cane and crutches as frequently as I once did, which in turn greatly reduces the load that my continually-weakening hands have to bear. (The eternal Catch 22 of RA: you need crutches in order to walk, but you need strength in your hands/arms in order to be able to use crutches.)
Twice already I have come back from the verge of being almost completely crippled, to regaining my mobility. This doesn’t mean that my pain has gone away, or that it doesn’t hurt to move. It only means that I know where my body is on a day-to-day basis, and I also know that if I don’t continue moving each and every day–as much as I possibly can–that this disease will very quickly get the best of me.
For me, it has nothing to do with exercise, and everything to do with movement (if that makes any sense). So much so, that I regard both my walking and my yoga as moving meditations. I light a candle and some incense if I am indoors, or listen to some relaxing music if I am outdoors. Most importantly, I focus on each and every breath, and on each and every movement. I prove to myself that even though my brain is continually sending me signals to not move (it’s own built-in reaction to receiving continual pain signals), that I am indeed finding a way to still do so.
So is it possible for a person like me to move the way I do? Absolutely. It’s not easy, but with determination and the right mindset, it is possible…and as with everything else in life, what is right for my body is different from what is right for other’s bodies.
Every step I take, and every yoga posture I hold, serve to remind me that I, and not my RA, am in control of my body.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!