“Oh Sweet Pea!” she said to me before giving me a happy hug. It was such a sweet sentiment, and the imagery of a delicate flowering plant was perfect for the moment.
I had just finished a flow class with my teacher, Dana Flynn. After class, I shared with her that, for the first time in 13 years of practicing, I felt safe and strong enough to let someone drop me back into a wheel. It was a really big deal for me, that little, innocent Urdhva Danurasana.
“Just so you know, D, this is my first wheel drop-back. Ever.”
I whispered those words to her as I readied myself to reach up and back into unknown territory. Her piercing eyes got a millimeter wider, and she whispered back, “OK.” She held me, I reached back, and I arched my spine. My palms hit the mat, I didn’t crash, and then it was over. It was a “wow” moment for me that lasted about two seconds.
Those two seconds were the climax of a 13-year journey to happiness.
Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with a pair of spine problems, similar to ones that have plagued people like Carrie Ann Inaba from Dancing with the Stars and actress Jennifer Grey. In my case, I suffered daily from sharp and numbing pain from my neck all the way down my shoulder, arm, lower back and right leg. Sometimes I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes. Most nights my entire body throbbed, and I couldn’t sleep without medication. Add that to my high-stress job at the time, and I was a hot mess. My life was dominated by constant agony. In a word, I was unhappy.
In the midst of many medical treatments, I went to a yoga class and really didn’t like it. Doctors told me they would have to cut through the front of my neck to fix my spine. No, thank you. Running out of treatment options, I kept going to yoga class and did what I could. Most of the time I was just on the floor in pain. I told the teachers not to touch me, fearing they would do something to make it worse.
Over time, things started to shift. My body started to feel better, and I started to move more. My mind became calmer. A skeptic, I was so intrigued by these little bits of growth and transformation that I started going to class more often just to figure out what was happening to me! Yoga saved me in more ways than I understood at the time.
Who knew such a change could happen? Actually, science did. “Stress reduction is key to reducing pain. When patients are depressed and anxious, they often report worse pain,” Dr. Paul Christo told me. He’s one of the top pain doctors in the U.S. and a champion of yoga and meditation as therapy.
Many other medical studies show that even mild exercise can help us feel happier and healthier, because movement releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Those all-natural chemicals can make you feel better, if not euphoric. In other words, when you're less stressed and happier, you feel less pain, and vice versa.
Gradually, through yoga, I had learned how to strengthen my back and how to breathe to ease my thoughts of panic, suffering and stress. I took these bits and pieces of my practice off the mat and into real life. My life began to change. I excavated the happy me, which had been hidden for years. Movement and breath produced greater clarity and peace. I experienced a kind of happiness that healed me. Yoga was clearly my medicine, and it was kind of amazing.
Today, I'm generally pain free and more centered than ever before; I mean, no one had to slice into my neck, right?
But a wheel? With my spine? Could I even bend that way? I was scared of those backbends and had been for so long. On that day particular day, I was experiencing the perfect mix of happiness: the timing of the training, the sequence, the music, the dancing, the singing, and finally feeling pain free enough to let go of my fears. Poetically, it happened in the midst of a teacher program called “Ayurveda and Healing.”
I had gotten my groove back long ago, but it showed up, big time, in a two-second moment on the mat. I trusted, opened my heart and fell back into a space that had once eluded me. I was so happy that I felt empowered to move toward something I thought I could not do.
Each day is different, so wheel drop-backs might not happen for me all the time. But, most importantly, after all this time, I've cultivated an ability to see more possibilities than barriers — in backbends and other parts of my life.
It might seem very sudden, that little two-second breakthrough, but it wasn’t. It really did take 13 years to blossom. Now, with a maha heart opener in reach at any given time, who knows what the next 13 years will bring? One thing I do know: happiness led me to drop back into a wheel and fall in love with small moments that are as colorful and precious as a sweet pea.