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Turtle Girl Tries Yoga

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“And one more… That’s right… Let your hips float up to the ceiling. You’re all doing beautifully.”

Not me. I’m a freak.

I am bad at downward facing dog, which is a terrible sign for my new relationship with yoga. Down dog is the most important pose. Everything comes back to it. No matter what you do, you end up in down dog, contemplating the fickle, meandering course of your life.

I have to keep shaking out my right hand, which seems to be filling up with blood, so it doesn’t explode — so blood doesn’t spatter the sleek blond ponytail of the slender, stunning girl in the Columbia tank top next to me. I am like a three-legged dog. I’m panting a little. I feel people’s eyes on me, and it’s possible they’re wondering if I have rabies.

Go home! my back is yelling. Watch TV! You are not designed to move. You are made to slump. And this is actually true, my back is not exaggerating. I have scoliosis. I am literally made to slump.

I should not be here. I should leave this whole yoga-ing thing to the graceful, extremely pregnant woman to my right, the 70-year-old man in those very shiny, very tight pants, and the beautiful young woman in the Columbia tank top, who does not appear to have broken a sweat in the past year or so. I should return to the laptop from whence I came. But I don’t, because my mom’s voice pops into my head. Or rather, my mom’s back. Maybe both.

“Stand up straight,” said my mom, constantly, when I was a kid. “Shoulders back. You’re slouching.”

I was always slouching. My shoulders rounded in, and as an awkward teenager, I felt self-conscious about thrusting my chest out and my chin up. I thought people would whisper, “Well, look who thinks she’s the Queen of England!” And then I’d have to say, “Not me! I don’t think that! I’m just like you guys, and I’m from America!”

My mom tugged on my shoulders, and I pushed her hands away. Alone in my room, I looked in the mirror and experimented with straightening up. I discovered that I couldn’t.

I was 14 or so when I was diagnosed. “Your back curves like a dancer’s,” the doctor said. A dancer! I thought. I must be pretty! “This is not a good thing,” he added quickly. “There will be problems down the road.” He didn’t elaborate.

My lower back really did look pretty. My waist tapered dramatically. My upper back and shoulders were not so lucky. That part reminded me of a turtle (a dancing turtle! Hmm…not great). The doctor told me to stand against a wall for 20 minutes every day. I nodded and tried to look obedient. And then I went home and never stood against a wall. Not even once. What can you do when you’re standing against a wall for 20 minutes with your shoulders pressed painfully back? You can’t even make out with your boyfriend like that for very long.

So I did the understandable thing: I ignored my back. And I ignored my mother with her perfect posture and her outmoded beauty ideals. Even models slouch. My friend who wanted to be a model was always practicing her slouch. It was nearly perfect.

And then I did another understandable thing: I grew up. I went to college and moved to New York City, and like everyone else, I became a body image blogger. I realized almost immediately that every other woman in the city, and possibly the world, did yoga and never seemed to have time to eat. So I distinguished myself by eating a lot of pizza and not doing any yoga at all. I felt defiant. I sat hunched over my laptop all day, every day, writing about how cool and defiant I was. And how much pizza I could consume. The pain in my back and shoulders was like a consistent, low buzzing in the background. I didn’t listen. I was busy. I was… Turtle Girl! Mild mannered writer by day… um, the same by night. With even worse posture. And this trend continued until my mom’s spine fell apart.

She didn’t tell me — I heard from my dad. It was already bad, by the time she finally went to the doctor. She had been quietly bearing the pain, and now it was excruciating. She woke up screaming in agony in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she had trouble moving. For a few weeks, smiling seemed like a huge effort, and the pain was visible on her face. “I’m okay,” she said, annoyed, when I asked. She didn’t want to talk about it. After a litany of tests, she was told she had spinal stenosis, a degenerative spinal condition and the first of many diagnoses. Her doctor recommended surgery. My mom refused. Self-reliant and stubborn, she chose yoga instead. She went nearly every day. She practiced on her own, too.

During her examinations, the doctors found that she had always had scoliosis. Some of them suspected that she’d been compensating for it in harmful ways for years, which had accelerated and possibly caused her other spinal problems. Her physical therapists and later the Alexander Technique practitioners she met with helped her work towards undoing the damage of a lifetime of unaddressed back issues.

“You have to go to yoga,” she told me. “I don’t want this to happen to you.” There was fear in her voice. Fear that I never heard when (if ever) she talked about herself.

Suddenly, my spine was at stake, and the aching stiffness I experienced every day struck me as dangerous, instead of normal (What? Doesn’t every 25-year-old’s back hurt like hell in the morning?). I went to a doctor, and explained my mom’s situation. He took out a prescription pad, and wrote “Iyangar” on it. A type of yoga.

“You have to go,” he said. “You need to strengthen your spine.”

And so, grudgingly, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, with toenails that knew nothing of pedicures, I went. Straight to the back of the yoga studio, I went, with my borrowed mat that smelled of failure and feet. And in that spot, I endured great humiliation and the occasional tiny triumph. I went into my three-legged downward facing dog and wondered if there was such a thing as a hand aneurysm. I tried and failed to “gently rock back and forth” on my sitz bones. I was completely and utterly incapable of ever, ever touching my toes. And then I tugged my collar up and slapped some sunglasses on as I exited the building, in case anyone might recognize me and realize that I was now yet another woman who did yoga. I treated myself to large, greasy lunches afterwards, to prove that I wasn’t, really.

After six months, the yoga worked for my mom. Her pain subsided. She was able to garden again, and she didn’t list to one side when she sat. She didn’t stop going to yoga. She was great at it now. She loved it.

“You know what’s the most relaxing pose?” she said when we were talking on the phone one day.

I waited, dreading it.

“Downward facing dog. You’ll see.”

She was doing yoga as we spoke. I was eating my way through a box of mini cupcakes, lying on the couch.

“Welcome… Let’s go around the room and share our names and any concerns we might be having about our bodies today.”

When it’s my turn, I say, “Kate, scoliosis.” Just like I say every time. It feels a little less embarrassing now. Columbia girl never has anything wrong, but I’m over it.

Yoga doesn’t save my mom’s back, in the end. Her spine is stubborn, just like her, and her pain shifts higher up, and begins a new attack. She can no longer practice, and she misses yoga terribly. But she is right about one thing:

In a few months, though I refuse to buy yoga clothes or even a mat, I am able to hold downward facing dog for five whole breaths. My hands do not explode. My back does not break. I feel victorious. Maybe I’ll never be able to stand up perfectly straight. And I will never give up on cupcakes and pizza. But damn it, Turtle Girl is getting good at yoga! She wishes she could save her mom’s back, too, but if she only manages to saves her own, that would still be pretty heroic. TC mark

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  • http://twitter.com/JonTargaryen Carly Fowler (@JonTargaryen)

    I need to do yoga, terribly. My pain doctor recommended it to me a few years ago (slouching over like I do puts pressure on my already ill organs). Not to mention my rounded shoulders and back that is forever in pain. I can’t touch my toes or hold downward dog, either.

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/06/turtle-girl-tries-yoga/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

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  • Mr Shankly

    Glad to see you’re finally coming out of your shell.

    • Mel

      I wish there was a ‘like’ button on here…

    • http://ufosandrainbows.wordpress.com ufosandrainbows

      well done

  • Sara in WI

    I, too, have scoliosis and have been contemplating Yoga, after this article I think it’s time. While you may not have saved your Mom’s back you may have saved mine, so thank you!

  • http://nocturnalcharm.com grizzledhipster

    Whomever wrote this is hilarious..
    Not only did i laff uncontrollably at the “Queen of ENgland” Line.. You’ve also made me decide to get off my sizable rear end and try this crap..

  • Jeannie

    I adore this article, mainly because I’m going through the exact same thing. My back and shoulder issues sent me to physical therapy. That’s ending soon and the doctor tells me to start doing yoga at least three times a week. I’m so inflexible I can barely reach past my knees standing up and I’m pretty sure I’ll be the laughing stock of whatever class I’m stuck going to. Wish me luck.

  • Katherine

    I have some lower back issues and slouch much too much, and down-dog totally still kicks my ass some days. But I really just have to say: RELAX, GUYS! No one has ever laughed at someone else in a yoga class. No one is even looking at you, let alone judging you. I’ve been doing yoga for years, and I still screw up poses and fall on my ass on a regular basis. The only person laughing when I wipe out is me. I know it’s super cool to be a rebel and hate on something “trendy”, but yoga is just so good for you! And there is nothing better for managing chronic pain issues/preventing problems down the road. Yoga and swimming are the only forms of exercise I can think of that you can keep doing your entire life. Relax, don’t take yourself so seriously, stop being so afraid to “fail” at something (although, seriously, how does one actually fail at yoga exactly?), and just try it. It might not be for you, or it might just not be the studio for you, but what could it hurt? Especially if your doctor/PT prescribes it. Would you refuse to take your medicine because you’re worried it might look silly?

    Anyway, I really dug the article! Good luck, Turtle Girl!

  • http://www.eatthedamncake.com/2012/06/22/christine-eats-cake-and-gets-a-piercing/ Eat the Damn Cake » christine eats cake (and gets a piercing)

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  • http://twitter.com/CjEggett C J Eggett (@CjEggett)

    Made me sit up straight!

  • http://gravatar.com/truemountain viviane

    kate- i struggle with the downward dog too. super difficult pose for me and i modify it alot. experimenting with what type of yog i do and also using props have helped me alot. viviane

  • http://gravatar.com/browneyedyogini Toni

    Kate-I would totally recommend that you ask around for a teacher who maybe specializes in people with back issues and have a couple of individual sessions with them…that way they can teach you any modifications that would be helpful..downward dog is hard for all in the beginning.. and some days it just is no matter how long one has been practicing…keep it up

  • http://rootwholebody.com/ Root Whole Body

    Root Whole Body offers a variety of services to support one’s healthy lifestyle like yoga, massage, organic skin care, acupuncture, chiropractic, naturopathic, wellness and health.

  • http://ufosandrainbows.wordpress.com ufosandrainbows

    Oh man. My experience is so similar. I was diagnosed at 14, given all sorts of exercises to do, a brace to wear, and instructions to sit up straight. I blew it all off for years until the pain and body image issues became too much to bear. I too took up yoga at 25 and now, 3 years later, my back feels soooo much better and my confidence is up. It’s hard to feel attractive when you have that whole “ohmygodi’muneven” dialogue going on in your head. I used to wish I could trade my scoliosis for a weight problem or some other situation more feasibly fixable. I’ve accepted it. Buying and trying on clothing used to be a nightmare for me. Now everything hangs alright. Scoliosis is a pain in the ass. If it wasn’t for yoga, I dunno what I’d do. Thanks for sharing your story. Good luck!

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