We are so excited to feature a guest post by one of our very own #Tribe5 members (& upcoming Yoga Teacher trainee!) Justin Cook. Read on to learn more about Justin’s inspiring yoga journey.
Many years ago, I was wandering through the gym near my house with a good friend of mine, and we walked by a yoga class that was just getting ready to start. We spent a few minutes deciding whether we wanted to try it out, and eventually settled with, “Sure! Why not?”. Little did I know at that moment that starting yoga was something that would have an unbelievable impact on my life, and ultimately something that would move me through some of the hardest days of my life.
16 months ago, I suffered a severe injury to my back, to the extent that I had almost no feeling in most of the right half of my body. I remember my wife driving me to my first trip to the doctor, and they looked at me like they had absolutely no idea what to do to fix it. The doctor told me, “Well, no one has ever been paralyzed from your injury, so it should probably get better eventually…” That night, I went home, and wept for hours. I curled up on the couch; the feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming. I was 33, and I thought my life as I knew it was over forever. It took over a month to figure out that I had damaged the primary nerves in my back, with an eventual prognosis of, “In time, it should get better… probably…”
Before I became injured, I could (and routinely did) throw my body into poses, workouts – whatever – without really having to give it a second thought. Now, every movement of my body brought fear, anxiety, and despair. One thing having a severe and chronic injury has taught me is just how much my body did for me that I took for granted. I never really had to “think” about moving before, but after my injury, every action needed to be carefully planned out; every spot on the couch carefully constructed with pillows and blankets to ensure that something wouldn’t get pinched or moved the wrong way and lead to severe spasms.
These are the silent moments of chronic pain that no one talks about, but quickly spiral downhill. Every time I went to the doctor’s office, they would prescribe me pain medicine. I would tell them over and over, “I don’t want drugs to numb the pain, I want to get better.” It was at that point I started to realize that if I was ever going to truly heal, I needed to take charge myself. I continued with the doctor’s, physical therapists, and other treatments, but I realized I needed something more; I needed to learn to move my body again, on my own terms.
How do you re-learn to do all the things that your body doesn’t normally think about to move?
While it took several months for the primary pain to subside enough that I was able to slowly move around, I was still left with intermittent numbness, coupled with nerve pain, that at times felt so overwhelming I’d just fall apart. The worst part of a bad injury isn’t the pain; it’s the quiet moments when you’re in pain, and you wonder if everything will ever heal.
Fortunately, I am absolutely blessed to know several unbelievable human beings that are also fantastic yoga teachers, and without them, I honestly don’t know if I would be sitting here writing this like I am now.
Four months later, I had regained enough strength to attempt a return to yoga, and with the encouragement of those friends, I finally found my way back onto my mat. My first class back was a Yin Yoga class, which I’d always enjoyed and found very relaxing. However, when the body doesn’t do what it’s supposed to anymore, even a gentle yoga class can become a true test of will.
I set my mat out in the back of the room with what seemed like about 22 props, and prepared myself to feel like a total and utter failure. The teacher started the class, and since I couldn’t move as quickly, this forced me to truly listen to the cues in a way that I never really had before. She came over and offered assists and modifications that helped me move into the right position, and sometimes a gentle word of encouragement. By the end of the class, even though I’d only been able to do about 60% of what everyone else did, I didn’t feel like a failure. I’d survived. I’d made it through. I’d listened to my body, and hadn’t pushed it or tried to beat it into submission. Great yoga teachers hold the space to allow us to achieve our fullest expression – mentally, physically, and emotionally. And while in that first class back, my fullest expression was only 60% of what everyone else did, I left feeling like I might eventually get through this.
I came to that Yin Yoga class every Sunday for 2 months, and by the end of that time, I wasn’t just doing 60% of the poses – I was doing them all. That doesn’t mean I didn’t modify, or that I never had those nervous pangs – I did – but I stayed present with what I was feeling, and learned to be okay with it. Through the slow movements and long holds offered via my Yin Yoga practice, I learned to be okay with myself again.
Over the next several months, and with a little gentle prodding, I started attending Power Yoga classes again – and again, I found myself beginning to get stronger and stronger. I began to realize what yoga was really trying to teach me.
My yoga practice has taught me that it isn’t about getting strong or being able to do some super cool, Instagram-worthy yoga pose; It’s about showing up on my mat and listening to my body.
I went on to completed over 200 yoga classes that year, and while many of them physically knocked me on my butt, I left feeling mentally stronger every time. I make no promises about yoga being any sort of magical cure all. But mindfulness, and a practice that reminds you to remain present in the moment, sure won’t hurt.
While I will never fully heal, yoga gave me my life back – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I have about 90% of my strength and mobility back, and I’m getting better every day. While I appreciate the physical abilities that I have regained due to my yoga practice, I’ve learned something far more valuable. I’ve learned to be okay with the feelings of pain, doubt, and fear that my injury brings up; and I’ve learned that as bad I may feel at times, it’s not going to last forever.
Yoga has helped me come to terms with a valuable lesson in dealing with chronic pain: The pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Justin Cook is a father of a beautiful baby girl, husband, yoga fanatic, electrical engineer, and occasionally under the right conditions, a pianist and vocalist. When not practicing yoga around Northern VA and trying to meet every yogi around, he can be found playing board games and other table top adventures with his friends, playing the latest video games, traveling across the world with a yoga mat, and most often, lazing on the couch with his beagle Joanna.