Thursday, March 21, 2013

Looking for the Ease

This blog is only one day old, and already I'm in touch with others like me. Worn out, painful hips, technically 'too young' for hip replacement. Is this a new phenomenon? Did people's hips seize up like this a hundred years ago? I wonder now if my Grandpa with arthritis who walked with two canes, after a fall from an apple tree suffered as I do. Still, by the time he had the fall, he was 80.

According to the nice physiotherapist at the Joint Replacement Clinic, arthritis is hereditary. That means that I can't blame teaching 20+ aerobics classes per week in the 80's, or doing thousands of grands battements (that's dance language for high kicks) in my favourite butoh/contemporary fusion dance class. It can't be penance for binge dieting in my 20's, or living concurrent fitness fanatic and party girl lifestyles. The pain that keeps me from dancing has been in my genes, waiting to pounce, no matter what choices I made. Good thing I dove full-on into life while I could!

Not that I don't continue to be as active as I can manage. My partner, Zack and I practice yoga together every morning. Almost every morning... We do a variation on the Vijnana series, taught by Orit Sen-Gupta. Standing Poses on Tuesday, Backbends Wednesday, Seated Poses and Twists on Thursday. On Fridays we do a flow that suits what we need. Saturday and Monday we do Restorative practice (ahhhh...) and Sundays we sleep in.

I do my best in my practice to focus on the good stuff. To accept the pain, work in alignment, and look for places of ease. It's hard not to hear in my head and body the echoes of what I could do before. It's a big switch, after a lifetime of stretching, to exercise with diminishing returns. Certain stretches, Pigeon pose, for example, feel more like an exercise in patience than a stretch. I can exhale, breath energy, imagine softening till the (sacred) cows come home, and nothing happens.

Still, this morning, towards the end of our practice, I found some ease. I found the joy in the seated twists, with my legs propped and still. I felt my pelvis sending roots into the earth, my spine singing into the twist like the robins heralding the coming Spring. I remembered the joy of lifting my heart in the dance, for just a moment.

Which brings me to gratitude. Because it always comes back to gratitude. Though I'll have to live with this for up to a year, eventually there is a solution. I've talked to plenty of hip replacement 'survivors' and they all report this: 'NO MORE PAIN'. I'm not stuck with daily pain forever, like plenty of other folks. For that I give thanks every day.

And I do my research, so when the time comes, I can make informed choices. Here's a column that appeared recently in the the Globe and Mail. A not-so-happy ending.



  1. Hi Anthea,

    I first met you in the lobby of MainDance when you had blue hair. I was in awe of your strength and you were a dance role model for me (even though I was way way to shy to speak very much).

    I have a sore right hip too! Mine is related to a few cycling accidents, and some SI joint instability. I am still working toward a clear diagnosis. I am awaiting bone scan results... so I'm not certain if I inherited my granny's rheumatoid arthritis.

    I didn't teach 20 aerobics classes a week in the 80's but I did in the 90's. I ran triathlons, and as for those grand battements...

    I started yoga in earnest after my second cycling accident as remedial work to help me stay stretched out for dance. Hooray for yoga.

    When I stopped dancing in 2007 I tried a whole slew of other kinds of work, thinking perhaps that the body conscious (aware) lifestyle and daily physical practice were to blame for the chronic pain in my hip and back.

    I studied horticulture, thinking a study of my environment would shift the focus from the study of myself. This did happen, and I love what I learned, but I did move away from daily practice. I started a landscaping company. Then one day while shoveling gravel for 8 hours I realized that pain was worse not better.

    So fast forward to today and what I wanted to share with you. A great physiatrist here directed me to a pain clinic where I very reluctantly attended a short lecture on the nature of chronic (persistent) pain. What they explained really helped. What I learned from them you definitely already know - because of the practice that you described. But here is a summary anyways:

    Chronic pain affects our nervous system. People who wake up in pain, are already in 'fight or flight' or the sympathetic nervous system.

    Chronic pain programs our brain to be hyper vigilant around the area that is hurt. There is an anticipation of pain in our day to day pedestrian movement. The alarm bells, or signals to stop movement can occur before there is tissue damage, or even just as an echo of when there was tissue damage. Pain signals do not necessarily indicate tissue damage.

    So when they talked about how to manage pain. They listed some steps
    1 - Be aware
    2 - Breathe
    3- Establish a baseline of activities
    4 - Exercise

    Having a physical routine (daily practice) establishes an even baseline and helps to calm the nervous system. This means less pain alarms from the brain. If the movement is not rote... so not walking or swimming, but something like Tai Chi, then we can use awareness to move through the hyper vigilance. They stressed learning new movement, but I would argue that as a dancer you could do any movement with awareness.

    So the purpose of a physical practice in chronic pain management is not to have a strong body or a healthy cardiovascular system. The purpose is to shift oneself away from the sympathetic nervous system and toward the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, the purpose is the calming of the nervous system. In fact they indicated that pain levels may increase with a physical practice, primarily because awareness increases. But here is the kicker - Because we feel calmer, our ability to handle the pain is increased. Oh yeah, and endorphins play a really important role in minimizing pain signals. (no kidding right?)

    And here's the part that completely blew my mind. Don't judge the physical practice by how high or low your pain levels are. Judge it by your mood and energy.

    So I went back to yoga. And my awareness of pain increased, but wow did I ever feel happier, more relaxed, more like myself.

    And pigeon is a beast, I have tried practicing 'thread the needle' as an alternative when the signals are too loud.

    There was way more information in the lecture and I am working through a reading list that the physiatrist gave me:

    'Managing Pain Before it Manages You' 3rd edition. Margaret A Caudill.

    'The Pain Detective.' Finestone

    Here is the pain clinics website:


    Love Ronya

  2. Hello Ronya,
    Nice to hear you here as my first comment! I remember you, though not that particular meeting. Thanks so much for your nice words. I was probably feeling as shy as you, underneath. I was pretty insecure back then! I think I remember you from Barbara's class, where all those grands battements happened. She has also had a hip replacement - did you know? I wonder about getting in touch with her, to see if she has any advice from the other side.

    I'm so sorry to hear you have the same painful hip. Thanks for sharing your story, and the info on managing pain. Crazy! It makes sense that Restorative Yoga is helpful in calming the nervous system, along with gently pushing boundaries of more active postures. Sounds like I'd better attend that lecture. You did a great job of summing up the ideas presented.. thanks!

    Let me know the results of your bone scan, Ronya. I hope it's an easier fix than mine. Nice to be in touch!