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Yoga with the Rod: Accessibility, Availability and Acceptance in Your Yoga Practice

I never thought I could do yoga. Despite being a fitness instructor, having a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and having worked in health and wellness for most of my adult life, I told anyone and everyone who brought up the subject of yoga (including my own internal musings) that yoga was a great practice, but unfortunately it just wasn’t something that I could physically do. Yoga was something that only really bendy people could do, right? Well, I was and still am not bendy. More specifically, my spine is not bendy, and this is not something that will ever change. I don’t mean to sound negative in that statement, I am merely stating the obvious, because.. and here is the kicker… I have a titanium rod in my back. This stellar piece of metal was surgically placed underneath my spine in 1982

To make it more fun for years to come, my vertebrae were then fused together from L3 (lumbar 3) up to T5(thoracic 5) or T3 (I can never remember, as numbers are not my strong point). Therefore, these fused vertebrae move together as a unit. So, as you can imagine, I am not a bendy lady. SPOILER ALERT *** I have been practicing and teaching yoga for a decade****

One of the more common statements I hear from people who are interested in trying yoga, but haven’t yet begun a yoga practice, is:

  • “I am afraid to try yoga because I don’t think I will be good at it.” Or maybe they have an injury or limitation or maybe even a significant disability and they think that yoga is inaccessible to them.

  • “I can’t do yoga, I have knee (shoulder, back, wrist, ad infinitum) problems.”

  • “I would love to try yoga but I’m too old. I will feel intimidated with all the young people in the room.”

  • “I’m not good at yoga”

  • And my favorite, “I am not flexible enough”

Well people, I am living proof that you do not have to be flexible to practice yoga. That you can have injuries, or limitations, or disabilities, or fears, that you can be older (I will be 50 this year) and not only can you do yoga, but your yoga practice will help you overcome these obstacles Or, if like me and my rod, overcoming isn’t a possibility, yoga teaches you to love and accept yourself where you are at that moment, to be mindful of your body, to be in the present and release fear and expectation and to be exactly who you are, body, mind and spirit.

So, my answer to the above statements generally is:

“If you are on your mat, you are good at yoga”

This, of course, is both metaphorical and, also, true. It means that anyone can do yoga and that all it takes is getting on your mat (and if you don’t have a mat, you can still do yoga, hence the metaphor) and practicing your yoga, whatever that means to you. It might be taking a yoga class, or in this time of social distancing, an online yoga practice. It might be a home practice that you create for yourself. Maybe restorative yoga is your jam and you can spend hours all comfy on your bolsters and blankets, finding that space between consciousness and sleep. Maybe you are a power yoga afficionado, and you can twist yourself up into a pretzel. Maybe your yoga practice isn’t about the asanas, but more about the mediation. Perhaps you spend your practice sitting quietly in stillness.

So what is my yoga jam, I hear you all asking, quietly through your computers? The rod and I prefer hot yoga. Let’s travel back to 2009, I have just turned 39 and the rod is 27. Twenty-seven years of living with vertebral fusion, during which time, I gave birth to three kids (it would be a whole other blog to talk about natural childbirth with the rod… no epidurals for me!) and for nearly two decades had been teaching a variety of fitness classes, from Jane Fonda era high impact aerobics to step classes, to post-natal stroller fitness, aquatics and more. Yoga was becoming more and more popular, and despite my many protestations that I could never do yoga, there began a subtle shift in my mind. Maybe I could try it? After all, the only things the doctors said I could not do after surgery was tackle football (not a problem), ride a horse (still ok there, and I think that restriction has been lifted but it was a great excuse at summer camp) and roller coasters (also a restriction that has been lifted but I like to invoke it at theme parks since I am not a fan). But, Hot Yoga was compelling. Everyone was talking about it, the detox properties, the great work-out, the super sweat, the calming effect.

“I need to detox,” I thought to myself, “I have had titanium in my body since 1982!” And since clearly, I had been following the fitness trends since the Jane Fonda days, hot yoga would just be the next logical step. Sweat… I am a Florida-raised girl, so I love the heat. And, if you had asked my kids back in 2009 if I needed something to be calmer, I am sure that would have all responded with an enthusiastic “YES!” I also figured that a hot room would make it easier for me to get into postures, as my

muscles would be more warm and I would have time in the 26 posture practice to learn the poses and figure out how to modify them for my body. It worked. I took my first hot yoga class (also my first yoga class ever) in November of 2009. It was a 90 minute practice, in an approximately 104 degree room, that followed a standard 26 posture series. I LOVED it. Of course, I told the instructor about the rod before I took the class with my standard disclaimer:

“Hi, I’m Melissa. I have a titanium rod in my back but, don’t worry, I know my body and you can’t hurt me. Just don’t touch my back.”

Professional as she was (and still is), she welcomed me to class and the rod and I are still practicing more than 10 years later. I started teaching hot yoga one year after I began my practice and have in the subsequent decade added in other types of yoga and other studios to both my practice and my teaching. In my years of teaching, I have come across many types of yogis and they are all amazing. I have had many bendy people in my class of all ages from an 11 year old gymnast who came with her mom and was exceptionally well-behaved and excited, to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s that can get their foreheads closer to the floor in a wide leg straddle fold that I can.

I have seen many people begin their yoga practice without being able to touch their toes, or grab their foot for standing bow or be able to straighten their arms, who with time and patience in their practice have seen changes in their flexibility. I have worked with people with mental illness, people with depression or anxiety or sometimes people that are just going through a particularly hard time.

I have taught pregnant women, people with knee injuries, shoulder problems, breast cancer survivors post-mastectomies, people living with cancer, people that are hard of hearing or visually impaired. One of my students is a close friend who is an amputee (she is a true inspiration, but that is her story to tell). And in my decade of teaching, I have even come across 3 people with the same vertebral fusion that I have. They too, practice with a rod.

So, the moral of this story is… yoga is for everyone. It is accessible, it is available and it is acceptance at its best. Just ask the rod.

Melissa Feldman

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