A personal essay about a car accident a few years ago and the challenges of healing not only your body, but your mind.
I know I am breathing in.
I know I am breathing out.
I started yoga on a whim. I’d tried to become a runner for a solid six months and with four 5K races under my belt, I’d realized I hated every second of using my legs to propel me forward at any speed above a fitness walk. Yoga it was.
My first class I used a cheap pink yoga mat that I had picked up wandering around my local TJ Maxx, most likely while in pursuit of yet another oversized sweater. It had flowers on it and cost $10. My yoga instructor was tall and had the figure I’d always associated with yoga – thin & lithe. I was fully prepared to hate the class, go home, and then crack sarcastic jokes about it to my husband. Yet there I was, barefoot, wearing running tights, and not quite sure what to expect.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of that first class save the way the gray winter light shone through the factory windows and the view of the forest before me. I also remember savasana and the feeling I had as I awoke wiggling my fingers and toes. I wanted more.
And so I became quietly obsessed that winter. Oversized sweater purchases were replaced by yoga pants purchases. Books about the history of yoga, the moral implications of the westernization of yoga, and yoga memoirs. Blocks of classes. A new natural rubber yoga mat. A yoga bag. I followed all the right Facebook pages, read all the articles about improving my flexibility and how to enter certain poses the correct way. And of course, I went to class. Sometimes I would squeeze classes in four times a week, walking from the old mill I worked in, to the mill my studio was housed in. I tried to practice at home. I was always going after that feeling. I watched others in class, comparing and contrasting as I held my breath to get into poses:
Why couldn’t I bend backwards like that?
Why couldn’t I do a headstand after all this time?
Would I always be so weak?
Would I always be so out of shape?
As my frustration grew, my interest declined. Books gathered dust and faded on the side table on my sunporch. My pink yoga mat had started to fall apart and was scrunched up to fit into the trash. The new green mat sat in its bag on a chair in my dining room, unmoved.
On a breezy day in April my blue Honda Fit collided with a minivan head on. At the moment of impact pain radiated across my chest and I could no longer breathe. I was in so much pain and out of breath I just managed to tell my husband in the passenger seat to get our dog and get out of the car, but I was completely frozen. Glass covered my body, there was blood on my hands and my breath was stuck. I remember apologizing. To myself, to my dog who was injured and in shock, to my husband, to anyone and everyone that tried to help me. Paramedics told me the pain across my entire chest was just from the seatbelt and the airbag. Over and over again I tried to breathe, but I couldn’t. They took me by ambulance to the hospital.
Sternal fracture. Internal bleeding on my kidney. Stomach contusion. Ankle tendinitis. Ovarian dermoid cyst discovered on one of my many CTs. A laundry list of diagnoses came at me after a long, sleepless night in the hospital. The next evening I came home. My husband’s mother was tasked to look after me and I decided to take a shower, having sat too long in bed. When I slowly, painstakingly took off my clothes and glimpsed myself in the mirror I realized my body was a stranger; it was unrecognizable. I took a long, hot shower, washing blood off my arms from the IVs, my hands from the glass that had cut them, and my chest from the airbag and seatbelt. I couldn’t lift my right arm and when I wasn’t trying to gently cleanse my swollen, bruised abdomen or my hair, I just stood in the water, gently cradling it with my opposite arm.
Some days I cried so much I hyperventilated. Apologizing to my husband through sobbing gasps. I often couldn’t decide what I needed to apologize for anymore. Other days I took pain pills and I’d sleep all day to take the ache out of every shallow breathe I took. My husband would bribe me to leave the house. I can remember the first day I left, refusing to wear my now bloodied bright orange winter coat. Sitting cold and numb in the car on a short drive to the next town over. I came home even emptier than when I left. I found a therapist.
Post-traumatic stress reactions are often triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms include flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts of the event. In therapy, I’d talk about the accident obsessively. Again and again. Every minute detail, every memory. One day I told her how some nights, I couldn’t sleep because the moment I closed my eyes the scene would replay in in my mind, with eerie detail.
“Sarah, you know what that is.”
I looked at her, not sure what to say.
“That’s a flashback. You can call it what it is.”
My yoga mat moved from the dining room chair to the empty downstairs guest room, out of sight. My body ached every single day. I went to therapy every week. I had surgery. My body began healing.
I did not take my mat out again until August. I left my old studio for a new one. I walked to class early in the morning, when the fog hung so low over the mountains I felt like I was walking inside the clouds. My yoga bag was slung over my shoulder, the strap lightly tugging on my sternum which always had a mild ache that I had all but adjusted to.
Class was a struggle. Downward dog made my chest & shoulders ache. My old stand-by, shoulder stand proved to be completely out of my reach. I laid on my back in preparation, ready to reach my feet into plow pose and then up into shoulder stand, and I couldn’t get get my legs behind me. I tried again the next week. And the next. It hurt my neck, my shoulders, and my chest. Pain would radiate through my neck down into my right shoulder and arm for days afterwards; I developed a steady routine of lime seltzer and ibuprofen twice a day to ward off the worsening neck pain and the new tension headaches that had developed. It was easy to ignore the pain and to hide it; it was my fault. I had to keep moving forward.
For me, trauma has always been dealt with in one way: muscle through it until I can pretend it never happened. Get back to the way things were before. To who I was before. Pick up the broken pieces and hastily glue them back together, so I’m whole again. But when you don’t take your time fixing something that is broken, it never goes back together quite right. Sometimes pieces are missing. And sometimes you realize that maybe, you’ve built something completely different.
A friend invited me to a restorative class. I had never gone to those classes. Too easy, I’d scoffed. How would I ever become a real, upside down, vinyasa flowing yogi if I was rolling around on the floor for an hour? But I went, for friendship. In that class, I laid over a bolster. My chest up toward the ceiling, my arms relaxed at my sides, and I felt everything open. My breath flowed easily. The muscles that had been so sore, so tight, went lax. I left class that day feeling changed. I couldn’t place it, the change or what was different. I chalked it up to the comfy poses and left it at that.
I went back to that class the next week. And then to another class for stretching. And then to another class. I stopped going to my early morning class, I stopped thinking about my skill level or what clothes to wear. I would get to class 15 minutes early and eagerly roll my mat out so I could drape my body over that bolster before class began. I would feel my ribs stretching apart, opening my heart, my breath.
At the last class, I got it. I finally got it, after nearly three years. As my instructor reminded us to always come back to the breath, to always be mindful,
I know I am breathing in.
I know I am breathing out.
Throughout class with every asana I repeated that in my head with every single breath I took. Feet planted firmly in triangle pose, I know I am breathing in. Hands at heart center, I know I am breathing out. As class wound down, I once again draped my backbody over the bolster for savasana. Eyes closed gently. My belly filling, then my chest, with breath. And when I awoke, I had that feeling, wiggling fingers and toes.