This is a story of two friends, John and Marc, who found their way to yoga later on in life than most. What led them there was not a desire to do handstands, find enlightenment, or achieve a slender chiseled physique. Rather, it was the desire to be free of pain and find joy in movement.
In this present time, by far the most popular trend in yoga in the city of Los Angeles is Vinyasa, a rigorous practice that works up a sweat while you push the boundaries of your physical capabilities. Whether you’re just starting out in a beginner’s class, or you’re in an advanced level 2/3, this is the style that dominates. It’s exhilarating and beautiful, a practice I enjoy greatly, though it’s certainly not for everyone. The unfortunate side of this trend is that it can alienate people coming to yoga to heal injuries or simply to discover healthy movement after many years of leading a sedentary lifestyle.
John Kent, age 70, a former federal administrative law judge and currently a tax controversy attorney, after a very active life, one day found himself barely able to walk without pain. Marc Perlman, age 58, a music and sound editor who used to be a keyboardist for club and show bands, after living with back pain for more than 30 years had come to see it as his normal state of being. John was the first of the two to plunge into yoga, and after experiencing such profound and rapid results, insisted that Marc give it a shot as well. This is how they found their way to me.
John was an athlete in his youth, and had his left knee reconstructed after a football injury. This did not slow him down though. He spent his adult life hiking, canoeing, and only a couple years ago ran a 10k race. During his working life, he made a point of being active throughout the day, taking frequent breaks from his desk, going for walks at lunch, and always taking the stairs. In 2010, that began to change. He started working from home and suddenly his life became much more sedentary. He was suffering from extreme hip pain that made it difficult to walk.
“For the first time in my life the pain was so bad, I was out walking and I couldn’t move,” John explained. “I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk. I had to just stand there for about 5 minutes until I got control over my pain and hip motion so I could walk the remaining couple blocks home.”
John also had pain in his right shoulder that seriously inhibited his range of motion, and had lost the ability to fully flex his left knee. Canoeing was no longer an option. In February of this year, he and his wife went to babysit their 13-month-old granddaughter, when he suddenly found himself unable to get up off the floor. That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. Upon the recommendation of his chiropractor, John found his way to yoga.
I met John in my Yoga Therapy class at InYoga Center, a beautiful studio in Valley Village where I used to teach. The nature of his injuries made most other classes too difficult to follow, and with his shoulder pain, the amount of downward dogs in most classes just weren’t possible for him.
“Your practice was healing and you understood my situation,” John said. “All of a sudden, here’s a yoga teacher who understands the language and the structure, so I was really impressed with that. And the other thing that came of that was that I improved! Within a period of several months my hip pain went away.”
Not too long after I met John, I became independent and moved most of my classes to Mind In Body, where I currently teach. John eventually followed me there.
Sasha Stone: What brought you to my classes at this studio (Mind In Body)?
John Kent: I trusted you. It all started because you were focused in your class (at InYoga) on people with back problems. And you knew your students to the point where you could say, “don’t do this, the rest of you can do this but you need to do it this way.” And you even did that with me. You had a lot of care for each of us as individuals in your class and that’s what caused me to trust you, because you were paying attention to me as well as everybody else.
Marc came to class because of John. One evening, while having dinner together with their wives, John asked Marc how his back was doing. From many years of friendship, John was aware of how deeply Marc’s back pain affected his life. Marc had tried many different avenues of healing for his pain, including acupressure, acupuncture, massage and chiropractic. Though all had benefits, nothing produced lasting results.
John was so enthusiastic about his own improvements, and so persistent, that simply to silence him, Marc caved in and called me up. After an initial consultation, there were so many things going on for him I insisted we start with private sessions. Marc quickly transitioned to group classes and has been attending regularly ever since.
Marc Perlman: After the third class and fifth visit with you (we had 2 private sessions before he started coming to class), I remember getting up one morning and I had no back pain.
SS: Would you say it’s the consistency of your practice that keeps you pain free?
MP: I believe that anything you would receive a benefit from has to be done consistently. There is no cure, there’s maintenance. We’re setting ourselves up to fail by not doing something.
SS: How have these classes impacted your life? (John and Marc both attend the weekly Gentle Yoga classes at Mind In Body, on Mondays and Wednesdays).
JK: I can get up and down off the floor. There are a lot of reasons to get up and down off the floor
MP: 30 years of back pain. That’s a long time. I am a much happier person now without the back pain. And I don’t mean because I don’t have the back pain. I mean because now I can enjoy things that I enjoyed with the pain even more so now without it. I get up in the morning and I don’t have any back pain. Therefore I don’t feel that I have any limitations on the day. I can go out and do what I want to do without worrying if I’m going to end up hunched over for 3 months with severe pain. I just enjoy everything a little bit more. Honestly, I look forward to my Mondays and Wednesdays. I don’t want anything to get in my way so I can come to class. Those are now my highlight days.
SS: Even though this class is gentle, and you’re opening up all these areas of tension, would you say in a sense it is also making you stronger?
SS: What motivates you to keep coming back?
JK: Because it is an exercise class for us. And the benefit I have by coming is the elimination of pain and the increase of mobility, and if I don’t do it, if I miss two weeks or something like that, I can feel the decrease in mobility and the increase in pain. I notice limitations coming back and I just don’t want that anymore.
SS: How does this class compare with other healing modalities you’ve experienced?
MP: All of those are passive. This, I am participating in my own health. I’m doing the things I need to do for me. I feel good about it. People tend to support that with which they are part of the creation. Because I’m concentrating specifically on my body and being aware of where everything is and what it’s feeling like, I get to be very tuned in to whether I’m stressed or relaxed. And I have found the class to be not only physically therapeutic to my particular needs, but I’ve also found it as relaxing as I have exhilarating. Sometimes I laugh when we’re doing things. I’m laughing not because anything hurts but because I’m just giddy that I can do something like this and what that feels like. It reminds me of being like a young man with no physical limitation, which is really kind of cool.
JK: If I was a doctor, I would recommend yoga. This type of yoga as opposed to the other classes. What’s working for me is coming here on a consistent basis and having someone who understands muscles and can tell me my hands are off and can explain to me that it’s all muscle related. If my hand isn’t right, I’m not getting the correct manipulation of the muscle that you’re aiming at.
SS: So being given knowledge is important for you?
JK: I know you have that knowledge. So if I come in here and say for instance I’ve got this pain between my first finger and my thumb you say, “ok that’s pretty easy,” but the doctor’s going to say, “oh that’s carpel tunnel and you need an operation.”
SS: What are your impressions of yoga in your life right now?
JK: My personal impression is that you should have some sort of certification, and that you should promote yourself as part of the medical community. As far as I’m concerned, you’re at least equal to a physical therapist if not more qualified to deal with the older population. For all those poor people out there who retire and have no knowledge of your expertise, I feel sorry for them because they could certainly add to the quality of their life, if not their life span.
MP: Well for me, I think it’s something I will carry through to my last day. I know that I’ve only barely if at all scratched the surface of what yoga can do for me physically. But because I do have some physical limitations just based on the fact that I need to expand my flexibility, I know it will take some time for me to get there. I look forward to that. I appreciate the fact that your instruction is not about having us do more, it’s about having us do right. That works for me.
SS: Anything else you would like to add?
MP: At any age, I think that yoga is a great thing. But I think that more importantly if you are over 45 years old and don’t have an active physical lifestyle, then starting a gentle yoga program like this, and maintaining it, I think is completely in your best physical and I would even say mental interests, because I think it does teach you some things about yourself, and it is a great break in the day of normal hectic stuff.
SS: John, you have started calling the yoga breathing we do in class “Sasha breathing.” What is that breathing and how has it impacted your health?”
JK: It’s a full body inner massage where just by breathing your whole body relaxes.
Taking part in a heart health study at UCLA, every 2 years John goes in for an assessment. 2 years ago when he arrived for his appointment his blood pressure was too high so they had to give him medication and ask him to relax for 90 minutes before proceeding. The last time he went, which was just a few months ago, he didn’t have time for that. Getting stuck in a traffic jam on the way there, he was also running late, so by the time he arrived, he was so agitated he couldn’t even hold the pen to sign himself in. He knew his blood pressure would be too high to proceed.
JK: So I walked in there and thought what the heck, I’m going to do my “Sasha breathing.”
After 5 minutes of deep focused breathing, concentrating on the breath as cleansing his heart, the results were dramatic.
JK: At the end of five minutes, my blood pressure was 105/52! (John had never known it to be so low in his entire life). When I told Marc that story, his ears perked up. So he started inquiring and I told him about Sasha medicine.
And that medicine is simply mindful, therapeutic Yoga.