I was an active child, and as an adult I’ve enjoyed running, biking, hiking, skiing, you name it. I did all of it, really—until I could not.
Arthritis is what took me down. With every step I felt a stabbing sensation in my knees. This bone-on-bone misalignment was causing pain in my ankles, as well as in my hips.
I have a lot of company. According to the Arthritis Foundation, 54 million Americans have arthritis. This can cause devastating, immobilizing pain and may lead to joint-replacement surgery.
Nearly 400,000 hip replacements are performed each year. But the number of knee replacements is even higher—nearly 700,000. Joint replacement will probably become the number one elective surgery in the coming years—much of it due to wear and tear caused by arthritis, an active lifestyle, or bearing too much weight on the joints.
But wait. The fastest growing group of candidates for new knees, hips, and the like does not necessarily include yo’ mama. It could be yo’! People under 65 are now the prime candidates for joint replacement. While this type of surgery has long been common for seniors, seeing so many younger people on the operating table is a fairly new phenomenon.
I am one of those people. I had to give up running in my forties. And in my fifties, I nearly had to give up walking. While I could still manage my beloved yoga practice, the entire rest of my life had become agonizing—including taking stairs and making dinner. When I could no longer walk my dog around the block without wincing in pain, I knew I had to do something.
“What are you afraid of?” asked my friend and writing partner, Desiree Rumbaugh, with whom I had just written a book about aging fearlessly. I was terrified of losing my physical independence, my yoga practice, and the sense of freedom I get from participating in sports. But those concerns actually ended up moving me forward: because I wanted something more than the fear that held me back.
Today I am recovering from my second partial knee replacement surgery. This is not an easy surgery. You are on a walker for at least a week, with the full recovery taking up to a year. However, yoga has been invaluable. Physically, it has helped me recover perhaps more quickly than average. Emotionally, it has helped me be at peace with the process. Finally, spiritually, it has given me the perspective that all of life does not revolve entirely around a silly knee.
We begin where we are because we have no other choice! Yoga teaches us how to listen to our bodies. My body was screaming at me. It was time for me to pay attention to what was happening to it.
Getting a whole new moving part made out of metal is a huge adjustment. Imagine going to sleep one night and then waking up to houseguests. They are eating your food, disrupting your sleep, and causing anxiety. And they’re not leaving! So you must get used to sharing your space.
If you have a new joint, you now have a metal “houseguest” that takes up residence in your body, mind, and spirit. In the beginning, you have to adjust every single movement. Even your breath will catch. You feel different, and you may even think about it nonstop. The joint may look swollen or feel tender. But over time, as you get used to sharing your “space,” you will likely stop thinking about it and may even begin to be grateful for your new “friend.”
A yoga practice can make us more sensitive to these changes and to the feelings that arise so that we are able to address the challenges before they become true problems.
This is the most important lesson I learned: Do what I can rather than focus on what I cannot. I could easily have moped around because of my inability to do simple tasks (and to be honest, I did have a few crying jags and pity parties). Instead I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get those six-pack abs (lol!).
The best thing I did for my knee was to work my upper body and core. Though I could not bend my leg, I could do sit-ups, boat pose, and supine twists. These small movements made me feel human again and renewed my sense of hope. They also relieved the back pain that resulted from two weeks of mostly bedrest.
I also became uber-creative. I used a chair for forward bends. I found a bolster for backbends. I maneuvered my aching body onto the back of a sofa to dangle the surgical leg while watching TV, which helped to stretch my quads. As I became more creative, I felt more confident in making progress. Getting creative and moving where I could was probably the single most important aspect of taking charge of my rehabilitation. I no longer felt helpless. I felt helpful and hopeful.
As you reintroduce movement and exercise to your routine, remember that yoga should never hurt. This is a blessing. Physical therapy can be extremely painful, and so I used my yoga to lessen its effects. In yoga, discomfort is the very last stop on the recovery train. If you go to pain, you have missed your station. If you cannot breathe with ease, stop. If you are uncomfortable, move with caution or stop. You are in control of this process. This helped me guide my physical therapist as well. We never went past what I thought I could handle with breath. Why would we? Yoga taught me that there are many roads to enlightenment as well as recovery, and I could choose the one with less pain and get there just the same.
While my physical therapist was helping, I had to remember that my ego was not on my team. It often gets us into hot water by dictating what we can or cannot do. My ego told me I could recover without pain medication. Ha! I could not. If your pain is so intense that you can’t rest comfortably, you have to get some help. “Pride goeth before a fall” is never truer than in joint replacement. My new motto is ask for help, accept support, and be grateful for the assistance.
Lastly, I discovered that it was not always how much I could do that made me feel better but sometimes how little. Even the smallest of movements moved the process forward. Rather than focusing on the final outcome—walking without a crutch or standing up straight—I practiced putting a little weight at a time on my leg or straightening it one tiny millimeter more. This is just like the Bhagavad Gita teaching to let go of the fruits of your labor. For me, this was an eye-opener and created an abundant sense of well-being.
I have always been a go-go-go sort of person. I wasn’t just Type A, but a Type AAA. So being sidelined for six months with one knee replacement, and then six months for the second one, has been challenging. But it was also life-changing in some very good ways.
Where I once would have worked for eight hours a day to build strength and flexibility, I simply could not. There were days I couldn’t lift my head off a pillow. There were times when a good cry was more comforting than being able to walk. That is when I discovered grace. When I surrendered to what I needed in the moment, and let go of the inclination to push for what I wanted, I found a moment’s peace. Grace for me means a supreme sense of contentment with what is, even if it’s not perfect. It is a deep sense of okay-ness, even if it’s not what I expected it to be.
I also discovered the joy of massage. I learned to enjoy sitting quietly and rubbing the tissues surrounding the surgical site. This did a lot to relieve inflammation, and that in turn helped me gain mobility. The simplest efforts did plenty of good.
I know these lessons of grace and doing less have lasted because recently I spent an entire day doing nothing. Yes, it’s true. A recovering Type A person gave herself permission to spend a day relaxing and watching movies, and it felt pretty darn good.
Having two joint replacement surgeries in one year was not without its challenges. But there was another very surprising gift—the gift of gratitude.
You may think that yogis practice gratitude all the time. That may be true, but there are degrees and subtleties of gratitude; there is gratitude for big stuff and gratitude for little stuff. These days, I am grateful just to take a few pain-free steps. Yes, it’s true that it’s the small things that really matter.
Where I once chased after scorpion pose, today I am ecstatic to bend my knee. Where I once practiced pressing up into handstand, today I am besotted with a straight-ish leg.
Gratitude comes in noticing the tiniest experiences. Gratitude is in the smallest, surprisingly pain-free moments. Gratitude is being so freaking happy for another chance to play with my dog, ride a bike, or even ski on a sunny winter’s day.
Joint replacement surgery makes taking baby steps the blessing of a lifetime.