The Healing Power of Yoga
Building a body of strength
Watching Yoga Therapist Pam Havig lead students in her Slow & Gentle Yoga class, you’d think that she’s been fit and flexible her whole life. As she calmly guides those present through each stretching and bending motion, breathing deeply along the way, her movements are fluid and graceful. She bends her body in ways that would send other people’s muscles shrieking.
If you ask this 60-something grandmother, however, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was very much the opposite.
By the time Pam was 19 years old, she knew something just wasn’t right with her body. The pain running up and down her spine was running her life. “I was having trouble walking and having all kinds of back problems,” she admits. By the time she had her three children, it was easier for her to crawl around her home to get around or get from place to place with the help of a cane. After years of frustration, she was finally told at the age of 26 that she had a degenerative form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis. It was something she suspected for years, given her mom’s similar diagnosis. This inflammatory disease can cause vertebrae to fuse, locking down the spine and making it, in some cases, difficult to even draw a deep breath.
“It started in the base of my spine and fused my pelvis to my sacrum. Then it skipped part of my lumbar and fused my thoracic. When your thoracic becomes frozen, then you quit moving through your ribs. Every year, I got either bronchitis or walking pneumonia. I would spend six weeks in bed because I would be so sick,” Pam says of those years decades ago.
She tried swimming for exercise because of its weightless low impact moves. She put thousands of miles on an exercise bike. “I worked so hard to keep myself out of a wheelchair,” she admits. “But nothing made much of a difference.” It wasn’t until she stumbled upon a Jane Fonda yoga video that her life started to change for the better. “I thought, ‘This is impossible! Bodies don’t really do that, do they?’ I was fascinated by it.”
Before long, she enrolled in a class at a downtown yoga studio. At the time, Pam had a hard time taking a full breath and she was so inflexible, she couldn’t even touch her knees. “I went to this class and everyone was in their 70s and 80s and I was 40 years old and I could not do anything. I thought, I do not belong here. I cannot do any of this. I am not coming back. Well, I came back in two days.” In time, as her flexibility grew and pain eased, she says, “This was just where I was supposed to be.” Within a year, she was traveling to weekend trainings to learn more about this kind of exercise and its focus on breathing and body postures. Just a year into her journey, she started to lead classes.
“What the yoga can teach you is how to use your body in a way that is efficient and that is best for your body,” Pam says today as she folds her body forward flexibly planting both of her palms on the floor. “Most of my spine doesn’t move. What I need is flexibility in my hips. When I do a forward fold, that is a move through my hips. I can learn to do that without my spine. Doctors don’t teach you that.” She adds while some seek this relief through physical therapy, Pam adds, “A physical therapist is capable of teaching you that, but it could take years and your insurance isn’t going to pay for that.” She smiles and adds, “Yoga has been around for 5000 years; where do you think your physical therapy moves came from?”
Flash forward to today and this one-time student is not only a teacher, she owns Perfect Balance Yoga & Massage with fellow Yoga Instructor and massage therapist Rory Rogina and has for the last 13 years. Over the last decade plus, she’s logged thousands of hours in yoga education and added massage therapy to her list of credentials. “Yoga combined with massage has completely changed my life,” Pam says. “I get to change people’s lives every day.”
On a quiet overcast Thursday, close to a dozen students filed in to Perfect Balance with yoga mats in hand for one of Pam’s Slow & Gentle classes. Each had their own reasons for being here.
Cheryl Watson was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1992. While she feared the disease’s impact on her life, it wasn’t until 2009 when she saw an ad for Perfect Balance that she decided to walk through the door for a class. Sticking with it, she’s seen how yoga has helped her hold on to her strength. “It has been wonderful,” she says softly. “Yoga has kept me walking and functioning. I use a cane but not all the time. It is very empowering. This class is so important to me.”
On the mat next to Cheryl is Sharon Peterson, who is quick to praise what she’s gained over the past year and a half here. “I have better balance. I do have asthma but I have noticed by coming here, I can breathe so much better. Quite often, I don’t even need my asthma medicine. I feel more fit and even feel stronger,” she says as she rolls up her mat for the day.
Even owner Rory Rogina has witnessed his own personal transformation. “I have rheumatoid arthritis but most people don’t know that because I am upside down and doing all my things all the time,” Rory says. When it comes to yoga’s impact on his pain, “It is almost non-existent most of the time. My arthritis is in my hips so certain things are not real beneficial for me, but that being said, I can put my foot behind my head,” he says as he demonstrates. With a laugh, he adds, “So, I am better off than most!” With passion he says, “This is my medicine.”
While Pam never imagined herself on this road, she sees no sign of veering off of it. “I might just be an 80-year-old woman leading the yoga classes!” She adds, “It’s a drive to help other people feel as much relief as I have been feeling.” And, as she thinks about her future as an instructor, she only needs to look at her students to know she can keep doing this for many, many years to come. “My oldest client is 101 and a half!” In her sixties, she is healthier than she ever thought she would be. “To me, yoga is life. It just is.”
YOGA FOR HEALTH
Why should you give yoga a try?
To reduce pain and improve flexibility for those with chronic low back pain
To reduce blood pressure
To reduce anxiety or lessen stress
To improve posture
Increased flow of oxygen has been known to improve a person’s immunity
To improve balance
While yoga has been proven to provide many health benefits, tell your health care provider about any complementary health approaches you choose to use. It’s always a good idea to give your provider a full picture of what you are doing to manage your health.
Source: National Institutes of Health