Twenty years ago, it happened. I was in the middle of a performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” as Gene Kelly-leading man, Don Lockwood, ready to leap onto a lamppost in the rain, in my tap shoes. As I ran towards the light pole and ascended, I felt my back buckle. There was a sharp, shooting, intense pain that ricocheted through my body. Rather than crumple to the ground, writing in pain, I continued on. The show must go on, after all.
At intermission, I limped off the stage. My pain was acute and severe but, again, an audience was in the seats and I needed to gut through the performance. In fact, there were two more weeks of performances for me to gut through.
I was 25 and had never experienced such a breakdown in my body before — the fact was there was a herniated disc in my back. My life revolved around playing numerous sports, working out, dancing, and performing in professional and community theater companies. I believed I was in tip-top shape. That solitary moment proved otherwise. My body broke down and after months of massage, stretching, physical therapy, painkillers and prayer, my pain grew worse. I could neither sit nor stand for long stretches and my physical activity was severely curtailed. Eventually, my only choice was my last resort — surgery.
My doctor repaired the herniated disc and I prayed that I would someday get back to my pre-op activity level. This represented uncharted territory for me, a person who thrived on physical activity — playing tennis and golf and working out. Needless to say, I was scared. To have back surgery at that early age was a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that as a younger, fit person I stood a good chance of recovering fully. The bad news was that anytime there’s a surgery, there is a weakening of the spine and my doctor alerted me that I had the spine of a much older person.
Since that day, I knew that my core needed serious strengthening. My abdominal muscles were not properly prepared for the onslaught of activity that I threw at them in my early years. Fortunately, I made a major discovery, thanks to my then-girlfriend and future wife that gave me a solution: yoga.
Yoga incorporated stretching and strengthening, forcing me to focus on lengthening my body, breathing through discomfort and correcting flaws in my posture and workout routine. Yoga became my salvation. It isn’t for everyone — it’s expensive, classes are long and it might seem too progressive for some. But for me, I credit yoga with giving me my strength and confidence back.
Having back surgery or persistent back issues makes life uncomfortable, unpredictable and filled with fear. For years I was tepid about playing certain sports for fear of throwing my back out again. I hesitated riding roller coasters or feared sleeping in certain positions for fear of tweaking my back. And I did have recurrences. There were times I was bed-ridden for a day or two because my back seized up and I simply could not move. That’s not the life I wanted.
It’s ironic, but as I’ve gotten older, embraced yoga, strengthened my core and developed more confidence in my back and abs, I’ve found that I feel in better shape today than I did my 20’s. I exercise religiously, keep weight off and, while sitting, I contract my abs every chance I get. Those things have helped me survive back pain and, with discipline, they might help you, too.