There are certain sensations that lead to temporary amnesia of mundane life: sex, drugs, Rock ’n’ Roll, running a marathon at 10,000 feet of elevation. The latter may not appear on traditional lists of existential experiences, but trust me on this, it should. A year ago, I made the rookie mistake of signing up for Revel Rockies in Colorado for my first-ever marathon and like a true novice, loved every quad-burning step of the 26.2-mile journey. From waking up at 2 am to being transported to the top of the mountain in a creaky school bus filled with truly strange strangers with a masochistic passion for extreme distance sports; to inhaling the thin air as I started the downhill mountain roller coaster into the summer’s sunrise; to bracing myself from mile 2 onward to avoid free-falling at the speed of light toward the unthinkable finish line; to sliding into a pack of Boston hopefuls at mile 5 who, for that fleeting few hour stretch felt like my BEST FRIENDS thanks to the endorphins kick; to gliding through mile 20 on a smiling cloud nine; to the sinking realization at mile 23 that if I braked for any reason, my eagle wing-like legs would no longer remember how to fly; to sprinting like a raging maniac from mile 25 onwards as a mirage of the end came to sight; to beaming at the line in a runner’s high of radiance for victory pictures amidst the backdrop of Red Rocks at 5,000 feet after finishing nearly 10 minutes under my pie-in-the-sky dream time; to realizing in delusional agony that I had landed back in reality and that my legs were no longer functional as I tried to walk from the finishing chute.
During the months leading up to my marathon, I dreamed about the ravenous joy of savoring my well-earned victory meal to replenish any and every calorie that my heart desired. Would I crave a tall stack of banana pancakes? Or a fat slab of rich chocolate fudge cake? Maybe both, why not? Yet as I rested my aching post-marathon legs on the back of my father’s car seat on the drive to one of Boulder’s gourmet vegetarian restaurants, a stone-hard pit in my stomach informed me that absolutely nothing was palatable. During the 24-hours that followed my calorie deficit, eating anything was more forced and laborious than my race itself.
Prior to my marathon, I also fantasized about the wonderful rest that would follow. My body would feel so well-worked and deserving of peaceful slumber. Instead, lying still was pure torture, which I learned quickly after signing up for a Restorative/Yin yoga class on my first day of recovery. Instead of luxuriously heart-opening atop cloud-like bolsters as I had envisioned, I felt my mind racing and my stomach churning as I lay immobile on my back with my knees to my chest in the opening sequence of class. When the instructor informed us of the digestive benefits of this pose, fears of vomit swirled through my head. I rocked out of position, rolled up my mat, and crawled out of the room to phone my father, feeling like a whiny preteen who had been ditched by her friends at the movie theater.
I was frustrated that my unrestful body had accomplished marathon feats a day ago, yet was unable to do literally nothing today. Would I be trapped in this unfamiliar, uncooperative body cast permanently? I had so much soreness, as if 26 rock-filled semi-trucks had run over each of my battered quads. I couldn’t tell whether my legs were irreversibly injured or simply extremely fatigued. As I waddled toward the studio’s sidewalk like a crippled baby penguin with two left feet, a sprinkler started and I realized my true pathetic condition as I squealed, paralyzed by my broken wings. In that moment, all that I could do with my locked-in legs was hide my face in shame from passing cars as my heart to sank to a new low.
Yet the next day, the sun rose again. I attempted to stumble through the monotonous human activities that I had once taken for granted: walking, eating, and making it through more than 5 minutes of a yoga class. That evening, I signed up for a happy-hour up-level, fast-paced Vinyasa class – my favorite type under normal body conditions. After my failed attempt at naptime yoga yesterday, I warned myself that this class selection was ridiculously ambitious. However, in contrast to my usual physically-hungry practice, when I stepped on my mat, I gave myself permission to do my yoga in a “full body cast” as Barbara Benagh, a Boston-based slow flow yoga teacher describes the experience of visualizing a yoga practice in the mind when the body is not able. As the class whizzed through Sun Salutations I moved through the flow in my mind while my body went through modified half-motions. As the class gracefully transitioned into standing splits, I did so in my head – even adding in handstand hops – while in reality my hands could barely reach beyond my beaten-up quads. As the class moved into bird of paradise – something I’d never accomplished with any stability in real life, I closed my eyes and nailed the pose in my head while sitting cross-legged on my mat.
After a 75 minutes of blissful satisfaction from visualizing my all-time most advanced practice amidst the room’s infectious physical vivacity, I sat comfortably for the first time since before my muscle-crushing marathon. Although I could barely sit in an actual chair let alone the yoga pose, I serenely slipped my feet into lotus with surprising ease. I gazed toward the setting sun upon the mountain view through the windows, brought my hands to my heart center, and joined in a Sanskrit chant of centuries-old compassion: “Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu”. Its rhythmic pulse filled the room like the songs of a morning birds, and the translation was stated: “May all beings be happy and free”. While recalling my own crippling story of marathon flight, I learned to appreciate my body’s abilities rather than fixating on my new temporary disabilities – a message of simple physical acceptance does not discriminate against any form of intricate human anatomy. I had infinite gratitude for the healing energy imparted by the diverse complexity of surrounding bodies – each of whose abilities and forms had been shaped by their individual stories and each moving to their hearts’ own synchronized pace, whether these unique beats propelled them to seek sex, drugs, Rock ’n’ Roll, mountain marathon running, or simply immobilized yoga. In that moment, the words of our song echoed through the sun-streamed room. May all beings – from the hand-standing yogis of Instagram who are 10,000 followers deep to the crazy, broken daredevil humans in full-body casts – be happy – like the joy that arises with true body love – and free – like the freedom that I experienced two days out from my first marathon at 10,000 feet.