Five differences between Indian and Western yoga

Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo

Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo


Growing up in an Indian family in England, yoga was always a familiar and comforting concept. Even though we didn’t practice on a regular basis, we had an innate reverence for yoga’s healing and spiritual benefits. Friends and family back in India often had their own teachers — wizened individuals who’d dress in all white and exude an air of spirituality that made you want to sit up straight and listen. We’d hear stories of how someone’s yoga teacher helped cure an ailment — eye infections, food allergies, even asthma.

The Indian yoga teacher is a bit of an institution: someone who bridges generations and brings the family together. Of course, it helps that yoga in this context is typically far less physically demanding than the sort of yoga that’s become en vogue in the West. The focus of these Indian practices would always be breath, mindfulness and flexibility.

Yogananda Parmahansa's Autobiography of a Yogi was a popular book in our household

Yogananda Parmahansa’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” was a popular book in our household

After an eight year stint in India, I moved back to the UK and had my first real encounter with Western yoga. While working in London, I  decided to take a yoga class at the company gym. I was sorely disappointed. Like most gym yoga, this class was uninspiring, repetitive and underwhelming. I never went back, choosing instead to throw myself into traditional cardio. I became an obsessive runner, I swam, I biked, I went to the occasional Les Mills class and began resistance training. Yoga and I were over.

In 2008, I moved to New York. and, at the behest of a colleague, gave yoga another try — this time also at our company gym. The instructor was an athletic looking guy who, in quick succession, took us through a series of lunges, squats and extensions, cleverly masked behind Sanskrit names. It was challenging but accessible and I left sweaty and energised.

Soon enough I became a yoga addict. It turned out my natural flexibility combined with years of sports made me pretty good at “Western yoga”. I also loved whatever little connection it provided to my Indian roots and would seek out teachers who incorporated meditation into their practice or used the original Sanskrit names for asanas. Ironically, I was almost always the only Indian person in class.

So what’s the difference between Indian and Western yoga? To boil it down:

1) The Indian yoga teacher is almost always male.

Unlike the West, where we tend to associate yoga with lithe, long-limbed lycra-clad beauties, yoga in India is a man’s world. Think lean, wiry, simply dressed with an often freakish degree of flexibility. The Indian yoga teacher is up there with other family gurus — he’s part fitness instructor, part spiritual coach, part moral counsellor. He is kind yet stern, demanding yet peaceful and he prefers simple white cotton clothing to Lululemon Athletica.

2) Indian yoga is rooted in spirtuality

While not a religion, Indian yoga is deeply rooted in spirituality and a certain degree of asceticism and self-sacrifice. Yoga takes a far more holistic view in India and students will often eat vegan diets, live simply and engage in extensive meditation alongside their yoga practice. It is less a form of exercise and more a way of life. While certain Western yoga teachers may draw upon meditative practice in class, it’s certainly not the norm.

3) The student-teacher relationship is different

As I mentioned above, the Indian yoga teacher is a highly revered individual. He has not only dedicated his life to the practice and principles of yoga, but commands a level of respect and obedience from his students that is uncommon in the West. The typical Indian yoga teacher will endeavour to educate his students on the history and principles of yoga and the dynamic is more formal. In the West however, the yoga teacher is more often seen as someone teaching an exercise class than a guru or spiritual leader.

4) Each has different physical demands

Indian yoga focuses obsessively on the breath. Once you have the basics down, you progress to various poses, and the emphasis becomes staying and growing in that pose. You’ll often see Indian masters holding pretzel-like poses that make you queasy.

Mainstream Western yoga on the other hand, epitomised by the ever popular vinyasa, is more about rapid transitions from one pose to the next and leans more heavily on athleticism and endurance. The idea of “yoga lunges, pushups and squats”, while popular in the West, is alien in India.

4) Western yoga has a wide variety of styles

Western yoga has spawned a whole host of “sects” — forms of physical exercise that are grounded in yoga but deviate considerably from the traditional. Bikram and hot yoga, while popular in the US, are virtually unheard of in India. I recently attended a core fusion yoga class in San Francisco where the instructor had us toting dumbbells and doing crunches and leg raises to the beats of Pitbull. Other emerging forms include anti-gravity yoga and acro-yoga and while these styles might not be for everyone, they have amassed large followings in their own rights.

June 21st is International Yoga Day. What’s your favourite kind of yoga?

Aerial yoga in San Diego

Aerial yoga in San Diego

Three Lessons from my First Triathlon

I recently survived my first (mini) triathlon. It involved a 430am wakeup, an unexpected open water swim, a soft sand run and…it was fabulous! My friend Joyce cajoled me into registering for the Herbal Life Torrance Beach Tri and, after a month or so of training, we were ready to tackle the course. There are lots of tips out there from pro triathletes so I’ll refrain from telling you about nutrition, training and equipment. Instead, I thought I’d share three things I learned:

1. Anyone can do it!

OK not anyone but seriously, if you can handle a bit of running, some cycling and a swim, you can do a triathlon. Here’s why: First off, triathlons come in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to run a half marathon, swim 2 kms in the ocean or bike all the way from Sydney to Wollongong. I’ll repeat this because it’s key: the chief characteristic of a triathlon is that it involves three consecutive events. The length of the course is a mere detail 😉

For someone whose initial frame of reference came from a colleague who’s done two Ironmans, the realization that I could dabble in triathlons without committing to the “full distance” was the single biggest factor in my willingness to try. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Sprint: 750m swim (0.5m) | 20km bike (12.4m) | 5km run (3.1m)
  • Olympic: 1.5km swim (0.93m) | 40km bike (24.8m) | 10km run (6.2m)
  • ITU Long: 3km swim (1.86m) | 80km bike (49m) | 20km run (12.4m)
  • Half Ironman / 70.3: 1.9km swim (1.2m) | 90km bike (56m) | 21km run (13.1m)
  • Ultra / Ironman: 3.8km swim (2.4m) | 180km bike (112m) | 42km run (26.2m)

After a few conversations with other “laypeople” and a Google search, I learned I wasn’t the only one conflating the triathlon with the Ironman. That’s like conflating running with an Ultra Marathon :/

If you want to ease into triathlons, look for a good sprint or even a super sprint course. You could also participate in a relay or do only two legs for a taster. Other things to look for in a beginner’s course: a) a lake or bay for the swim section, b) a flat-ish run and bike course, c) mild, predictable weather, d) a location that isn’t far from where you live.

The second reason I think anyone can do a tri is that triathletes come in all shapes and sizes. Until Torrance, I thought of triathlons as something meant only for elite athletes — people with ripped muscles, expensive road bikes and those awkward spandex outfits. Heck the very word “triathlete” suggests that you’re not just an athlete at one thing, you’re an athlete at three. It seemed so much more intimidating than say “runner”.

Polka…?

The reality is far from it. Sure, elite triathletes can be a scary breed but, at the average race, you’ll find a good chunk of amateurs — people starting out, people doing it for fun and people just trying to accomplish a fitness goal. There were kids as young as eight competing at Torrance and there were also people who looked well into their 60s.

2. Why no one you know does triathlons

Triathlons, for all the reasons above, have a reputation for being “serious” and therefore not particularly accessible. Even though that’s changing with sprint and super sprint courses, if you’re in your mid-20s, chances are you don’t know anyone who does triathlons. Personally, I know only three people who do them seriously and two of them are white dudes in their 40s (one is a white dude in his 20s). Where are the people like me?

The reality is triathlons are fairly new as a sport; the first modern swim/bike/run event to be called a ‘triathlon’ was held in San Diego in 1974. It wasn’t until 2000 that the triathlon debuted at the Olympics and NBC’s coverage of the Sydney Games, including the women’s triathlon, catapulted awareness of the sport to a national level. The sport has grown rapidly ever since — as of 2013, USA Triathlon reports 174,787 annual members, up from just 21,341 members in 2000. Women account for just over a third of this number (vs. 61% for half marathons and 43% for marathons).

Another deterrent is that it’s an expensive sport. Everything from the entry fees and the one day / annual membership to the technical gear required (road bike, shoes, pedals, wetsuit, tri kit…) could easily run into the thousands. You’re committing to three different sports, it makes sense that you’d need to pay for all three as well.

So what does this mean for demographics? What’s interesting is that the biggest chunk of triathletes (30% of annual USA Triathlon members) are in the  40-44 age group. This age group, together with the 35-39 AG, is generally thought to be the most competitive. Theories and discussions abound for why. Part of it is the upfront investment. Another hypothesis is that there’s an influx of retiring pro athletes in their mid 30s. Yet another reckons that endurance sports become more appealing as you age (as opposed to adventure / adrenaline sports in your 20s). Basically, the late 30s / early 40s sit at the nexus of time and money needed to reach peak athletic ability.

Should you be put off by any of this? No! I got around the startup costs by renting a bike, borrowing a helmet and sunnies and by wearing my surf wetstuit on top of a sports bra and bikini. The die hards will tell you you need a Blue Seventy, a proper tri kit and a laundry list of other paraphernalia. Honestly if you’re just starting out, I say wing it with what you already own. Once you’re committed to improving, you can trade up for the fancier stuff.

3. Just keep swimming…

The scariest part of the tri for me was the swim. Cycling? Whatever. Running? Pshaw! I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer and I can’t swim the crawl. Sure, I can easily do the breaststroke for a good half hour but what good is that in the ocean?

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize we’d be swimming in the Pacific until the day before the race. Don’t ask me why, I have no defence for not doing my research other than not wanting to know and hoping for the best.

When I signed up for the tri, I was coming off a dry spell (pun intended): it had been more than five years since I’d swum regularly. I took inspiration from my friend Joyce (who’d learned to swim and done her first tri just months earlier!) and figured I just needed to train.

Lucky for me, I have Icebergs, a gorgeous, ocean-fed pool, famous for its icy cold water and spectacular views of Bondi. It never gets particularly busy and because the water is always cold, it’s perfect with a wetsuit (which, it turns out gives you a nice little buoyancy boost). I didn’t have time to learn a new stroke, so I decided to work on what I already knew. I’d read that beginners often swim breaststroke their first tri.

Sunrise laps are easy with this view

The day before the race, Joyce and I set an early alarm and ventured out to her local beach in Santa Monica. We were meeting up with another friend for pointers on ocean swimming. Duck and dive, stingray shuffle, that sort of thing. We walked down to the water, took one look at the water and freaked out. The waves were fierce. We couldn’t stand knee deep in the water without being knocked over. How on earth were we to swim in this??

After a few more attempts to wade in while resisting the powerful rip, we gave up and went home. If the swim course was going to be like this tomorrow, we thought, we’d have to skip it. I was pretty disappointed. Fortunately for us, Torrance Beach turned out to be a lot kinder than Santa Monica. There were still waves but they were gently breaking two-footers. Most importantly, there was no rip. We’d be swimming after all!

Torrance Beach on a non-triathlon day. Isn’t it pretty?

Getting acclimatised

First, spend 10-20 minutes getting comfortable in the water. Get your wetsuit on and hop in. Make sure you let some water get into your suit so your body can get accustomed and, more importantly, begin warming that water up. Practice your duckdive: wait for a wave, shut your eyes, hold your breath and dive low and into it! Once the foam has passed, you pop back up. It’s a little scary the first time but it works: you’ll come out on the other side of the wave.

Breaststroke in the ocean

Basically you’ll find that you’re moving (even) slower than those pesky freestylers. Once you’re past the froth though, it’s really relaxing and enjoyable. The best part was the return: the soft friendly waves lift you up and practically carry you back to shore. You might want to practice some body surfing to take full advantage of that. Either way, something to look forward to! One thing that helped psychologically was the fact that Torrance Beach was swarming with lifeguards. They bobbed on surfboards in the water and hung off buoys, shouting encouragement and offering friendly advice. The way I’d pictured the swim was a thousand aggressive people clambering over each other and kicking each other in the face. In reality, it was all very civilised. We were being let into the ocean in pairs, resulting in a controlled flow of people rather than mayhem.

Swim

It was the opposite of this…

What’s next?

As predicted, I am hooked and already thinking about my next tri! I’ve done two half marathons and a number of shorter races but after the experience of a triathlon, it’s going to be hard to go back to just running. Cross-training is physically and psychologically easier for me than training for a 2+ hour run. The charm of any run deteriorates rapidly after the first hour.

More than that, my knees have started acting up and really complain when hills are involved. In comparison, triathlon “bricks” keep me physically challenged and mentally engaged without taking a toll on my joints. Switching between different muscle groups, or at least using my leg muscles in different ways, reduces the risk of injury and actually enables me to be improve at each event individually.

Besides, nothing motivates me like knowing I get to jump in to a pool after a sweaty run or bike ride (yes, I know I’m training backwards) 🙂 So, if you’re bored of your running routine, want to try something new or are looking for a stretch fitness goal, consider the triathlon! It combines three awesome sports, builds up your endurance and it is a seriously fun event.

At the finish!

Reforming my ways

As anyone who knows me can attest, I get restless after a few days sans workout. Living in New York has made me a total gym rat but I’ve always loved running outdoors so when we moved here, I kept myself happy by running the Opera House loop. As glorious as this was, I was hankering for some HIIT or resistance training.  Fortunately there was a giant Fitness First across the street so I popped over to sign up for a trial.

Fitness First

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I’d never encountered a Fitness First before this, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Unfortunately the salesperson who delivered my tour was as enthusiastic as a vegetarian at a steak house. The space itself was huge and even though it was slightly casino-like and underground (no natural sunlight boo!) the facilities seemed functional: a couple studios, a large weight zone, plenty of cardio machines and a huge mat area with 10 or so dangling TRX straps.

I’ve been training on the TRX for just over a year.  I love it.  Aside from the gains in core strength, stability and muscle tone (and the fact that there isn’t a dull moment) one of my favourite things about TRX is that the recovery time is short and sweet(er than a circuit).  You can throw in a 30 minute TRX circuit before or after some cardio and wake up the next day hungry for more.  Because it engages the core and spreads the work across a lot of smaller, often unused muscles, it doesn’t leave you sore and weary in the way that reps with weights or on weight machines might.

Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto

Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto

Anyway, back to Fitness First…

The “club”, as they like to call it, I’d walked into turned out to be one of Fitness First’s platinum locations, meaning higher prices, fewer people and the option to upgrade to black label membership — which gets you entry to a subterranean locker room with a mechanical massage table, a makeup area, a permanent locker and free laundry service.  Wait…what?

I used the first of my two free passes on the elliptical and TRX.  Meh.  The TRX bands were so hard to adjust that they were almost not worth it and the cardio area smelled funky.  The unnatural lighting somehow hampered any possible endorphin rush.

Despite the signs, I came back the next day to give their yoga a try and I have to say that it may have been the most unpleasant yoga class I’ve been too :/.  For starters, the yoga mats were half the size they usually are. When a mat can’t contain my 5’4″ downward dog, you know it’s small.  And when you can’t fit both your hands and feet on a mat, you know you’re just waiting for a slip injury. Second, the instructor for some reason had decided to use a mic. drill sergeant orders some how don’t jibe well with the zen of yoga. If that weren’t enough, every five minutes there would be a loud THUMP on the roof of the yoga studio that would reverberate across the floor.  Ahhhhh!

Next stop: Virgin Active

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After abandoning Fitness First, I decided to check out Virgin Active.  I’d heard good things and several colleagues had mentioned going there.  They only have the one club but it’s conveniently located on the top floor of a mall in the CBD, a short walk from work.  I headed over one evening and was given a tour of the brand spanking new facilities, including a pool, a climbing wall (big win) and a room containing “sleep pods” (very cool!).  My tour guide was nice enough until I asked whether they’d waive activation fees for my partner (fairly standard practice in NYC for families or referrals): he then decided to give me an awkward analogy about buying beef at a quality butcher shop vs. 7/11. Uhhh.

Ready to use my trial pass, I found that the club and locker room were packed but civilised.  I walked in to a Hatha yoga class with medium hopes.  I’m not a huge fan of Hatha but at this point, I was willing to do anything for a yoga fix.  The instructor was perched on a platform in a zen-like state.  He welcomed us in with a warm, soothing voice and, as we began our practice, I actually felt a glimmer of hope.  Unfortunately, the class turned out to be a little rudimentary for my taste but the real deal-breaker was when he made us do back-bends and inversions with the lights ON.  If you’ve ever tried to get yourself from a bridge to a wheel with a fluorescent light in your face, you’ll know what yoga nausea feels like.

Elixr: third time’s a charm

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I gave up on Virgin Active and decided to ignore their aggressive salesperson’s calls and voicemails in favour of a trial at Elixr.  The yoga-savvy wife of a colleague had  steered me towards Elixr, a high-end yoga and pilates gym with clubs in Bondi Junction as well as the city.  After a quick glance at their website and their packed agenda of classes, I was excited but cautious.  I headed to their Bondi location and as I stepped out of the lifts, I felt like I’d been whisked away to a luxury spa.  I was given a friendly, un-pushy (finally!) tour of their softly-lit, zen-like facilities, during which a member interrupted the tour to tell me how amazing her experience had been and how I wouldn’t regret the decision to join.

Elixr’s Bondi location comprises two dedicated Pilates reformer studios, a yoga studio and a fourth studio for dance fusion, boxing and other cardio classes.  There is also a massive pool, a large cardio area, a small section with machines and another small mat area with free weights, exercise balls and kettlebells. With its heavy focus on yoga and Pilates and its small weights area, Elixr’s client base looks unsurprisingly to be 80-90% women.  During my free trial, I attended the best yoga class I’d been to in months.  I was sold.  But Elixr was so nice that they extended my free trial so that my husband could come in and check out the gym as well.  I then attended a reformer class and liked it so much that I had to harass them to sign me up.

Elixr's Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl

Elixr’s Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl

It was my first time in a group reformer class.  I’ve done plenty of mat pilates at Equinox, my old New York gym, and experimented on the small reformer that you have to book private sessions at, but I’d never come across an all-you-can-eat group reformer class. I don’t think they’re as big in the States.

Anyway, nearly three months later, I’m going to group reformer classes (or “GRC” as Elixr likes to call it) twice or thrice a week.  I can feel the gains in my core and arm strength, not to mention in other activities including tennis.  Even better, the classes are packed into an intense 45 minutes so I can squeeze in the occasional GRC during lunch or combine it with a bit of cardio before / after.  Unlike yoga, GRC is easy on the wrists and unlike running, it doesn’t strain the knee or ankle joints.  The sky’s the limit.

Have you worked out on a Pilates reformer or found a group reformer class?  I’d love to hear what you thought!

Running, maybe

I have a secret.  It’s been creeping up on me the last few weeks but I’ve only just started to take notice.  The random sore spots my feet wake up to, the restlessness I experience on a sunny weekend morning, the frequency with which my spandex has been visiting the washing machine. I think I’m becoming a runner again.

The starting line

The starting line

Last month, we ran City2Surf, the world’s largest run and Sydney’s favourite sporting event (that’s what they tell us). Niraj signed us up in secret. I think he told me on the flight to Paris, which is why our holiday was punctuated by early morning runs along French rivers. I got back from our travels on August 3rd with a week to spare. Between jet lag and short notice, I really didn’t have much time to “train” for those infamous hills. Still, we did just fine. Funnily enough, the race fell on the weekend we were moving into our new apartment. We conveniently fell out of bed in the corporate apt and walked 5 mins to the start line in the CBD and then ran to our new place in Bondi.

The crowds were unbelievable.  85,000 people had shown up to run City2Surf that morning and another 20,000 or so were out and about as supporters and volunteers! It felt amazing to be part of something so big.  A colleague at work had warned me that the first five minutes would see jumpers and hoodies being discarded en masse — these Sydneysiders don their old woolies to stay warm at the start of the race and then cast them aside for the Red Cross to collect. Sure enough, we left behind piles of old clothes and a ton of collection volunteers.

The first couple of kms of these races can be really frustrating if you’re not prepared for some aggressive zigging and zagging. Because we registered late, we were grouped together with the walkers, which made it even slower. It was a good opportunity to see all the costumes though: there were superheros, muppets, ballet dancers and a lot of sponsored teams.

Superheroes at the finish line

Superheroes at the finish line

Niraj and I had committed to sticking together the entire way. As we hit the first of several sets of small hills, my eyes threw exaggeratedly exasperated looks at my husband. He laughed and said we’d hit the big hill — heartbreak hill apparently. He lied.

The uphill climbs kept coming and each time we thought (hoped), it was the last one, it wasn’t. Heartbreak Hill finally came. Wow. The half marathon I ran a few months ago in the New York winter suddenly seemed like a piece of cake. We made it through, panting and pushing. The camaraderie was amazing! Not just amongst the runners but with the supporters. People had actually baked cookies and come out onto the streets to feed us. Little kids stood on the pavements, shrieking “free high fives!”. A group of men, stripped down to their underpants and covered head to toe in blue paint (smurfs) were handing out gatorade; residents had come out onto their front lawns to reward interested runners with blasts of water from their hose pipes. The city’s spirit was incredible. As we came down the last hill, the beach came into view and we knew we were almost done. We picked up the pace for that last kilometer, rushing out along Campbell Parade, buoyed by the anticipation of the finish. We finished in 94 minutes.

Bondi Beach at the finish - 100k people

Bondi Beach at the finish – 100k people

A gorgeous beach finish

A gorgeous beach finish

City2Surf really was a symbolic (and convenient) run for us. Unlike most of the other 65,000 people who finished, we were lucky enough to skip the brutal bus journey home and walk back instead.

City2Surf wasn’t painless for me. My lack of training definitely made itself known later that day and even the next as my sore limbs and creaky joints began complaining. The longest I’d run in the weeks (months really) before was a pitiable half hour. And no, I hadn’t pushed myself up five massive hills. Since moving to Bondi, however, I’ve fallen back in love with running.

I’d become a fair weather outdoor runner in NYC (can you blame me?!) but the Bondi to Coogee trail and the perfect Sydney weather are impossible to turn down.  Oh and it’s a 3 minute jog from our apartment.  I’ve run it every weekend.  The path snakes along the water and climbs up as suddenly as it drops down. The views are some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. The beautiful Eastern beaches, the sparkling Pacific ocean, the dramatic cliffs and the glorious waves that crash against them. The trail is packed every weekend — Sydney power walkers, activity seeking tourists and of course Bondi locals walking their designer dogs. Last Sunday I ran the 12 km loop and rather than complaining, my muscles rejoiced at the challenge. I think I’m officially a runner again 🙂

The Bondi to Coogee trail

The Bondi to Coogee trail

Tails, bones and broken tailbones

The Saturday before last, I quite literally busted my ass.slip

I was heading down to the basement of an art gallery, hot drink in one hand, handbag in the other, when my right foot lost traction with the stone step beneath it.  I flew into the air.  The contents of the lidless cup flew everywhere. Hot chocolate hit the walls, my jeans, my t-shirt, my hair, my face.  A cruel reminder of the splatter technique a group of us had been refining earlier that morning at a painting class.  I landed, with a great thud, on my behind.  The only thing I felt more acutely than my utter mortification was the wave of pain that had engulfed my entire body, making it hard to crack a smile, to move, to stand.

My two friends propped me up and I attempted to don my I’ll-be-fine face, while my husband ran to fetch ice.  We hobbled into a nearby bathroom and I let him clean me up as my bravado broke down and I succumbed to bawling uncontrollably for the ensuing five minutes.  We somehow made it to a taxi, where I positioned myself as best I could in a yogic cat-cow, and up the stairs to our apartment.

We spent the next 6 hours applying ice pack after ice pack to what Google told us was likely a broken tail bone.  I spoke to my dad, a cardiac surgeon who thinks anything outside of heart attack territory is “minor”, and didn’t know whether to feel heartened or alarmed when he told me a broken tailbone is one of THE most painful things ever.  Multiple Advil were barely easing the throbbing but, as the evening progressed, most scary were the vertigo and tinnitus that accompanied and derailed all attempts to stand.  We talked about going to the emergency room but the slightest movement would result in immense pain.  We decided to wait and, fortunately, the next morning I found that I could stand and very slowly move.

The doctor at the urgent care clinic dubbed my condition coccydynia — pain and discomfort in the tailbone area resulting from injury.  X-rays declared it a “likely fracture”, not much different than Google’s verdict but then breaks in the small coccyx bones, we learned, are hard to confirm.  Recovery, whether a bruise or a fracture, ranges from 4-6 weeks to several months and treatment involves prescription pain killers and limited strain to the area, i.e. no sitting.  Hmm.

Armed with a few bottles of prescription Ibuprofen and Tylenol with Codeine (for “breakthrough pain” I was told), we headed home and began my treatment in earnest.  A few hours, a couple of visits from friends and several episodes of Revenge later, I found that I could lie on my side, prop my head up on one hand and type with the other.  It wasn’t great but it was good enough to work from home. Today, I’ve felt well enough to stand and discovered that our living room windowsill is the perfect height for a makeshift standing desk. My heels and feet ache but what I’ve lost in pedal comfort, I’ve gained in typing speed.

Screen shot 2013-07-10 at 11.33.05 PMSo what have I learned in these last few days?  For starters, I don’t think I’d ever said the word “coccyx” out loud until I fell on mine.  The coccyx, or tailbone, is a vestigial structure, the remnant of a lost tail.

It consists of 3-5 small bones that are either separate or fused and together represent the bottom of the vertebrael column (the spine).  There are fibrocartilagious discs between the bones of the coccyx which are similar to the discs present in our spinal column. The main function of the coccyx is to be a weight-bearing structure when a person is seated; it forms a tripod with the two hip bones. The coccyx bears more weight when the seated person is leaning backward and less weight when the person leans forward.

Unsurprisingly, the most common cause of coccyx injuries is falling on your butt. Both the primary care physician I saw Sunday and the orthopaedic specialist I saw yesterday said that slipping on ice or stairs or while snowboarding are the most frequent complaints.  Unlike other fractures, you cannot immobilize someone’s coccyx by putting it in a cast; the only route to recovery is time and rest.

A friend, who fractures her tailbone a few years ago by sitting down hard on a car seat belt (sounds crazy, yes) called to offer some advice last night. She told me she initially underestimated its seriousness but found her pain worsening over the course of six weeks. She ended up cancelling longstanding travel plans to instead spend a month lying on her couch. It was several months before she could exercise again and her pain killer intake ended up causing a stomach ulcer. Yikes.

Coccyx aside, a few really simple life lessons:

  1. If you’re going up or down stairs and you slip with your hands occupied, they’re not going to drop what they’re carrying to break your fall or grab onto something.  It’s a weird human reflex.  Try to keep at least one arm free when you use those stairs.
  2. The early days are the most crucial in recovery.  Whether an injury relates to muscles, ligaments, tendons or bones, early rest / ice / heat is critical in laying the groundwork for recovery.
  3. Don’t take pain killers on an empty stomach and don’t confuse the absence of of pain with successful recovery (obvious but we forget).  Medicating and carrying on as usual will only make things worse and likely prolong recovery or even introduce new issues.