Knee Braces

Taking my shoes off as a sign of respect. I never had a problem with that. This wasn’t a scene from Scared Straight, where the convicts were telling you to throw your shoes in the trash. This wasn’t that airport in Italy where they made me take off my hat. There was a dim light and a low ceiling. Everybody was speaking in hushed tones and avoiding personal interaction for the most part. The poster on the wall of Bikram Choudhury made me feel like I was in a meeting with the political revolutionaries supporting Bob Avakian. This was a different place. This here was something akin to practicing a revolution of your relationship to your body and it’s own relationship to your soul. This was my first class of Bikram Hot Yoga. The woman who would become my wife was my guide into this world. She had lived inside of it for several years. I wasn’t afraid of the scorching heat you often hear about. I welcomed it. As long as this wasn’t cold Yoga, I thought I might be able to relish the experience. Having the whole front of the room being mirrors was something else. You know how some people say they’ll take your camera if you take their picture? You have to know who you are and what you want to sustain eye contact with yourself for more than five seconds. Having yourself almost naked takes it to the level known as next. I still remember the mirror at a regular Yoga studio I entered back in the day when I was just a Yoga dabbler. The mirror bore the inscription: “The real teacher is you.”

I placed my mat in the back row where there was no chance of me looking into my own eyes. My glasses are back in my locker anyway. I’ve been told they will be useless in this environment, and would slide right off my face from the sweat. I awaited the teacher as the heat in the room started to swell. My head was already sweating more than I have sweat in years. I joined other students in a pre-class meditative state. I found myself reflecting on the very beginning of my extraordinarily personal relationship with my knees. It was my knees that would be the root cause of me seeking healing from something as hardcore as Hot Yoga.

It was Nineteen seventy nine. Suburban Little league. My parents were still together. My grandfather was still alive. I played for the Dodgers and was one of the best guys on the team. I had perfect vision and not an ounce of fat on my spirally little frame. We were playing in a park in Monroe New York. I heard that somebody from the news on TV was in the crowd of parents and friends. I was a catcher, and quite sterling at it. My dad helped me oil my mit. I was on third base and running for home. I was going to score! I was going to win the game for everybody!

That’s when my knee completely dislocated for the first time.

“AGGGHHHHH!” I cried out in terror.

I had a straight panic attack as my knee opened up and separated itself as I was running. In shock and total fear I stumbled, fell over and slumped onto the ground. My knee snapped back into place somewhere along the way. Massive pain ensued. Only five seconds had passed, but my world was turned completely upside down. I had no idea what actually happened and was too afraid to move. Home plate was the last thing on my mind. Amazingly enough, the other kids stopped playing and all came over to see if I was OK. I was carried off the field to applause. My knee, engorged with fluid, looked very confusing to me. I didn’t know then that knee problems would pin me to the mat for the next thirty years. I didn’t know then that each time I would try to get up, one of my knees would slam my face back into the pavement, reminding me of my place.

Back in Yoga class, it’s now one hundred and seven degrees in the room. The standard. I wondered if there might be a river of lava nearby, or maybe a lake of fire. My first Yoga teacher entered the room, Rick. I still can’t get over how his name seemed to fit him. Rick was wearing tight black spandex and a fleece vest. He was a slightly small white guy with huge glasses and an enormous head of gray kinky hair. Eighties vibe I thought to myself. As soon as he started talking I was into it. He created real drama in what we were doing, especially with his countdowns. He spoke softly without a microphone, making it personal. I felt like I was in a scene in some kind of science fiction film. First up was a deep breathing exercise. I immediately thought of the benefits to my trumpet playing. I submitted completely and tried to suck in vast amounts of wind. I thought of tree tops bowing over under the force of powerful gusts. I became the wind. I was blowing over all the landscapes of Earth at a considerable velocity.  

Next was the half moon, as another connection to nature was invoked. If this was the healing process, then I was in. I didn’t notice that my clothes were already on their way to total saturation. I started dripping up a rainstorm. Nearby, I witnessed a woman who became her own monsoon. She already had a big puddle right in the center of her mat. Now realizing that we were going deep into this process, I was inspired that some real healing might take place. As Rick told me to bend my knees right to the edge of what I thought was possible, I experienced a flashback to the next stage of my journey that led me here. 

My repeated knee dislocations have not fared well. The doctors have now prescribed double knee braces for me to wear all the time. These early versions had metal bars on both sides that were supposed to prevent the bones from slipping out of place. The velcro straps don’t work very well. Most of all, these things are just embarrassing, even for a kid. I wasn’t trying to be Forrest Gump. I chose to risk further dislocation instead, and not wear them. My knees graciously obliged in my request for destruction. Gradually, I lost function of my right leg and had to have surgery. Total reconstruction. As I recall, my hamstring had to be unhooked and reattached. Lots of bone pieces were swept out. The surgery lasted six hours. The cast and physical therapy continued for months. I was fifteen though and was able to conquer the adversity. I had faced worse than this when my folks divorced, my grandfather died, and then my Mom almost died. Unfortunately, my left knee was also in a gradual state of decline. One day I brazenly tried to play football with the football team without pads and without my brace. Being in the marching band playing trumpet just wasn’t enough for me I suppose.

When I refused to go down with three guys tackling me, I felt a drill pierce my knee from the side and twist. I felt bone grind against bone. The world blurred and spun. Panic came and washed over me with the intent that I drown in dismay. Down on the ground helpless, I checked to see if the knee was back in place. The problem was, just touching it after dislocation caused agony. I knew then that time was running out for this knee. Despite the danger, a few weeks later I decided I had recovered substantially, and went right to the basketball court after waking up. Clearly I’m the proverbial glutton for punishment.

POP.

My dad found me laying down unable to move for a couple hours. My second surgery was a week later. This time without insurance. Naked and blind on that cold table without my glasses, I was actually awake at the beginning, but quickly descended into the abyss. I awoke too early in recovery and started hitting on the nurses. “We should take a vacation together to the islands.” I quickly faded away again. That night I woke up in searing pain. I was out of painkillers but screamed and begged for more to no avail.

It was a long night.

Back in class, Rick gave us the new directive. “Next we have Awkward pose. Go ahead and sit down in your chair.” Awkward pose was just that, awkward. The chair is imaginary, and you have to sit as low as possible. I still watch as everybody sits down and I half sit, knowing that one day I will descend my keester into the rich plushness of my imaginary rest sanctuary. My knees don’t enjoy Awkward pose. My left knee will often raise the white flag in just a few seconds. Both of my knees don’t entirely approve of more than half of the poses. I always listen. I have no choice. They still have a way of grinding and twisting until I yield. But each week, they creak a little less. Each week I grow stronger. While I used to have to stop many of the poses halfway, I can now do some of them on a much deeper level. Down the road a bit, I left Rick to study with my girl Amanda in Manhattan. Amanda is really extraordinary. She’s a Yoga master who has won Yoga competitions. She always brings an over the top positivity. She even sings in class. Last week she broke out into straight Opera!

“Push! (Higher) Push! (highest with mad vibrato!) Puuuuussshhh!!”

Next up in class it was time for some shapeshifting. I became an Eagle and was told to twist my arms like ropes. Standing head to knee followed. Then it was standing bow pose, where you become both the bow and the arrow. After six months, I’m actually able to touch my right ankle! I achieved a vaunted focus in following pose called Triangle. Balancing stick pose came next where you tried to become the letter T. Then it’s standing tree where you try to take root in the floor. I reached a place of simultaneous exhaustion and exultation. I physically felt pain, fear, and anger leave my body at the cellular level. With the standing series over we were blessed with a two-minute rest period, known as Savasana. It was time to reflect on the next chapter of my ongoing knee novella.

I made it for years without any issues after my surgeries. I didn’t really take care of myself that well. The doctors had told me back then that I might end up with Osteoarthritis, which I chose to forget. My real escape became my beloved bike riding. Up and down the west side of the Manhattan bike path. I spent countless hours doing this, usually listening to music. It was a cathartic transformational self-physical therapy of sorts. I had a brand new bike and was loving life when my left knee returned one day with a brutal message. Delivered in a way that I’ll never forget.

One bright sunny day I was riding at full speed when lightning struck my knee in a blinding flash. An acute pain came over my entire left leg. I almost crashed, but slowed down and pulled over. It was little league all over again. This wasn’t a dislocation though. I just had a severe and sensitive pain. I could barely walk. I had been in no accidents. Had my knee just run out of gas after all these years of freedom? I conducted a few tests with the same result of a crippling pain. I had a severe and fragile limp home. I have never returned to my cherished bike path ever since.

Weeks later I was still carrying this albatross of misery. My condition was deteriorating. It was getting so bad that I could barely make it through a day of work. Even though I had grown to distrust doctors as much as I distrusted the police, I realized they might be my only hope. Surely our venerated American health care system will take care of me. Our ample amount of precocious doctors will surely devastate any adversity I may face. First up was an MRI X-ray.

Getting an MRI is somewhere between becoming the stage floor during a heavy metal concert, entering the Atari video game Yars Revenge, or entering some kind of matrix test tube. You must leave everything behind, even your glasses. You wear a gown and are given ear plugs before the 20-25 minute procedure begins. The last thing you see as the conveyor slides you in is a giant General Electric symbol. The operator in the next room tries to communicate with you through a little speaker that sounds like those garbled messages from the Subway conductor’s that make no sense. After it’s over the operator leaves you alone on the floor to figure out how to find the elevator and make your escape from the sub-basement. Real life medical science fiction.

The results were in. Severe Osteoarthritis. The doctor, who seemed to genuinely not enjoy his job, delivered his prognosis: Knee cap replacement. No work for a month. Surgery. Again. I needed more time to dwell on this and opted for steroid shots and drum roll please, a new modern day knee brace. I would end up with three knee braces. The last one I wore for almost seven months straight. The metal bars were sheathed in a stylish black rubbery substance. The circular device at the center was supposed to keep my knee cap stabilized. Its task was to hold the center. Doubled up straps on top and bottom made it awkward for any blood trying to reach my feet. The whole brace had a Darth Vader vibe. Remember when Obi-Wan told us that Vader was more machine than man? I didn’t want to end setting off metal detectors. Physical therapy and drugs had no effect. The problem was that I couldn’t take a month off of work and survive. To have surgery would throw my whole survival system in the fire. As my condition worsened, I became desperate. I was now walking around with a cane at forty-three years old. I Never noticed how so many people were walking around NYC with a cane. I was now one of the fallen. I took my tax return and went to see a doctor that specializes in stem cells in deep Queens. I couldn’t afford stem cell treatments, so I was offered the “budget package.” Oxygen injections that would enable rapid healing. I spent my last dime on these treatments. They came with a lot of expensive drugs. I achieved a fair amount of temporary stability, but I had found no cure. After the treatments, the doctor told me I had too much lead in my blood. He could “clean” me though, for two-thousand dollars. I’d never forget him telling me a parable in his office about the “stupid” man, who was supposed to be me if I didn’t cough up the two large.

Still denying surgery I decided that If I lost weight and changed my diet maybe I could conquer this on my own terms. I had read that one pound of fat equaled three pounds of pressure. I needed to be purged. Forty pounds would be shed as I danced on the outer rim of starvation. But what about exercise? The bike was still impossible. I tried to do my physical therapy training at the gym. Still not enough. I needed something more. It was here that I actually believe that Hot Yoga saved my life.

Just this last Sunday, it was time for the floor series with my teacher in Astoria Queens, Alina. Like Amanda, Alina is a master. She noticed my two big knee scars instantly and tried to help me adapt to the program. She might be no more than a hundred pounds, but her spiritual power is boundless. The floor series gets me off my feet, but my knee flexibility is pushed to the extreme. Now it was my lower back and neck getting pulled apart. Time for Cobra pose, Locust pose, Half-tortoise pose, Camel pose, and Rabbit pose. Camel pose in particular may be the scariest pose of all. During camel, you open your heart chakra as wide as the sky and as deep as the ocean. Still have feelings from a relationship twenty years ago? There they are. There’s that book you wrote together with that lover you could never forget. A brutal head to knee pose follows, ending with an impossible spine twist. After we finish, we have a reverse breathing exercise where every last trace of air is expunged from the body. I open my mouth wide enough to breathe fire. It’s the ultimate waiting to exhale. With the 26 posture series completed, we enter an optional deep state of meditation. It’s here where I work on releasing anger. I also practice very focused visualization in an attempt to make all my dreams come true. So far, its worked!

During the floor series, I am often dizzy and ask myself If I’m going to make it. In truth, I should stop, but stopping is not what I do. I only stop when I’m being forced to, when choice is taken away from me. I have yet to pass out. The biggest difference now is that I experience no knee pain whatsoever. My knees no longer warn me or tell me to back off. I even “ask” them if I can keep going at times. In response, I always see a huge green stoplight. The message being GO. KEEP GOING. I’m fragile when I gingerly leave the Yoga chamber, but I have no limp. Seemingly I have discovered my cure without surgery. I’m addicted to it and will most likely have to practice for the rest of my life, but that’s OK with me. I have my nutri-bullet at home and have strived to continue to eat every kind of anti-inflammatory food in the world. I throw in some bioflavonoids, wheat grass, and Glucosamine. Stability achieved! There’s nothing better to me than a natural solution.

Throughout all of my knee drama, music has been my passion in life. I have an orchestra called the Twelve Houses. We just left the studio last week in fact. The highlight of our recording featured my violinist Laura Ortman. The piece I wrote for her is called Knee Braces. Knee Braces represent so much more to me than being muscle supports. They represent how life forces you to evolve through direct confrontation. Everyone on Earth will face their own transformation trial at some point. Some say that pain is a gift. I learned a painful lesson. While I knew a change was needed in my life, it wasn’t until a lose-lose situation was dropped on my doorstep that I rose up and did what I had to do. So often these days, we wait until tragedy strikes before we take any action. Anybody out there that desires to know who they are and what they need to be doing in life, I might suggest you head on over to Hot Yoga.

Head on over there and burn.

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