How Yoga Saved My Knees
Posted by Yariv Lerner
I started doing Yoga when I was eighteen and had had a pretty good practice going until I was about twenty two.
I then came to the States and began pursuing a career in beach volleyball. It wasn’t long before I learned what a challenge that would be but loved the game so much that I devoted most of my time an energy towards it.
I had played and practiced consistently from the age of twenty three until the ripe old age of thirty seven. And although it wasn’t financially lucrative, it was spiritually and emotionally satisfying. My whole life revolved around the sport. To this day, most of my best friends and all of the business opportunities I have had are as a direct result of my involvement with beach volleyball.
Throughout the years I had used yoga as a supplemental training regime, going to one or two classes a week to keep me loose but that was about as far as I got. It was a purely physical practice and used only as a form of stretching while admiring the view.
Aging not so gracefully
Then things began to change. I had noticed that over the years my knees beginning to deteriorate and the pain was getting worse and worse. I had always had the “suck it up” mentality in my life and training not being one to complain too much. I had maintained a calm exterior, always smiling and being friendly, but my inner world was in turmoil. I was feeling creaky. Every day my legs felt like they belonged to an eighty year old man. Every jump I took was painful, every landing worse. I had consulted numerous physical therapists, trainers, chiropractors and had even scheduled an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. The best explanation I ever got was from a Dr Giovanni Silva who calmly told me that it was a condition known as “Old-age-itis” he recommended a orthopidic surgeon and I went to see him.
I kept this a secret from all my friends. In the beach volleyball community being a lame horse is not the best way secure a partner. I went in for a consultation and the doctor scheduled me for an MRI. The results were in, over the years I had built up a lot scar tissue in my knees. He explained that there is a fairly new, non-invasive technique that could clean up the scar tissue and hopefully extend my playing career. Not having made that much money, I was torn as to whether it was worth the time and effort. Yes I loved playing, but was surgery a good option? Many a sleepless night later, I decided that the sport was important enough for me to do it.
I started researching the procedure. It was a great shock to me to discover that even if everything went smoothly I would still be out for at least four to six months. This was the middle of season I was not willing to take that time off. I decided to play out the year and then rethink it in the offseason. My knees were killing me but I was on a diet of eight Advil a day and still playing. Amongst my friends in the beach volleyball community we would call Advil candy. The human body is not designed to jump repetitively so as a result wear and tear is natural. I was playing in the motherload tournament that year when things came to a head.
The motherload is on of my favorite tournaments. It takes place in Aspen where the courts are beautiful and the scenery is even better. I was playing with a great partner Travis Schoonover and we were doing really well. We made it through to the second day and were in the loser’s bracket but still battling. That Sunday morning I wore up and went to get out of bed and both my knees locked. I could not move. Everyone else was sleeping and I was in such pain I wanted to cry. I put on a pair of snowboarding compression pants to keep the legs warm, put on another pair of long johns, my shorts, and then a pair of Addidas long leg bottoms. I knew that if I kept my legs warm I would at least be able to walk down to the courts.
I did not want to let Travis know about my condition and certainly not the opponents, so I put on my best appearance, ate three bananas and five Advils for breakfast. In the volleyball community we call Advil candy. We went down to the court and began to warm up. It was freezing cold and I was in horrendous pain. Every step felt like someone was hitting my kneecap with a baseball bat. I had made the decision to die with my boots on. The match started and the team we were playing was average at best. Travis, being the phenomenal player he is, and with me at even 50 % capacity could have easily crushed them. However, in the condition I was in, we struggled.
I sided out just well enough to keep us in the game and at around eighteen-all one of the guys on the other side of the net made a play that was questionable – and something within Travis had snapped. He leapt up, yelled “No! ” and swatted an open hand tip back in the guy’s face. He then proceeded to give the guy a step by step, instructional lecture on how the game should be played. He played out of his mind with a fury and a focus that I had never seen him play with before. We sailed through that team.
Up and Down again
The next game we played was three hours later. I had had enough time to get in a light stretch and was feeling somewhat normal. The weather was warm enough and I knew that I had enough in me to make it through the match. I had resigned myself to the fact that this was probably the last game of volleyball I would play until after surgery. Then we discovered we were playing – Bobby Jones and partner.
Get thee to a Grudgery
I have a long history with Bobby Jones – I never really liked him, liking him even less after having the misfortune of playing with him in a tournament. We had lost to a team I felt we shouldn’t have lost to. Later I overhead him throwing me under the bus in the players tent, claiming the loss was all my fault. I did not want to loose this game – but I knew that most likely I would. A couple plays into the match he was talking so much trash that he began to get under my skin. I mentally snapped. I told myself that I’m not just going to get through this match. I’m going to win or I’m going to be taken off this court in a wheel chair. Either way my body was not going to be the reason why I lose this one.
From Hell to Heaven
I played possessed and gave everything I had. Every jump I took was a max jump and every time I did this I was in excruciating pain. At one point Travis went back to tell me something and must have seen something demonic in my eyes. He just said “never mind – just do what you are doing.” We won that match and it was the best win of my life. I went through a wall that day – physically and mentally. I was so happy with the result – it was probably the most satisfying match of my life. Travis played great, I was unstoppable and Bobby was crushed. I had reached a summit and although it was a small unimportant match in a little mountain town miles from anywhere else – for me it felt like the gold medal. I kept my emotions well under control, not wanting to gloat, but inside I was in heaven.
The Ride Continues
The next match went our way as well – partly thanks to Bobby Jones again who was reffing that match. He made some questionable calls that didn’t go our way. Travis let him have it and I knew that he was calling the game out of bitterness rather than being fair. We were a better team on paper and I was ignoring the pain at this point because I knew that I could do it. We won fairly easily and then played a really good team from Texas later who barely beat us knocking us out of the tournaments but leaving us both fulfilled. We had represented ourselves well and had a great time doing it.
Old man take a look at me now…
I hobbled home knowing that if this was the last game of volleyball I ever played it would have been a fitting end to a long career. Physically I felt broken but mentally I felt great. That night I went down to the local studio in Aspen and took a gentle yoga class. I was still in pain but felt a lot better when I got back to the hotel room. Two thousand milligrams of Advil later ,I was back in LA. I walked into the Power Yoga studio in Santa Monica that Wednesday and went to Bryan Kest’s six thirty class. He was out of town at the time but had some sub by the name of Travis Eliot taking the class. The class was challenging and inspiring- I felt so good afterwards that I went to Travis- ten forty five class the next day. Then I went to his four thirty class on Friday and his six o’clock on Saturday and Sunday. What was strange was that it was a really good workout- I was sweating my ass off yet I would feel great the next day. And my knees although in pain, felt better. I also stopped icing- not because I didn’t think it was a good idea, but my knees were not reminding me to do so.
Lo and Behold
I had gotten into a pretty good rhythm by now and was doing power yoga at least four times a week. Every day my flexibility improved, my mind became calmer, and my knees felt better. I had even forgiven Bobby Jones. Then the most amazing thing happened. I went to sleep one night and woke up the next day pain free. The first step in the morning had always been excruciating so I gingerly stepped out of bed. I took the first step and was completely shocked by it- there was no pain in my knee. None! I took another step, this time with my left leg. Again, no pain. I was in utter disbelief. I felt like I was 22 again. It took me a couple weeks before I ventured back on the volleyball court again to test them out in battle. I played a game and was shocked to discover that on my first jump, i could do so without pain. To be honest I wasn’t as springy as usual but I would take that over pain any day. What I lacked in hops though I more than made up with in reach and improved flexibility. A lot of other wonderful things happened as well but that’s for my next blog – how yoga saved my life.