The mind and its connection to illness and healing can’t exactly be explained by science. But Judi Bar can tell you that she experienced firsthand the power of the mind working against, and then with, her body.
A ballerina from childhood, as an adult she danced professionally into her forties. Strong and physically fit, she appeared to be a model of good health. Until one morning, in her mid-forties, she woke up and could barely move without wrenching back pain. Her back was in serious spasm. “It seemed to come out of the blue, and it was the beginning of a five-year process of chronic pain that overtook my life,” says Bar, who now works as a yoga therapist on the executive team of the Lifestyle 180 Program of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
An MRI showed that she had spinal stenosis, arthritis and degenerative back disease. Doctors told Bar that she had the back of an 80-year-old. Her years of dancing definitely could have contributed to her condition, as could her stressful lifestyle.
“Since there were so many pieces of the puzzle, and not one distinct injury like a fall, it was likely the combination of many things,” says Bar. And while she had dull backaches for years, she’d never had pain like this before — a deep spasm around her entire back that didn’t allow her to move without unbearable pain.
The doctors told her that her spine had just likely reached a breaking point, which, while not common, can happen. A neurosurgeon told her that she needed multiple surgeries and that eventually she would probably not be able to walk. “It felt hopeless. I became a victim of the pain and felt like I had no options,” she recalls.
Untangling the Pain Spiral
It’s easy to let pain victimize us. At times it’s relentless — it beats us up and exhausts us. Not only do we not have the energy to keep moving, it hurts to move. Inactivity leads to more pain, which leads to more inactivity and depression and hopelessness.
Bar recognized that she was trapped in this pain spiral and needed to first heal herself. She went back to the neurosurgeon and said that she’d give herself a year on her own to try to heal. To do that, she knew instinctively that the first thing she had to do was get past the label of being weak and sick — a person with a “bad back.” “So often, we don’t think we can get past the label, but you have to in order to heal,” she says.
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