I recently underwent minor abdominal surgery. Having never been under the knife before, I was understandably nervous about the op itself. What caught me off-guard though, were the nerves about my recovery. Pre-operative literature given to me by various doctors and nurses felt specifically vague on both recovery time and what you could and couldn’t do in the weeks after surgery. Even the leaflet that landed in my lap whilst I was still high on codeine in the hospital bed offered no concrete advice. I suspect the reasons for this are twofold; every individual will recover differently from one another, and no hospital wants to be liable for your actions during that time. After all, if they were to give me the green light to do acrobatics a month after surgery and I was to give myself a hernia doing so, I wouldn’t be best pleased.
The problem for me was my yoga practice. Ten days post-op, after what felt like endless sitting around, I’d already had enough; I was aching (quite literally!) to be back on my mat. My still swollen belly and I took a seat and a deep breath. Suddenly, my mind was racing… what can I do? What can’t I do? What if I damage my stitches? Is this allowed? Should I give up already? Only ten minutes and at least ten frustrating moments later, I wanted to cry. My body felt completely alien. I soon realised that almost every movement involved the abdomen in some capacity, even that first deep breath. Simply sitting up straight was a challenge. Moreover, I had been intermittently lay in bed or slumped on the sofa so much more than usual, that I was stiff in places I had never before been restricted. For the first time, yoga left me feeing fed-up and hopeless.
In an attempt to pick myself up, I turned to google: “post-surgery yoga”. I hoped I would find a video, a guided class, someone who knew something about what I could and couldn’t do. Unsurprisingly, post-surgery yoga is not a thing. I soon came to realise that only I, myself could possibly have the answers to what was right for my body during this time. What was surprising though, was the lack of resources with advice or guidance on how to get back into yoga practice after an operation. I understand that this is an extremely personal topic – everybody and every body is different, and will recover somewhat uniquely. But the more I searched, the more I felt that very few people dared to broach the subject for fear of the responsibility of guiding others through their lonely post-surgery journey.
It is important to stress that I am referring to yoga in a broad, all-encompassing sense, rather than to one specific form; of yoga as union between mind, body and spirit. I doubt it is even possible to practise many physical types of yoga in the weeks after surgery, and by no means am I saying that it is good for you to be busting out Ashtanga or power-yoga in the recovery room. Sadly, I am also unable to provide a magical sequence, sealed with a promise of absolute safety. I can only speak from my own personal journey and the perspective of the minor abdominal surgery I underwent.
What I can share from my experience is a set of principles which helped to get me through. Once I got back on my mat and powered through the initial anxieties, I found that yoga exponentially sped up my recovery and I regretted not getting back into it sooner. At this point, I began an experiment; operation yoga. I practised and practised, no matter how little or slow or frustrating. I accepted saying a temporary farewell to many of my favourite postures and welcomed gentler, softer movements. I tried new things, returned to neglected things. I dusted off my meditation practice and spent much longer than usual in savasana. I listened to my body like never before, scribbling down whatever I heard.
The following principles are the result of those scribblings. If you have recently had surgery or are nervous about an upcoming operation, I hope these give you some comfort and serve as a springboard to get you back into yoga during your recovery.
1) Listen to your body – This is the single most important thing you can do after surgery, whether on or off the mat. Meditate and be mindful. Listen to, engage with and respect the new boundaries your body has set you. Notice the difference between challenge and pain. If you feel pain, stop what you are doing immediately. If you feel an unnatural twinge or strain, back off. You should never experience pain during yoga practice, let alone after surgery. Pain and strain will only lengthen your recovery time and could even cause more damage. If you encounter a challenge however, meet it with curiosity. What happens if you deepen your breath? Is there a slight adjustment which could ease the sensation?
2) Go back to basics - In the immediate post-op days, it’s likely that both pain and medication will keep you relatively bed-bound, but that’s not to say you can’t still practice soft breath awareness exercises, simple movements and meditation. Mindful, deep breathing will help to release tension in the area you were operated on, assisting the body in reducing inflammation and aiding your recovery in the process. Regularly turning your head from one side to another, rolling your shoulders or rotating your ankles and wrists will prevent you from stiffening up, preparing you for bigger movements later on.
3) Slow it down – Don’t push yourself and don’t overdo it. Take each movement slowly and gently, resting in Balasana (child’s-pose) or Virasana (hero pose) between postures. Have patience and remind yourself that this is only temporary. It will pass. Once your incision is completely healed, you will find that your normal practice resumes sooner than you might have thought.
4) Get creative – play around with what you would usually do and try not to focus too much on strict shapes or alignment. If it feels good – do it! If you come across a difficult posture, get inventive and try it another way… for me, a simple seated side stretch was out of the question for quite some time. Yet if I came into a forward fold with my legs crossed, it was possible to gently walk the hands from one side to another, giving me a softer, supported version of that same stretch.
5) Be kind to yourself – show compassion. Confronting the fact that your strength, fitness and flexibility have been knocked out in one fell swoop is not easy. Your body has been through a trauma. It’s important you stay friends with your body and don’t put it down; be gentle and encouraging. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who had been through such a thing.
6) Adjust your expectations – your body is not the same as it was before surgery, and won’t be for some time. Backbends and handstands will have to go on the backburner. Once you accept that and stop focusing on what you can’t do, the door to what you can do will fling wide open and possibilities will flood in. Use this time to get reacquainted with your body. Take this as a positive opportunity to start from scratch and break bad habits, rebuilding your practice with mindfulness. Trust me; you’ll be grateful to yourself in the end!
Above all, if in doubt – don’t. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to check with a medical professional for peace of mind and to prevent further injury. That said, never underestimate the power of your body to communicate what it needs. Now is always the perfect time to listen.