Until recently, stretching the neck and shoulders just seemed like a pleasant aspect of yoga designed to reduce stiffness and tension where it tends to collect most. After all, 90% of the body’s ‘stress receptors’ are located in this region of the upper back and neck. But on the night of Friday January 7, 2011, I realized that the simple neck stretches, strengtheners and rolling on Yoga Tune Up® balls that were a regular part of my practice may very well have saved me from chronic injuries in this most fragile part of the body.
That night while driving home from book club in the slow lane on the freeway the rear right side of my car was struck hard by a drunk driver who was speeding towards an off-ramp. The impact sent my car across four lanes into a head-on collision with the guardrail where it then spun, hit the guardrail again from behind, and was propelled back across the freeway where it came to a smoking stop next to the shoulder. The driver’s side door didn’t budge, so I scrambled over the seat and out the passenger side, where I ran to safety on the embankment next to the freeway.
My forehead immediately swelled into a bubble where my head smacked the steering wheel when I was hit from behind. I had major bumps on both the right and left sides of my skull from hitting the window on the left, and some unknown object on the right. My face was puffing up like a boxer in a losing match – obscuring my vision. But aside from various other bruises on my body, I was fine. The paramedics arrived and were shocked that I had been the driver of the totaled car that lay smoking on the freeway. They asked me several questions to see if I had a concussion, but I was completely lucid. Then they asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I tested out all my limbs, rolled my neck around several times, and declined (in retrospect, I probably should have had my head checked out to be safe, but at the time it didn’t seem necessary).
That Monday, three days after the accident, I went to the doctor who examined all my bruises and confirmed that they would heal on their own within a couple of weeks. He marveled at the fact that I had no soft-tissue damage, no whiplash – none of the common pulls, strains, or tears to ligaments, tendons, and muscles that commonly occur when the body is thrown around so severely in a violent car accident.
As my body completely healed over the next few weeks, my relationship to my yoga practice shifted dramatically. I realized that these simple, regular techniques we use to build strength and flexibility in the body not only make it more comfortable to inhabit as we age, but could also be preventing significant trauma caused by unpredictable events such as the accident. The morning of the accident I had performed my regular neck stretches and strengtheners, along with rolling out my upper trapezius, supraspinatus, levator scapula, and other muscles of the upper back and neck on Yoga Tune Up balls. I am in awe of the preventative power of these exercises, and inspired to continue to teach them in order to help protect my students from such unpredictable events.
Ultimately, the hardest part of my ‘recovery’ was trying to come to peace with the fact that this happened to me, and I had no control to prevent it. Then a couple months after the accident, I had the realization that I had retroactively already taken control. Through my regular yoga practice I had been preparing my body for whatever life throws my way. I had already done the work that turned what could have been a tragic accident into a truly empowering experience. So the moral of my story is: keep stretching and keep rolling! You never know what these simple acts of self-care could be preparing you for, or preventing.