When Beryl Bender Birch received a serious medical diagnosis, she was in denial. “I’m Beryl Bender Birch, I don’t do ‘hip replacements,’ much less osteoarthritis,” she said. Then an “aha” moment led her back to the practices that would help her heal.
One February day in 2002 on the East End of Long Island, when there was a break in the dreary grey winter cold, the sun came out and the temperature went up into the high 40s. I went out for a very easy ride on my mountain bike with a friend. I’m not really a mountain biker, despite having a mountain bike which I pedal around on the roads, so I was being extremely conscious of not overdoing it on the meandering trails of East Hampton. But about a week later, I noticed this little tweak in my right groin. I supposed I’d just strained my psoas (a hip flexor) muscle from doing a little too much on the ride. And as always, with any little injury I’d ever had in the past 22 years, whether from running, biking, swimming, dog sledding, or just doing stuff, I figured that a few weeks of regular practice of the yoga asanas, or “postures,” would fix the problem. But after a few weeks, the problem wasn’t fixed.
I avoided biking, and instead, walked and swam in the bay during that summer. I tried more asana, less asana, and finally, no asana but the pull persisted. This was getting aggravating. I’d never experienced not being able to “fix” something that was amiss in my body. Grrrrr. By the fall, I conceded I needed some outside help. Over the next year and a half I went to a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist, and a body tuner—numerous times—and still there was no improvement. In fact, the pain got worse. Every time I adducted, or brought my leg in toward the other one (as in getting in and out of a car and as in just about everything else I did) there was a sharp stabbing sort of pain in my groin. Yikes.
Two years later, almost to the day, in February of 2004, I decided I needed serious medical diagnosis and went to see Dr. Lisa Callahan, an orthopedist and medical director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. I’d never been to an orthopedist, didn’t have medical insurance, and didn’t really ever see doctors, except for my gynecologist once a year. So this was a big step for me.
“It’s your hip,” Dr. Callahan said briskly, as I walked into the office.
“I beg your pardon?” I said, looking around the office to see who she might be talking to.
She came highly recommended by a friend who works at Weill Cornell Medical Center at New York Presbyterian and had suggested that I check out the Women’s Sports Medicine Center. I must have looked puzzled. Had she seen my X-rays already? I wondered.
“Your hip—it’s your hip,” she repeated.
“It’s not my hip. The pain is here, in the psoas muscle,” I explained patiently, hoping to be helpful. I pointed to my groin. “Every time I flex my hips (bend over) or adduct, I get a sharp, grabbing pain in my groin.”
“Yeah, I understand, but it’s not your psoas muscle,” she continued. “It’s your hip.”
“Did you look at the X-rays?”
“I don’t need to look at the X-rays—I can tell by the way you are walking.”
“What’s wrong with the way I’m walking?”
“Did you know you’re limping?” she asked.
“I’m not limping.”
“You are limping a bit,” she replied.
“How do you know?”
“I just watched you walk into this office.”
At that point, a technician walked into her office with my X-rays. She put them up on the light board and as the photons illuminated my bones, we looked them over. “Hmmmm,” she groaned. “Oooooh, you see this, here?” There was a pretty substantial bone spur off the front, lower portion of the head of the femur, or thigh bone, where it fits into the hip joint. That bone spur is what was causing the problem. It was catching on one of the hip flexor muscles, during flexion or adduction, and causing that sharp pain I’d been feeling for the past two years. The hip joint was a bit worn looking. “You have osteoarthritis,” she explained. “It’s in both hips, but it’s worse in your right hip. You’ll probably need a hip replacement in 10 years.”
Excuse me? I was stunned. She had to be mistaken. I’m Beryl Bender Birch, I don’t do “hip replacements,” much less osteoarthritis. What was she talking about? How can I have a bone spur? Bone spurs happen when there is some misalignment. I’m a yogi. How can I possibly be misaligned? I just gazed dully at the X-rays. I don’t remember the rest. I was polite, as I usually am in these circumstances. But I immediately zoned out. I wasn’t really there. She gave me a prescription for something. I don’t know what. I just remember walking back to my car, parked in some gloomy underground lot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and then driving 100 miles east to the end of Long Island and home. I just couldn’t get my brain around what was happening here.
I was in shock. How could this be? She had to be kidding. Hip replacement? I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I had been practicing yoga since 1971 and teaching it for 30 years. I’d worked with thousands upon thousands of athletes. I’d helped hundreds of runners, bikers, climbers, skiers, and others heal injuries and return to full capacity using a strong physical yoga practice called astanga and its modifications (what I called “power yoga”) as a form of physical and mental therapy. My book, Power Yoga, had sold more than 200,000 copies and had started tons of people on the yoga path to balance and well- being. Personally, I had always believed there was nothing that could not be fixed with regular yoga practice and a little supportive body work.
I eat well, very well. I don’t eat saturated fats. I’ve never had margarine, and I don’t eat Wonder bread, soda, canned anything (except tomatoes in the winter for soup), or luncheon meat. I haven’t had a piece of bacon or a hot dog since l958. I avoid high glycemic foods. I haven’t eaten anything processed since the ‘50s, when Velveeta cheese was “invented” and became the saving grace of every housewife (including my mother) raising children and the magic ingredient of macaroni and cheese. Since I was a child, I’ve been eating veggies like kohlrabi, kale, and Swiss chard and grains like millet and quinoa that, until recently, most people had never heard of. I’ve been supporting local organic farming for 35 years. I practice yoga. I don’t get injured and if I do, I get better by doing yoga. I help other people deal with their injuries. I can see misalignments in other people before they even tell me what’s wrong with them. I don’t get osteoarthritis! And I don’t get bone spurs.
As you can tell, I was in denial. It’s what generally happens in these cases. It’s often the first phase of our response to bad news. But it is often hard to recognize. You don’t know if you are in denial or just trying to think positively. So I didn’t really deliberate the diagnosis, except when I was bending over, my groin seized up and I yelped and jumped. The dust settled. I didn’t have health insurance. I hadn’t had health insurance since l974 or ‘75, when I was still in the Screen Actors Guild. I didn’t get sick and I didn’t do hip replacements. Somebody told me that a hip replacement cost about the same as a brand new Cadillac. I moved out of denial. I was now depressed.
What was I going to do? Well, I couldn’t bend over, so most of my yoga practice was basically not doable. The sun salutations were painful for me—especially stepping forward into a lunge position. Ummmm, not great. The hip hurt. I took to calling the injury “my hip.” It kind of loomed large in my mind, especially when I tried to do some of the standing postures in yoga, where you have to bend over, like triangle pose and extended side angle—oooohhh, not so good. People asked how I was and I told them I had osteoarthritis and a bone spur. “It’s my hip.” People were polite. But I felt like I’d failed somehow. I was supposed to be this paragon of wellness. I was a yoga teacher and now I could hardly even practice asana myself!
How could this have happened? One of the things Dr. Callahan did happen to ask me while I was in her office was if I had ever been in an auto accident. Well, yes, I recalled, a little one. Sometime in the mid-‘80s, when my husband Thom and I had been living in a small cottage on an estate in New Canaan, Connecticut. We had been out on a rainy day, teaching yoga at the Stamford Y and while driving home on wet roads, a car in front of us delivering Meals on Wheels came to an abrupt halt. I was a passenger, no seat belt, and all of a sudden, going about 25 mph, we hit the brakes and skidded into the back of the stopped car. I was thrown forward. My knee, which was higher than my hip, as knees tend to be when you’re sitting in a car, hit the dash, pushing my right hip back and down. And as I spoke with Dr. Callahan, there it was—the aha moment—the source of the osteoarthritis and bone spur. That revelation was so beneficial to have, as it helped me to become more tolerant of misalignment and imperfection—especially my own! Over the years, I have pretty much managed to keep the osteoarthritis at bay through careful diet and nutritional awareness. The hip replacement hasn’t happened yet, and through a great nutritional protocol and yoga practice, I’m not in pain, still moving, and very grateful.