I became a licensed Physical Therapist in 2008. I specialize in pelvic health, orthopedic and cancer rehabilitation for women and men. Before I went to PT school I owned and ran a yoga studio in Westbrook called River Yoga and Movement Center. I became a Certified Integrative Yoga Therapist and Yoga Teacher in 1998. Before that I earned my degree in Health Fitness from Springfield College in 1984. I came to the fitness and wellness field through my love of movement, exercise and dance. According to my mother I was dancing in the womb. I fell in love with dance at the tender age of 3 after seeing a prima ballerina perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was immediately smitten. Over 50 years later my joy of movement and love of all kinds of dance and exercise remains undiminished.
I came to Yoga, somatics and rehabilitation through my personal journey with chronic orthopedic and pelvic pain and debility as I searched for how to live a good quality of life despite the pain and debility. During my search for answers and wellbeing I realized I was becoming adept at using my training in dance, somatics and yoga to better understand what my spirit, mind and body needed for me to grow and even thrive despite pain. Ultimately, after years of searching and learning I was able to resolve my orthopedic pain. I continued to cope with and manage pelvic pain my whole reproductive life due to significant endometriosis that went undiagnosed until my early 50’s. The outcome of an extensive abdominal and pelvic surgery to remove the endometriosis sent me into surgically induced menopause and restored my bowel function to a degree. While the surgery certainly helped that alone did not result in restoring my normal bowel function. I rehabilitated my pelvic health and fully restored my bowel function by using the skills and training I had acquired over the decades of searching and learning.
My approach is holistic and collaborative. I need your input. While I have expertise and skills to offer I’m not an expert on you, your lifestyle and what will be sustainable for you. During our collaboration you have the opportunity to form new skills and habits enabling to you to start feeling better and return to doing what you want to do. It is my aim to help coaching and rehab clients understand what’s going on, what symptoms are indicating and what can be done to restore balance. Ultimately, the goal is for each client to learn effective self-management techniques that become sustainable lifestyle habits enabling you to independently maintain your progress.
To view my Credentials click here.
How Yoga Helped Chronic Pain Become My Teacher and Ally
By Lesley T. Hoey, D.P.T., C.Y.T.
Little did I suspect a joy ride with my boyfriend on his motorcycle would teach me so much about myself and, ultimately, lead me to my life’s passion and purpose.
On a beautiful Friday evening of Labor Day weekend in 1987 we were cruising slowly through the Old Port in Portland, Maine taking in the nightlife. As we approached an intersection I saw the car to our right slowly creeping through the stop sign to check for oncoming traffic. I could see the driver was looking past us. Not seeing us he started to drive across the intersection. I opened my mouth to warn my boyfriend to slow down but nothing—no sound—came out. In slow motion the accident played out. When my boyfriend realized what was happening he made a split second decision to drop the bike rather than T-bone the car. The last thing I remember as I felt myself tipping backwards off the bike was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m not flying through the air”. I came to on the ground facing the opposite direction we had been traveling in some distance from the bike. As motorcycle accidents go it could have been far worse. Still feeling stunned, I could tell as I started to move I was pretty banged up and already very stiff. Thus, began my journey of learning to live with chronic pain…
At the time of the accident I was in my mid 20’s, a dancer, healthy, fit, athletic. My body could pretty much do whatever I asked of it. After the accident living with constant pain changed my personality and the way I lived. Working and accomplishing routine daily tasks was hampered by pain, weakness, and stiffness. Lying down didn’t bring relief only a change in the way I hurt. I felt so debilitated. It was frustrating and demoralizing. I had no idea how to find relief.
My personal injury lawyer steered me toward conventional medical treatment rather than the alternative practitioners I wanted to see. Back then complementary medicine was not as main stream and appreciated as it is today. He thought seeing conventional doctors would help me get a better settlement, and because of the pending legal case I complied. I saw two doctors for quite a while without much improvement. Eventually, each told me there was nothing else they could do for me. One told me “I pride myself on my manipulations and since you are not responding to them there is nothing more I can do for you. You can expect to have degenerative arthritis of the spine around age 40”. My immediate response inside my head was “Bullshit!” In that moment, hearing the conviction of my inner voice I knew I could get better. I also knew I needed help and I was determined to find it. It took about a year, maybe more, to settle the case. I immediately paid the medical bills for treatment that didn’t help. I saved the rest, minus a trip to Jamaica, to pay for treatment as soon as I came across someone I felt could help me.
Eventually I heard about a manual bodyworker, Charles, through the recommendation of a friend. I was amazed by how he could find tender points in my arms, back and other places that I didn’t know existed. Working with him was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Often the treatment sessions didn’t feel good. After many of them I felt so lousy I needed to go to bed. I learned the hard way not to schedule anything afterward so I could rest and let the treatment effect finish playing out until it subsided. While this wasn’t pleasant, instinctively, I knew it was necessary and I persevered with the treatment.
Working with Charles helped me begin to understand and accept the sensations I labeled as “pain” were generated by accumulated tension and congestion stored in my body. I was also beginning to understand that how I felt emotionally played as big a part in feeling pain, perhaps even more, than my injured soft tissue. At some point I had an epiphany. I distinctly remember the physical feeling of elation accompanying the breakthrough when I realized that rather than betraying me, my body was valiantly trying to keep up with the demands I was placing on it until it just couldn’t compensate anymore.
My feeling of elation downshifted into a sobering feeling of gravitas. Rising from deep within my gut was a burgeoning awareness that how I felt physically and emotionally were intimately related, and it was up to me to assume responsibility for how I felt. This really tested my resolve to feel better or learn how to live a good quality of life despite the pain since I was only in my late 20’s and, presumably, had a long life yet to live. I was starting to recognize the extent of what it would take to get better. It was all so overwhelming, daunting and intimidating. I just wanted to go back to how I was before the accident.
Accepting that I might have to live with pain for the rest of my life, oddly enough, helped me to let go of focusing on my pain so intently. I decided that any small bit of progress I made was cause for celebration. I took it as a sign, an encouraging bread crumb, that I was headed in the right direction. This proved to be an effective strategy to promote healing. I began to feel more empowered. I started making different choices and got different, more satisfying results. I was starting to figure out and appreciate that healing took courage, grit, fortitude and bold choices.
While working with Charles I learned about the power of intention to create change. During our sessions there were times when my body wasn’t responding to the manual treatment like he hoped or intended. One day I asked him to explain to me what shift or response he was intending to create in terms I could understand. I was surprised and delighted to discover that my tuning in to the area he was treating helped bring about the intended results. I was also amazed that I could “tune in” and feel my body responding to the input. Time and again, we worked together, each communing with my body in our own way, to bring about the intended change.
After 10 months or so of working with Charles and making some progress he said he had taken me as far as he could. He told me that I could return to exercising again and that was that. I remember feeling perplexed by his announcement. While I felt better I was nowhere near the physical vitality I had before the accident. Left to my own devices I had no idea what to do to continue healing on my own. Then, one day, while hanging out with friends one of them raved about her yoga teacher, Elaine McGillicuddy, who founded Portland Yoga Studio (PYS) in Portland, Maine along with her husband, Francis.
I was familiar with Yoga. In the mid 1980’s, before the motorcycle accident, I had two different encounters with it. The first was Bikram’s sequence as depicted by Raquel Welch in her book. I wish I still had that book. In the pictures she was beautiful, graceful, strong, supple, and serene. It was surprisingly hard. Even though I couldn’t do all the poses in the sequence I felt better physically when I did it. What I didn’t like was coming face to face with the fact that I wasn’t nearly as strong or flexible as I thought. I didn’t stick with it.
My second foray into Yoga came after an acute episode of low back pain from a minor injury. I signed up for an adult education course to see if it would resolve the mild, lingering pain. The first night of class I walked into the classroom to find the teacher sitting on the floor, crossed legged, dressed in white from head to toe wearing a turban. Immediately, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I stayed for the class. Afterward, I felt like I was floating rather than driving home. I was hooked. I completed the class series and continued to study with the Kundalini Yoga teacher at her ashram in Middletown, CT for several more months until I moved to Maine. Like my first foray into Yoga, I had a book of the Kundalini sequences. Once again, even though I felt good afterward I did not keep up with it. Instead, I chose to continue with the status quo of the calisthenic routine I had been doing for years. It would be several years before I realized practicing Yoga required something of me that I wasn’t yet ready to reckon with.
My first class with Elaine at PYS blew my mind in a good way. Despite my previous yogic encounters, extensive dance training, and a degree in Health Fitness, no teacher had ever asked me to notice how I used my body to accomplish any given task. In this case, it was standing, “simply” standing on two feet in Mountain Pose. By following Elaine’s prompts I was taken into a deeper, experiential awareness of myself I hadn’t felt outside of working with Charles. Who knew there was so much to pay attention to and notice about standing on two feet!
Like many able bodied people I took standing for granted because I did it every day even though it caused me pain. It never occurred to me that the way I stood, my alignment, could cause me pain. I was astonished to discover I naturally stood with the weight of my body on the outer edges of my feet. Then, Elaine specifically instructed the class on how to balance the weight of our bodies evenly over the “four corners” of our feet. As I followed her instructions I started to feel my weight subtly shifting until it felt evenly distributed over my feet. It was an amazing, life changing moment to discover the immediate impact that small, subtle change had on my body. I left the class knowing I had found the path I needed to follow to continue my healing process. I also began to understand and appreciate why Charles had said we had gone as far as we could. Perhaps he had had enough of our therapeutic alliance and just wanted to move on. I choose to think he knew I needed someone else to guide me through the next phase my healing journey in a way that he couldn’t.
I became a class regular. It took me months of practice and repetition to fully understand what it felt like to embody Elaine’s instructions. I discovered I didn’t have the deep core strength to hold myself upright for more than 30 seconds or so before sagging into a slumped posture. As I became more adept at noticing nuance and subtle details I started to notice how much I gripped with my back and buttock muscles to find stability. No wonder these areas hurt whenever I stood for any length of time. I was afraid to let go of gripping my buttocks and pelvic floor muscles because I was fearful of what might fall out. It took me months to learn how to let go of gripping my buttocks and much longer than that to release gripping my back muscles.
As time went on I kept getting the same instruction from Elaine to draw my lower front ribs back. I was so perplexed about how to execute that instruction. I felt frustrated too because I thought I was doing it. In my mind I wondered what was it that she saw that I would get the same feedback over and over. I wanted to be a model student. Receiving the same correction over and over again made me feel I was falling short of my goal. As I grew and matured as a practitioner I began to understand that my desire to be a model student was how I expressed my competitive nature. It took me even longer to grasp the root of my frustration had to do with how I interpreted receiving the same correction over and over again. It made me feel “less than”. It took me a long time to understand that Elaine and other teachers were not criticizing me; they merely wanted to help me improve.
Mountain Pose also taught me that pain could be my ally and my teacher. I practiced the instructions I remembered from class whenever I stood on my feet for any length of time. In particular, I kept trying to figure out how to draw my lower front ribs back. Outside of class standing in line at the grocery store was my favorite place to work on this. I had begun to notice there were times when I could stand without any pain but I didn’t know how I had made it happen. It was encouraging but I wanted to be able to do it consistently instead of it being an elusive moment of serendipity. One day while standing in line at the grocery store in Mountain Pose holding my bags of groceries with my arms lengthened along the sides of my body I started to sway my ribcage forward and backward. I noticed as I shifted my ribs forward I felt more lower back pain, but when I shifted my ribs backward the pain lessened. Why?! As I paid closer attention to what happened when I shifted my ribs backward I noticed my lower ribs lifted upward a little bit. It was enough to lengthen and decompress my lower back which relieved my pain. I kept testing this out over the next several days. Consistently, it relieved my lower back pain in standing. Hallelujah!!!!!
Even with my breakthrough in Mountain Pose I repeatedly hurt myself during my first three years of studying Yoga. I practiced what I now refer to as “Ego Yoga”. Elaine once said to the class, “Sometimes it is not the Yoga that hurts people but the way they practice it.” That got my attention because I knew it applied to me. Rather than listening to and respecting my physical limitations I often disregarded and ignored them. Once again I was coming face to face with the truth about how debilitated, weak and vulnerable I was. My self esteem was still very much enmeshed with my physical performance. Warrior II, Extended Side Angle, Reclined Hero’s and Sunbird poses were particularly gruesome. I hated feeling the shakiness that overcame me in Warrior II and Extended Side Angle Poses. I’d grit my teeth determined not to come out of before Elaine instructed us to. In Sunbird Pose my back and hip extensor muscles were so weak I’d break into a sweat when I tried to lift and hold one arm and the opposite leg off the floor. In Reclined Hero’s Pose my thigh and hip flexor muscles were so tight I couldn’t bend my torso backwards very far without hurting my low back. I kept pushing myself to perform at a level of capacity I didn’t have, only hurting myself in the process. I knew I was too impatient and forceful yet, stubbornly, I did not want to accept the truth that the robust version of who I had been before the accident no longer existed.
I was three years into studying Iyengar Yoga before I was able to fully reckon with the truth of my limitations which I had been evading since my first experience with Yoga. During a weekend workshop with Patricia Walden she worked us through a sequence leading to a more advanced backbend called Two-Legged-Inverted Staff Pose. I couldn’t even begin to do it. My body wouldn’t bend like that. It hurt too much and I was too weak to sustain even a rudimentary shape of the pose. It made me so angry I had to fight hard not to break down and cry right there during the workshop. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was my pride as it would have been far more humiliating to have a temper tantrum in yoga class. I wrangled with my intense emotions as I watched other people in the class progress deeper and deeper into the pose while I felt more and more left behind. As I sat out and watched I became aware that a part of me was detaching from the situation to the point where I could neutrally observe myself and the strength of my emotional response without trying to judge, analyze, or fix it.
Detaching from my intense emotional state shifted my anger and frustration to curiosity about why I was getting so worked up about a pose I couldn’t do. Curiosity helped me finally breakthrough my hubris and aversion to feeling like a failure; being “the goat” like Charlie Brown. The feeling of failure is what I had been avoiding since my first encounter with Yoga. After the workshop I decided my goal for my home practice would be to learn how to cultivate the strength and flexibility necessary to do the pose while letting go of the need to succeed at it. This was a pivotal turning point for me physically and emotionally. I was learning to embrace humility about my limitations rather than being humiliated by them. It was the start of attuning to my needs; respecting and working with my limits rather than being so driven by my ego and results. Grudgingly, I was starting to accept that sometimes I needed emotional healing to occur before for my physical healing could progress.
About nine months after that workshop while taking myself through a rigorous yoga practice I intuitively sensed it was time to try “the backbend” again. While it was a little shaky, not only could I do it, I could do it better than I had expected based on my first experience. A part of me was elated and felt a deep sense of accomplishment that I could “do” the pose. Even more satisfying was the recognition that I was getting better at accepting “what is” over how I wanted “it” or thought “it” should be. There is a crucial difference between these states of being and I’m a much happier person for understanding this.
After the “the backbend” workshop I rarely hurt myself again from straining and willful overexertion. You might wonder why I continued to stick with Yoga since I hurt myself so often. In part I was just plain stubborn about being bested by something that was hard. More than that I was learning from my teachers and daily practice how to use props for active and restorative poses, enabling me to continue developing my capabilities while accommodating my limitations. I was able to work and be active despite feeling significant pain. Reclined Big Toe Pose was the first pose I incorporated into my daily calisthenic routine. The use of a strap enabled me to stretch my hamstrings and low back in a way that consistently relieved my low back pain.
Curiosity and wise advice from Patricia Walden that “sometimes you have to crawl into a joint with your awareness to sense what is going on in there” enabled me to feel into scary sensations. Feeling into a sensation I perceived as scary was necessary for me to discern what my body was communicating to me. I discovered the scary sensations I felt in my back and legs in Intense Side Stretch Pose were not “bad” just intense sensations of stretch. Years later I learned those sensations were a normal and healthy response of my nervous system telling me I was nearing the limit of how far my soft tissue could stretch before I might hurt myself. This aptly named pose taught me how to modulate, breathe and relax into intense sensation. That pose, and others, helped me release the deep soft tissue restrictions that contributed to my chronic back pain enabling me to nudge my body into greater levels of flexibility and strength rather than allow fear to limit what was possible for me.
Practicing restorative yoga was helping me learn how to “let go” emotionally and physically. I had discovered a particular way to support myself in Corpse Pose that allowed me to relax so deeply that for ten to twenty minutes I felt no pain when nothing else provided relief. After months of consistent practice I started to notice layers of physical and emotional tension and trauma melting away at levels of depth I had not previously experienced. When I emerged from a restorative yoga practice I felt completely rejuvenated in a way that was deeper and more satisfying than sleep.
Knowing that I could make myself feel better rather than feeling dependent on someone else to do so was reassuring and exhilarating. More often than not when I practiced I felt better even if it was only for a short period of time. When pain and stiffness started to return I took it as a reminder from my body that it was time to stretch again. The more often I heeded the guidance of my body the better I felt. I could feel I was getting stronger and more flexible and able to handle more demanding physical activity.
However, it wasn’t just the physical practice of Yoga that inspired me to keep going to class and practice at home. The philosophy that Elaine and other teachers wove into classes and workshops I attended was helping me grow and evolve in ways I had not imagined. I learned more about how I made myself miserable and created my own suffering through studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was eye opening to learn that I didn’t have to be victimized by physical or emotional pain or challenging circumstances unless I chose to be. I had the power within me to choose who I wanted to be and how I wanted to respond in any given situation both on and off the mat. I could gripe and blame or choose to accept and appreciate how a challenging situation could help me learn and grow. As my confidence in my ability to cope with and handle difficult situations grew I became more tolerant of feeling insecure, less threatened and “pained” by vulnerability.
Throughout the 1990’s I was blessed and fortunate to have a lifestyle that allowed me to attend classes, workshops, Yoga teacher training courses and practice Yoga for two to three hours a day. All that coupled with intensive training in Somatics helped me became more skillful as a practitioner, and my own best bodyworker. Physically, I was starting to do things I couldn’t do before the motorcycle accident such as headstands, arm balances, inversions, and advanced backbends. I was stronger and more flexible than I had ever been. Surprisingly, I was able to return to dancing, my first love, after a 10 year hiatus due to pain. I became more adept at consistently being able to shift my emotional state of being from anxiety, depression and agitation to one of calm, peaceful, tranquility. I became more adept at cultivating feelings of gratitude for all the blessings in my life as well as the difficulties knowing that they too served me in their own way. One day I realized it was time to give up my identity as someone “with a bad back”, and that, in fact, I had achieved a “better-than-ever” recovery from the motorcycle accident.
At the time of the accident I was in my mid 20’s. Now, I’m in my late 50’s. I’ve had multiple episodes of pain that I have, for the most part, been able to recover from. While I still feel strong, supple and resilient I need to work at it on a daily basis. If I let more than a day or two go by without any exercise I notice it. I’ve had to adapt my Yoga practice and activity level to accommodate my aging body. It has different needs now than it did in my younger years. I can tolerate vigorous exertion but not like I once did. I feel it more, and it takes me longer to recover from over doing it. So be it. I am grateful for my autonomy. As a physical therapist I have worked in hospitals, nursing homes, home care and outpatient settings helping people regain or preserve their functional skills. If I start to feel sorry for myself I remember and appreciate that I can stand up, get out of bed, dress, feed, toilet and groom myself without any need of assistance. Over the three decades since the motorcycle accident the most important lesson I have learned is not to take my health for granted. Every day presents me with opportunities to enhance my health and wellbeing by considering what consequences I want to live with and exercise my power of choice accordingly.