One of my favorite things in life is rowing a raft through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. Until eight years ago, this was my job: Grand Canyon River Guide. Every year, from April through October, I took passengers on wilderness rafting trips through beautiful, remote desert far from the rest of the world. Day in and day out I would row an 18-foot oar raft loaded with two to four passengers, gear, and supplies for 15 or 16 days. The boats weigh more than 2000 pounds fully loaded –we load and unload them every day—and the trip is 226 miles long. Being on a trip is often life-changing. At the same time, moving a heavy boat downstream all day, everyday, through powerful rapids and in 110-degree heat, storms, and wind—and living and leading a life in the desert wilderness—demands your full capacity. So guiding is a high privilege, but it is also hard, and specialized, work. And it can be hard on the body.
When I was 29—right as I had decided to stop guiding full-time to go to law school–I hurt my back. This has meant that in the years since, rather than doing a trip or two a year as I had planned, I had to quit rowing “cold turkey.” Once the center of my world, oars in my hands became a mourned thing of the past. This is until last month, when I went on a “private” (unguided) river trip with family and friends. It was my first attempt to row a raft again, for more than 15 minutes at a time, since injuring myself eight years earlier. It was also an experiment to see if I would be ready to guide a trip again this coming fall.
It has been a long journey over the last eight years moving from being a guide—using my whole body every day for my livelihood and passion—to someone with an injury that made it painful to sit or walk, at first, and then scary to move vigorously. Someone who wondered, sitting at various desks, if I’d ever be able to move in a way I wanted again. And progressing from there through various levels of acceptance and adjustment of my priorities–to someone ready to try again, eight years later. Someone who is now hoping to be able to do this favorite thing again—in a different way, and in smaller doses, but I hope perhaps for my whole life, alongside my river-guide friends and husband.
I’ve had many guides myself along the way. Lisa, Dominika, and Kinesphere have been an essential and beloved part of this journey, since I moved to Phoenix six years ago and found their beautiful studio and wise, deeply knowledgeable, committed teaching. In the last month before my March river trip, I stepped up my Kinesphere attendance to include twice-a -week privates with Lisa to get ready. (This is a significant expense for me—but it was worth it to me to find a way.)
Lisa and I developed a new routine in the month before the trip. I showed her what a boat would be like. She set up the gyrotonic tower to mimic the mechanics. I showed her how I would row. Then she showed me how to do it better, incorporating what I’ve been learning all these years. We practiced all of the different ways I might use my body to move a boat downstream in the canyon. Pushing, pulling, sitting, standing, double-armed or bicycle-like. Casually or with gusto, or as if settling in for a sustained hard slog on a windy day. We also practiced stretches, releases, and other exercises—many of them Restorative Exercise poses—I could focus on in free moments in the canyon to restore my body to its best alignment.
And I’m happy to report: it worked! I just returned from 21 days in the Grand Canyon. I shared a boat with my husband so as to ease into things. But I put in quite a few days and many miles on the oars, and came back feeling exhausted, sore, and challenged—but free of the bad kind of pain, and oh-so-happy.
Better than that, I felt that while rowing—although my mechanics were never perfect—I knew what to do to keep bringing myself closer to movement that would restore me, not injure me or re-enforce the old patterns that these days I understand as having contributed to my injury. As I pushed on the oars, watching the canyon, the river, and keeping the boat in the current, I’d also hear Lisa’s and Dominika’s voices—and Katy Bowman’s online voice—in my head. I focused on keeping my ribs connected to my pelvis instead of thrusting them forward. On using the backs of my legs, grounding and stretching my feet as I rowed instead of letting them curl and tense upwards. On moving from my center of gravity without letting my head or torso or arms get out ahead. On using my arms from their under- and back-sides instead of doing it all in the pecs or with my shoulders hunched up to my neck. I could never focus on all of this all at once, but I kept bringing my attention back to these intentions.
And then, in stolen moments by gorgeous waterfalls, in stunning side canyons, on my boat in the Grand Canyon—I would pull out a half-dome and stretch my calves, lie down on the cooler and do windmills and foot stretches—and try to work out the tightness and the old positional habits that would enter into my movement during the day.
Hurting my back when I was a young, active person was a hard, debilitating thing. It didn’t feel good and I’m not glad it happened. But the teachers and learning and awareness I’ve found since are things that I am so grateful for. The learning at Kinesphere, about aligned movement, has been a gift that makes my life much richer. Not only am I feeling hopeful about rowing in the Canyon again. But my whole understanding of how we people work has shifted. I see both how challenging but how possible it is to change the very structure of my body by changing how I use it. I see more of the complexity but also simple logic of the biomechanics of health. I feel like I know how to keep acquiring the tools to move, and move well, and to become more and more well through moving. And that—while a lifelong challenge—is one of my new favorite things in life.