Bird of Northwest Paradise
A Sailmaker’s Chapter on Chronic Pain
By Bonnie Obremski
I crouched on the hardwood floor, cutting fabric, as I had for most days in the past year and a half. I was a strong, 32-year-old sailmaker, who had never experienced a major injury. Suddenly, something was different. I experienced a deep knowing that something was wrong. The pain was not excruciating—yet. Instinct told me the wrong move might cause that kind of sensation in my hips and back. I crawled to one of the sewing machine tables. I placed both my hands on the surface and inched my way upward to standing. From that moment to this moment, four years later, I have been in pain.
I saw two doctors, two physical therapists, and a massage therapist for the next year and a half. No one could tell me what had happened to me. “Back strain” fit neatly in the box on my paperwork. Eventually, Labor and Industries asked me to choose: cured or permanently disabled. I asked for an MRI to help me determine my answer. My doctor advised against it. So, wishing there was an easier choice, I told the government I was cured and stopped treatment.
I was afraid to move. At the time of the initial injury, the pain stretched from my glutes to lower back and wrapped around the front of my hips and midsection. For six weeks, I could lie flat or stand up, but sitting was too painful. At one point, my partner even had to help me go to the bathroom. He guided me to bed and arranged my legs for me. I was terrified of the lighting pain of sneezing. I did not want to do anything that could risk re-injury.
Eventually, I quit sailmaking and got a desk job. Although I walked to work most days and set up a standing workstation, much of my strength left me. The pain shrank into a discomfort in my right iliopsoas.
A year after I had checked the “cured” box, my friend asked if I wanted to go to a yoga class. The new student special lured me in. As an adult often scraping by, I had never felt comfortable paying money to exercise. The student special expired after a month, and I found myself pushing through the mental barrier of shelling out for self care to sign up for another month, and then another.
The hook solidly set, however, when the studio owner announced a month-long challenge for students to attend as many classes as they could in that time. Get this: When you went to class you got a GOLD STAR next to your name on a chart on the wall!
My low point of the month was when the police pulled me over for speeding when I was trying to make it to my fourth yoga class of the day. (They let me go with a warning, maybe because it was my birthday). The officer told me to enjoy my class but obviously I missed it. (That’s why I was speeding, hello!). Yes, I know how this sounds.
The high point of the month was when I tied for first after completing 46 classes in 30 days.
And I wasn’t hurt. I was stronger. The pain in my hip was at an all-time low.
I’m now approaching my second-year anniversary as a yogi. I no longer compete in the month-long challenges, although I’m grateful for that first one. I’m more comfortable with the concept that I’m the one who knows the most about what I need and I’m the one who can be in charge of how to get those needs met. Yoga has strengthened and healed my body and relieved my mind. I feel grateful I can afford to come to class, which provides the structure and community I need to keep in my routine.
Last year, I began to attempt some more difficult poses, including the one in this photo, called “Bird of Paradise.” It’s one of my favorites. To modify this pose as I’ve done, add pine boughs, dahlias, ferns, holly and tall grass and apples. I call it “Bird of the Northwest Paradise.”
Words and self-portrait by Bonnie Obremski
Special thanks to Michele Soderstrom, a fine equine artist, Port Townsend High School art teacher and friend, for the assistance in helping me capture this self portrait.
Special thanks to Casey Reeter of Wilderbee Farm, who cultivated the dahlias.
Special thanks to Judy Duncan,, a Sequim poet and writer, who helped me harvest the flowers and who told me that an old stocking might work to anchor the blossoms to my leg. It worked!
Special thanks to Kendall Mahoney, artist and my treasured roommate, for advising me that silliness and campiness might help make a yoga portrait seem less cliche. Yes!
Special thanks to David Conklin and Rey Alvarado, photographers, for helping me grow as a fellow photographer.
Finally, thanks to all the beautiful human beings who teach at Mystic Monkey Yoga who helped this bird learn to fly again.