The art of standing balance postures

Before doing teacher training at Yoga to the People, I’ve underestimated the benefits of Tadasana, or Mountain Pose. Typically after a forward-fold when the head hangs heavy and the legs are straight, you enter this pose by lifting your arms up and over your head, standing up tall, relaxing the shoulders but keeping your arms straight with your fingers spread wide apart, pinkies slightly tilted inward.

I never considered this pose to be physically rigorous or complex. I took it as means of easing students into their yoga by instructing them on doing something they are largely familiar with. We stand all the time, how hard could that be?

There is nothing strenuously difficult about standing in the work-out culture, unless you have a chronic injury or medical condition. The question is, how often do we stand with full awareness of our bodies from the inside out?

We use the same fundamental knowledge of this pose to master more complex ones. In a headstand, one must find stacking and alignment of various muscle groups to find balance in the posture. Imagine gravity pulling all of your body weight down from the very top, like a building crashing to very the bottom. You’re using your forearms, triceps, and shoulders to keep that chest lifted. Your chest is supporting your core, your core is supporting your tailbone, and everything leading up to the souls of your feet are keeping your legs straight up in the air. To sum it up, the weight is going more into your arms and less into your legs.

For me, this pose is more doable than a regular stance. Because my upper body is constantly doing a majority of the work to support my lower body when I walk daily using sticks, I am much more capable of standing up-side down than standing upright free-handedly. And when my arms and chest become even stronger, perhaps it will be easier for me to walk with my hands than with my feet.

In order to stand upright again, I must apply that same weight-bearing concept of head-standing to performing an upright stance.

In this video, I begin by finding my balance in a standing posture. Then I add the challenge of lifting my hands up and over my head. Now my lower body is bearing the weight of my upper body instead of the other way around. Since my calf muscles still lack complete mobility, I make use of my braces while standing to mimic some of the lost ankle function.

Right now, standing free-handedly with my arms up in Tadasana is like doing any difficult balancing posture I performed before my accident, like balancing on one foot.

Because my muscles aren’t all working synergistically as they used to, I have discovered harmonious alignment in the stacking of joints and muscle groups.

I feel everything sinking down towards the bottom. My hips are stacked over my knees over my ankles, and my lower and middle body is supporting my upper body up like a mountain. I cannot lift my arms up without falling until I have established a firm base of lower and middle body.

Notice how my lifted arms lose their solidity when my lower body unsettles. When I fall apart, it goes beyond the physical. It takes a very relaxed mental state for me to hold this posture.

Has anyone ever told you to stare at an object or shape that isn’t moving in a balancing posture? For me, I need to stare at a mark on the floor, or something that makes me feel really really relaxed, not a piece of mildew or green slime hanging from the wall. I cannot be distracted by loud TV or people shouting in the background. I need to fall into a daydream so that I forget I’m even standing. The fear of falling causes me to fall.

Once I’ve entered that deep state of mind and I’ve found balance in this posture, I can begin to find connection with my paralyzed body. Throughout my recovery, I’m learning that silence does not equal nonexistence. That just because your TV is on mute doesn’t mean that the show isn’t still playing. Part of my body is on mute but it’s still there. It deserves to be recognized.

As the weight of my upper body and quads sink into my ankles, I can sense the hollowness of my ankles causing my joints to wobble and shake. Yet surrounding that hollowness, there is some connection traveling down towards the bottoms of my feet. I can feel the outer ball and heal of my left foot and inner side of my right foot kissing the walls of my braces. Bearing weight onto my ankles rather than onto my sticks or a wall gives the silence of my lower body a voice. Mountain Pose, a deceivingly complex yet seemingly simple pose has allowed me to connect my mind with my silent body and unravel some of these body mysteries.

Me vs. the World

About a month after my accident, I was sitting in the gym of my in-patient rehab in Mount Sinai when an older man next to me in a wheel chair asked what happened. After I told him “I fell off a cliff,” his jaw nearly dropped to the ground.

As I began taking trips outside the hospital, the questions about my condition were becoming more and more inevitable. At the time, I didn’t mind telling people. I wanted the pity and grief of others while going through something so life-changing and traumatic.

I always got the “How” after giving that same I fell off a cliff response. I wanted to be raw and real, so I gave brutally honest answers: “A man was chasing after me” or “A man was trying to rape me…”

I started noticing all the awkwardness stirring up in conversations. People had no idea how to react, and I wasn’t getting the empathy I wanted. It felt more painful for them to process the facts than for me to tell them.

I was getting thousands of endearing messages on Facebook, meanwhile, this was a conversation nearly everyone wanted to avoid in person. While I appreciated reading all the thoughtful messages and prayers online, I personally think we are lacking in our verbal interactions due to the rise of social media and iPhone use.

So I began lying about my experience, pretending it was a car accident or that I fell while hiking. But it was uncomfortable for me to talk about scenarios that never existed.

I asked my psychologist of the hospital what she thought I should do in those situations. She said that telling people I fell off a cliff would stimulate their curiosity and increase their likelihood of asking follow-up questions, like “How? Were you hiking?” (I would always say “Umm…yeah sortof”). She said saying “I had a fall” is a lot more modest and safe.

It’s almost been a year since my accident, and I’m still being asked the same question every day as if I broke my back yesterday. A lot of people ask what happened to my legs without considering that I injured my spine. Some people assume I was born this way.

Every time someone brings it up, it’s like they’re asking me to relive the entire event all over again, while I’m making it my best interest to deviate from it. I don’t know why so many strangers and Uber drivers feel so entitled to know what happened. Sometimes I just give them all the gory details as revenge for even asking. My thoughts: *You really want to know? Well you got your answer.*

Other times, I tell people to just Google it. Or read my blog. If I feel very close and connected with someone, I’ll give them a brief summary of what happened, but it has to be the right time and place. For example, if I’m at a bar laughing with people I just met, I’m not going to tell them that I almost got murdered in Thailand.

I do think it’s important for people I see on an ongoing basis to hear my story and acknowledge what happened. Last week, I graduated from a 10-week teacher training at Yoga to the People with 33 other TT’s. I have flashbacks today of all the looks and stares back in Weekend 1 as I climbed up 4 flights of stairs. “You know there’s an elevator, right?” “Can we get you a chair to sit down?”

No one knew what to make of a physically disabled person training to become a yoga teacher. While the facade of my disability completely overshadowed my personality for the first couple of weeks, it slowly started to disintegrate as the other TT’s and teachers began getting to know my body and me as a person.

During Weekend 4, we all sat in a circle with one person at a time in the middle beginning the sentence with “One thing most people don’t know about me is…”

After hearing so many traumatic stories of others, it gave me the perspective that I’m not the only person experiencing a kind of suffering. It was the perfect opportunity for me to tell my story to the people I’m sharing my yoga journey with. I no longer had to give any explanation for the remaining 7 weeks. I felt so much more connected with those around me throughout the rest of the program.

Sometimes I tell people I fell off a cliff with a huge smile on my face and a little giggle. This always invites a little confused giggle back. Because sometimes you have to look at the shittiest situations with a little humor. How else are you going to get on with it?

I’ve come to accept that my injury has taken over my identity for a long period of time. If this is the way the world sees me, then I proudly take ownership of what happened and firmly grip my wooden sticks like a f**king survivor.

Perks of being “disabled”

I quote “disabled” because I don’t actually call myself disabled nor do I think of myself that way in any regard. I have the mind, spirit and fierceness of a runner and a fighter. I also have the fortune of doing a lot with myself despite the outcome of my prognosis. With some creativity, I do things in my own way. However, society doesn’t also see it this way, and in many ways this has served in my favor. Here is a list of reasons why the bogus label of my condition has positively impacted my life.

1. $2.75 cabs, free Ubers, and free Medicaid rides

Since last April, I’ve been using NYC’s paratransit service, Access-a-Ride. The driver picks me up and drops me off anywhere I’d like, as long as it’s in any of NYC’s five boroughs. It’s basically a cab for $2.75, the same price as a bus or subway. If I’m lucky, Access-a-Ride sometimes pays for an Uber to drive me around. This all means no more paying for expensive Ubers and taxis (for now). The feeling of being driven to Brooklyn or Manhattan from miles away in Queens for so cheap or free has never been so conveniently liberating. 

Of course, there are always drawbacks. It’s always a hit or miss. There are times when Access-a-ride will pay for some fancy limo to drive me home directly to my destination. OR they will pick me up in a freezing cold van and pick up or drop off other people while I’m shivering for hours. Sometimes I sit in the van for over two hours. Also, there are times the driver comes late, putting me at risk of missing an appointment. And I’m required to schedule all my trips at least 24 hours in advance. That being said, this service only works for me when there’s a consistency in my schedule, such as going to work. When things come up last second, I take the train. Taking the train is always a good excuse to stay active and energetic.

Speaking of work, Acess-a-Ride has allowed me to work in a cool part of Brooklyn 30 hours a week for the past three months. Had I not been disabled, working there would have never been an option. Although I’m still capable of taking the train, the commute for even a non-disabled person would be well over 2 hours from where I live.

I also take a luxury taxi service to physical therapy two to three times a week. Medicaid pays for a fancy black car with cushiony seats to drive me to and from my destination. Although this service is only used for medical purposes, they have been able to drive me directly to my job in Brooklyn from therapy in Long Island.


2. Front row seats to shows

Last February, I decided to see one of my favorite comedians, Trevor Noah live. Tickets are free, but there is no guarantee of admission. My friend Racky and I arrived 3 hours prior to the show, waiting on line in the freezing cold February weather. When the guard saw me standing out there in crutches, he allowed me and Racky to cut the line and walk in with VIP. Not only that, but he led us to the first row. The stage was only an inch away from us. We saw Trevor Noah’s sweat and everything. After waving his goodbyes to the audience after the show, he locked eyes with both of us. Our hearts were exploding.

3. First Class Emirates and skipping airplane lines

Oh yes, talk about luxury in the skies. After being discharged from the hospital in Thailand, I got to skip every security line while being wheeled by the Thai police on my way to flying First Class with Emirates. What an experience. Throughout the entire 24-hour flight, I was served endless glasses of champagne, wine and Arabic coffee from a genie’s lantern. My chair reclined all the way back into a bed and I was able to close the door and raise the walls so that I had my own private room. However, I didn’t want to close myself off for too long; otherwise I would’ve misses out on all the 5 star meals and vegan deserts served throughout the whole trip. I was even given a free Bulgari bag.

I will probably never have this experience again unless I marry an old rich guy. But I still get way better service when I travel in general. When I’m boarding an airplane, the handicapped are always treated as first priority. Never in my life have I entered a completely empty plane. It’s not like I get to choose my own seat or anything, but it’s always a nice feeling to not be pushed and squeezed by other passengers when boarding a plane.


4. Blinged-out crutches and canes

When else in my life have I had a perfect excuse to walk around in LED lights? Clearly these walking devices serve more than just getting me aroud. They are part of my fashion. They bring out personality and unique characteristics.

I get to shine my lights that change colors when I head out to clubs. I’m like a human disco ball.

Lately I’ve been walking around with these two wooden engraved sticks that I got in a Walmart-type store in the Berkshires, MA for only $4 each. But people don’t need to know that. I can just pretend that they were gifts from the Shamanic Spirits.



5. Discounted train tix and disabled parking

Okay I don’t actually use this, apparently I need some type of card for it to prove that I’m disabled (because the visuals of my impairments are clearly not enough), but definitely something I want to consider.

6. Medical Marijuana

I haven’t tried this either because I’m so used to the stuff on the streets, but I do qualify for it in New York. Something to keep in mind.

Tread-mill therapy

Before my spinal cord injury, I was an avid runner. I started off as an athlete on my HS track team, and later participated in a few 10ks and a half marathon. Despite the physical damage my body has endured, I still consider myself a runner.

Among the many gratifying experiences of a runner, I sill get that “runner’s high.” When I’m moving in such a fast-paced motion, all the bullshit clears from my head. Like in meditation, my mind is stiller, less wandering.

I bring the focus to the breath while staring at an alphabet letter on the wall that doesn’t move to maintain my balance and center of gravity. Keeping that focus, I follow the rhythm of fast beats in the Spanish reggaeton music blasting through my headphones.

As a runner, I never enjoyed being on a tread-mill. I always wanted to move through an outdoor space. I despised the feeling of being locked in the same position for so many minutes.

Little did I know that I would spend so much time on this machine throughout my recovery. Maybe it hasn’t taken me on an exciting journey through the Amazon, but it’s taken me further than I ever expected in my transformation.

While serving as a great visual indicator to track my progress, it has helped me develop my locomotive abilities. When I first started using this machine in November, I needed a therapist or aide on each side of my body to manually move my legs with their hands. See the video below (excuse the mask, it was flu season).

December 1, 2016

As you can see from the video, I had very little control of the positioning of my feet. They were all over the place. If someone let go of one, it would fly off the tread-mill.

I also lacked upper body strength. Notice how my trunk is falling forward. Keep in mind that the machine can be adjusted to lift my torso higher so that I’m standing taller. However, this would require less use of muscles to keep my body upright independently.

Over several months, I’ve found more independence on this machine. First, I began moving my legs without the assistance of a therapist or aide. I only needed someone to stand behind me and clasp onto the harness from the backside to control the hips from swinging right to left.

Nowadays, I’m doing most of the work myself. Since I gained a lot more control of my quad and hip musles, my aide, Glorian no longer clasps onto the back of my harness. She stands behind to catch me in case I trip or lose my rhythm, but that’s been happening a lot more rarely. According to the video below and my current status, the only supporters keeping me lifted are me and the harness.


I still have a long long road ahead of me, but I take pride in this milestone. It’s encouraged many of the other patients at my PT and myself to just keep going. As I said earlier, the tread-mill serves as an indicator of my progress but may not necessarily be the main reason for my improvement. I believe it’s helped with a combination of all the other exercises and therapies I’ve been doing, which I’ll talk about in later posts. 🙂

Weekend highlights

Last weekend was truly epic. Since it was my only weekend off from yoga TT, I wanted to make the most of it. Here is a dose of highlights and spontaneous moments to share a few~

Friday night, I posed for Astoria Drink n’ Draw at Q.E.D. where artists come in with their sketch books, pens and colors to draw the model for 3 hours. The event began with 30 second to 5 minute poses and ended with a 30 minute pose. I wore a black one-piece, a neon green skirt and my customized black, white and metallic Nikes. I posed in the shoes, then posed taking them off and holding them up by the laces. I later did more dynamic poses, holding an ankle bind for 10 minutes and Pigeon Pose (Google it if you don’t know) for 20 minutes. You can check out the beautiful drawings of me on Instagram under #astoriadrinkndraw.

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Syed’s drawing
Lit up crutches from the 4/7 Drink n’ Draw
On Saturday afternoon, I went with five friends to Long Beach, Long Island. There was a massive art fair on the boardwalk selling all this hand-made jewelry and tie-die clothing. My friend Racky and I couldn’t control our spending. We got these matching Chakra necklaces with all 7 colors on them.

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Walking back and forth along the 2 mile boardwalk made me very fatigued. I envisioned a lazy beach day, but perhaps this was a good substitute for all the walking I would’ve done on my own time. For me, walking such a long distance is really like going for a run, except now I exert way more energy to walk than I ever did when I was able to run.


We all rented bikes to ride along the boardwalk. The last and only time I rode a bike since my accident was back in March, but I was with my parents and in a secure environment. This time, I was in a crowded place and had to rely on my friends to help me start and stop the bike. I was pretty nervous. I tried to stay as close to the railing as possible in case I needed to stop.

Racky’s brother, Jomel held onto both ends of the bike before I took off. When I was stable, he let me go. I peddled my feet, wearing my leg braces to keep them locked into position of the peddles.

I freaked out every time there was something in my way. A person, a biker, a police car, a lamppost. When bikers rode in my direction, I rang the bell several times in panic. Part of me wished I had a sign up that read “I’m disabled!” because people literally had no idea. It’s obvious when I’m walking down the street, but not when I’m on a bike. This is maybe the one time I wished I was treated like a porcelain doll. People were in my way, obliviously, and I feared that slowing down for them would bring me to the ground since I’m not yet capable of coming to a complete stop.

​I just breathed until all my anxiety flushed away. Riding under the tranquil sky and along the beach waves brought me to a state of zen. It felt so liberating to be on a bike again. Somehow, I got isolated from all my friends and went off for least 20 minutes by myself without stopping. On my first attempt to stop and call my friends, I placed my feet on the ground, but immediately lost balance and fell over to the left with my bike. About 10 people rushed over to help me in the blink of an eye. Luckily I felt fine and tried to just get up like nothing happened.​

My friends and I waited until 6pm to enter the beach because we were too frugal to pay the $15. It really was the perfect time to go. The crowds were gone and the sky breathtakingly changed from orange to pink to purple. I crawled like a dog to the shore where I found Racky standing and we slowly inched our way into the ocean. Standing and shivering together was more torturous and frightening each time we got closer to the waves. They looked so huge from a distance and the water was absolutely freezing. Once it was right below our waists, we were quivering as the break of waves kept crashing into us. I had to do my Warrior Ones to keep my body up from collapsing. Finally, we got closer, dunked our heads and rode our first wave. Right when we felt safe, a worker saw us from afar and kicked us out. “Closed!” he said. I got out of the ocean, looking all crippled, walking lopsidedly over the pebbled rocks.

We dried up and hung out in the sand as the sky grew darker. I practiced some yoga. I’ve never successfully done a handstand without the wall, even before my accident, so I gave it a shot in the sand. It was the perfect chance to practice while the ground was soft.

You learn something new every day. I can’t stand normally, but I can stand on my head.

The next day, I went hiking with my dad at the Kaaterskill Falls in Upstate New York, about a 2.5 hour drive from my house in Queens. We got there around 2pm and spent 4 hours venturing out in the wilderness.

The hike was very steep and rocky. I walked up with my wooden cane on the right side, using my dad’s forearm/hand to get up with my left side. I was sweating and breathing heavily the entire way up. At one point, we entered a never-ending staircase. My quads were on fire.


On the way up, we stopped at a waterfall that had a natural pool people were swimming in. I took off my clothes and went in with my bathing suit. The water was FREEZING. I put my ankle in, and then my butt and the lady next to me thought I was crazy. Since I barely have feeling in those areas, I was able to handle the temperature until I sunk the rest of my body in.



We hiked up to the very top of the mountain to see the viewpoint of the waterfall. Nowadays I can’t stop staring at cliffs. This one was 170 feet high. It’s hard to believe that I fell close to this distance.


Throughout the hike, I was getting many compliments from strangers, but this one resonated with me the most. A 40-year old man approached us from up the trail and shook our hands, looked at me and said “Excuse me. My name is Moose. I saw you hiking and you’re an inspiration.” And with tears actually coming out of his eyes, he said “I just sit on my lazy ass and here you are hiking here every day [it was only our first time].” My dad and I smiled and thanked him, and shook this man’s hand again who was so full of emotion.


I was so sore later that evening in my shoulders, triceps, quads, hamstrings and hips. From hiking to the point of total exhaustion, I had no desire to move any part of my body. I was pooped.

We had a nice vegan meal in Woodstock and got home from our long journey after 11pm. It was a rough PT in the AM.

New connections or stronger relationships?

Over the past 10 months, the progression of my recovery has been dependent on two major things: #1 Waiting for my damaged nerves to regenerate and form new connections and #2 Building strength in all the body parts that are functioning to compensate for the ones that aren’t.

Among many damaged nerves, the biggest issue lies on the lack of feeling and movement in my feet and ankles. One of the biggest reasons I cannot walk without a supported device is that I don’t have complete dorsiflexion (ability to move the foot up) and plantar-flexion (ability to move the foot down). You need these movements to take normal steps. You also need your ankles to hold your balance while standing. My ankles don’t have that control; they are wobbly, and I’m beginning to get muscle atrophy from not using my calf muscles.

Waiting for this function to recover has been painfully slow. Although I’m getting subtle feeling back, like the top of my 2nd left toe, there is still a very long ways to go. In January 2017, I was able to move both ankles up slightly for the first time in 4 months. That following March, I was able to spread my left pinkie toe apart from the others. Although these are subtle breakthroughs, they present hope for more future recovery. However, at the rate I’m going, it feels like this can take over 20 years.

When I ask doctors if I’m ever going to feel or move my feet again, they respond with an “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, Western Medicine does not have conclusive answers when it comes to the recovery of Spinal Cord Injury. There is no cure to make the nerves regenerate faster. I’m told that I have to just wait and see what happens, and that there is no guarantee that it will ever happen.

That being said, I’m giving 90% of the credit to #2 for helping me get to where I am today in my recovery.

If I didn’t have the arm strength I gained, I wouldn’t have been able to lift my body up with crutches. If I didn’t have the hip and quad strength, I wouldn’t have been able to walk around with 1 crutch. If I didn’t have the abdominal strength I have now, I wouldn’t have been able to walk with a cane. All of the activities I do on a daily basis to get me through the day such as crawling on all fours, waddling, taking the stairs, even standing on my own head have been attributed to the build-up of every muscle, every crevice of my body that has always been functioning before and after my accident and saving my ass through this surreal part of my life.

My new gains have enabled me to go hiking through extremely steep trails. They have allowed me to surf beach waves and swim in the deep end of swimming pools. They have allowed me to continue my yoga practice and adjust other bodies as a yoga teacher. I can ride a bike (although clumsily when starting and stopping). I am making the most out of life and enjoying the thrill of every moment, because even though sometimes I feel like Mr. Potato Head with missing body parts, I still have so much that is working.

No, I am not losing hope in the redevelopment of connections in my feet, ankles and calves because I do believe there are answers out there that Western Medicine has not yet solved. But in the meantime, I will continue to strengthen those connections that have never lost sight and have always had my back.

Finding my gold in the darkness

Hello! Welcome to my new blog. This is my first post. Thank you all so much for reading.

I want to invite you all on my journey of healing and recovery. My intention is to keep everyone updated with my progress, describe the different therapies I’m doing and share my triumphs and obstacles of every day life.

As many of you might’ve read or heard, I broke my back last year resulting in a spinal cord injury at T12, which has affected my ability to walk normally (you can read more about my prognosis by clicking the “My Injury” link on top).

Back in September, I began walking with a flexible walker two weeks after my fall. When I returned to NYC from Thailand, I continued practicing with a walker until I was ready to give the lofstrand crutches a whirl.

I practiced with the walker and crutches every day with my physical therapists around and outside the hospital, Mount Sinai where I was living for two months. Meanwhile, my friends and family would take me outside the hospital and wheel me around bars, restaurants and clubs.

After my discharge date from Sinai in November, I was free to walk anywhere and everywhere with the crutches and I didn’t let anyone stop me. I began taking subways and buses by myself, crushing several flights of stairs and taking long walks through the park. I ditched the ugly hospital crutches and bought myself an ergonomic pair from Amazon that had cushiony handlebars and built-in flashlights and horns. I even blinged them out with LED battery lights that change colors.

Unfortunately those got destroyed on a trip to Hawaii in January 2017. It was my first time vacationing since my accident. I went in the ocean with them and the battery of the horn started malfunctioning. Too bad they aren’t waterproof. Wearing my customized leg braces, I hiked up part of Napali Coast State Park and a much steeper path, the Kalalau Trail.

A few months ago, I said goodbye to one of my crutches. It was a difficult switch but I knew it would get me closer to where I want to be, which is walking without any supported device and eventually running.

I later replaced the 1 crutch with a cane, which gives me much less support and stability. I’m no longer crutchy- I’m caney.

I’m currently in my 5th week of training to become a yoga teacher. Since I need to touch something in order to hold my balance – even with just my pinkie finger –  I find the wall useful for a lot of the standing postures, such as Warrior One. I learned to modify all the yoga poses in order for me to receive the same experiences and sensations I’ve always gotten from them.

One of my biggest concerns of the teacher training was modifying the poses of other students. I neglected using my cane or crutches to get around the studio because they take up too much space in the tight crevices of yoga mats and I wanted to be totally hands-free. When walking inside an apartment or house, I usually waddle without holding onto anything by dragging my feet across the floor. But I can only do that in situations where I hardly need to lift my feet off the ground.

Depending on the space and the amount of students who attend class, I’ve been finding it manageable to adjust people’s poses while walking on my knees, crawling, scooting and sometimes waddling if there’s enough space. I’m finding mutual comfort in sharing the mat with other students when necessary.

Despite everything I’m going through physically, mentally and emotionally, I’ve found comfort and peace in having the ability to do almost everything I did before my accident. By choosing to have sovereignty over my own life, I’ve continued to follow my passions and make them work with my circumstances.