Healing Pose: After a spine fracture, climber Steve Ilg skipped surgery and found recovery in yoga. Photo: James Q. Martin/jamesqmartin.com
On an early winter ascent in 1981, Steve Ilg, a sponsored rock and ice climber, made a move on the east face of Longs Peak that unearthed a stone slab the size of an office desk. He and the chunk, already loose due to continuous freeze-thaw action on the Diamond, plummeted 60 feet to the earth where they landed… with a splash. The water bottles attached to Ilg’s pack cushioned his fall. “My climbing partner said that when I hit, a burst of water exploded instead of me. I guess those bottles are why I’m alive,” says the 48-year-old Ilg, shrugging his shoulders. “But what really saved me––what allowed me to continue to pursue my outdoor passions––were yoga, bodywork, meditation and my breath.”
Ilg fractured his spine and “tore, twisted and shocked my pelvis into a state of absolute dysfunction.” Doctors dismissed the possibility that he would ever participate in sports again because the nerve impingement and disc damage was so severe. They recommended a series of surgeries, but made no promises of a full recovery. “They basically told me that I would have to be satisfied with a more sedentary life,” Ilg remembers. “But I knew there had to be a better way.”
Ilg, who had been studying yoga in Boulder (in addition to reaching champion level status as a runner, skier and bodybuilder), decided against the surgeries. He also dropped out of physical therapy after only one session, opting instead for his own combination of visualization, meditation, breath work and yoga. He was able to walk again within one month, returning to big walls in six. Between then and now, he has won 200 championships in over 23 sports. In addition, he has dedicated his life to helping other athletes heal and perform through a holistic approach that combines yoga, meditation and nutrition with cardio and strength training.
“For me, self-healing quickly became synonymous with self-transformation,” he says. “I still sustain rigorous practices in yoga and meditation, and perform at an even higher level than before my fall.”
Ilg may be an extreme example in terms of his unusual athletic prowess and the brutal injury he sustained, but the therapies he used to heal himself 30 years ago are gaining popularity today. By definition, complementary and alternative therapies (CAM) entail a spectrum of ancient to new-age approaches that are not part of conventional Western medicine. A study by the National Institute of Health estimates that approximately 40 percent of American adults now use some form of CAM. Acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, massage therapy, meditation, naturopathy and yoga all increased in use among adults according to a study conducted between 2002 and 2007 by the National Center for Health Statistics.