By Sam Sala
Even after a traumatic injury resulting in a compromised spinal cord and fused neck, Paradox Sports Ambassador Aika Yoshida refuses to sit idle. Originally from Tokyo, Japan, this Indianapolis-based physical therapist, yoga instructor, and general promoter of health and wellness, lives life to the fullest. Three years post-injury, to the day, she’s hosting an adaptive climbing group at her local rock gym; a group that she spearheaded, organized, and raised funds to provide a Paradox Sports adaptive climbing training for – all while helping other athletes recover from their own injuries, training for the IFSC World Championships in Paris this fall (she earned a silver two years ago in Spain), and continuing to raise awareness and funds for Paradox Sports, through her ‘Pay it Forward’ Paradox Project page. We definitely had some questions for Aika to see how she does it all!
PARADOX SPORTS: You were born and raised in Japan. What brought you to the US?
AIKA YOSHIDA: When I was younger, my father worked for a US-based company and we lived in Ohio for three years. Ever since I was little I always wanted to come back to live in the US, so once I graduated from high school, I decided to make the move. I attended the University of Montana for undergrad, then moved to Indiana for grad school in Physical Therapy, specializing in Outpatient Orthopedics, and Sports Medicine.
PS: Have you always been into climbing, yoga and fitness?
AY: I’ve always been very active. I used to run trail marathons. I loved mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, climbing, really just anything outdoors. I’ve been climbing for close to 15 years now. About 5 years ago, I also got training to be a yoga teacher. Being a physical therapist, I thought that it would be a unique addition to my clinical skills.
Aika practicing “acroyoga” with a friend
AY: It’s a partner-based sport. Think of it basically, like the stunt cheerleading combined with yoga. One partner is the ‘base’, and the other is the ‘flyer’. I’m small, so I’ve always been a flyer. The base creates the foundation on the ground and the flyer poses on top of the base. You can do anything from basic poses up to some pretty complicated ones.
PS: You were injured in an acrobatic yoga (acroyoga) accident. Can you explain acroyoga?
PS: And how did your accident happen?
AY: My base was in an ‘L’ shape, his back was on the ground and his legs were straight up. I was on top of his feet up-side-down, with my head toward the ground. He was supposed to ‘pop’ me into the air off his feet then catch me, but when I came back down, he didn’t and I ended up landing directly on my head from four to five feet high. I don’t really remember much from the actual fall, but I remember knowing something was definitely wrong.
PS: As a physical therapist, did you have a decent idea of what had happened?
AY: I did after a few minutes. I knew right away I was injured, but I didn’t really know to what extent. I couldn’t move anything below my neck so friends helped get me flat onto my back, and I told them to call an ambulance. Everyone else was practicing acroyoga too, and only one person actually saw my fall. Luckily, he had training as a Wilderness First Responder [WFR – and typically pronounced Woofer] and immediately set to work stabilizing my head and neck. Who knows how it could have turned out if he hadn’t been there to respond right away. Not many people in Indiana even know what WFR is, let alone have the training. After a few minutes, I started to feel a crazy stinging in my arms and hands. I thought I was laying on an ant nest or was getting stung by bees. My friends told me nothing was on me. That mixed with my knowledge of pain distribution, and it was pretty soon that I started figuring out it was nerve pain from a spinal cord injury and that it was pretty serious.
Aika was initially paralyzed from the neck down after her injury but slowly began to regain sensations and control
PS: What was the final diagnosis?
AY: It’s known as a C6 Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury, meaning my spinal cord was severely compressed at the C6 vertebrae in my neck. If it had fully severed, everything below my C6 would be paralyzed, but with the compression-type injury, I still have some nerve conduction and movement. I was taken to the ER, and straight through to the OR for an emergency surgery that day. They fused two vertebrae in my neck to relieve some of the compression, but so far that’s been the only surgery that I’ve had for it.
PS: Having a pretty full understanding of what your injury meant, were you depressed after the accident or were you immediately motivated to start your recovery?
AY: I was very down. I had actually just gotten out of a serious relationship and was using acroyoga to deal with the stress. I have always used exercise as a stress release, and here I was, even more stressed about being unable to move my arms or legs. I felt like I didn’t have an outlet. It was a really tough time for me. Even with my background in physical therapy, it was hard to tell the extent of my injury or how long recovery would take. When I’d ask my doctors, they all seemed to respond with ‘every injury is different’ or ‘only time will tell’ which didn’t really help my mental state either. The not knowing was the hardest part I think. After I left the hospital, I was transferred to a rehabilitation center. I was in that center for about a month and slowly, day-by-day, I started to notice slight improvements. Each day would go by and I’d feel a little better and a little better, then eventually just got to where I knew things would be different, but also knew they’d be alright.
PS: When and how did you first get involved with Paradox Sports?
AY: It was in the fall, [a couple of months] after my injury. While I was still in the hospital, I saw on Facebook that Paradox Sports was making their annual trip to Red River Gorge in Kentucky. When I looked for more info about Paradox online, I really liked what I saw, and immediately thought ‘this organization is for me!’, and since [The Red] was my home crag and where I had done a ton of my climbing before the accident, I decided to join in. I wasn’t planning on climbing during that trip. I just wanted to get back out there and meet some people, but a couple of weeks before the event, I started getting a little movement in the fingers of my right hand [her most affected side], so I ended up giving climbing a try after all. The first day, I couldn’t even tie my own knot, but by the end of the weekend, I was able to. The improvement was great, and it was really nice to just get back on the rock. It’s where the true mental healing really started for me. The people were all amazing and I walked away from the weekend with some great connections and friends. I can’t thank Paradox enough for the experience, it truly changed my life.
Post injury, Aika started competitive climbing
PS: Recently, you created a Paradox Project page and you’re over halfway to your goal of $1000, congratulations! Can you explain a bit more what it’s about?
AY: I created my Paradox Project page to raise awareness and funding for Paradox Sports. With as much as Paradox has helped me in my personal journey, I wanted to give back in a way that would allow them to continue their mission and help others with their journeys. I chose to ‘Pay It Forward’ through my campaign in order to honor and help the next generation of future Paradox Sports participants.
PS: You started with Paradox a little under three years ago, and now you’re an international climbing competitor. Had you ever competed before?
AY: No, never. I had always just loved climbing outdoors, but hadn’t ever competed. The training and indoor competition is definitely new since the injury.
PS: How long was it until you started competing?
AY: It was July 2014 [about a year post-injury]. Having met some great people through Paradox, I was inspired, and shown that I could take my climbing to the competitive level. I took silver at worlds in Spain, two years ago, and I’m going to be competing in worlds again, this fall, in Paris. I’ve been doing a lot of training and I’m really excited to compete at that top level again.
PS: You started an adaptive climbing club in Indianapolis. How did you end up getting into that?
AY: Like I said before, Paradox Sports completely changed my life. I honestly don’t know where I’d be now if I hadn’t met them. Since joining Paradox, I’ve wanted to share that life-changing experience with others. I spoke with the program director, Adam Fisher, at last year’s annual trip to The Red and really started figuring out what the next steps would be. This past winter, we started raising funds to cover the cost of equipping and training volunteers and staff at a local gym in Indianapolis. We wanted to make sure safety came first, and we also wanted the training to be efficient an effective, which is something Paradox specializes in. There are a few climbing gyms in town, but we chose a relatively new gym, EVO Rock + Fitness, because I felt their mission of ’empowering people, and strengthening communities’ fit well with what I hoped to accomplish. I met with their CEO and some investors and gave them my program proposal. They were really receptive, but ultimately, we were on our own financially… There have been a few bumps along the way, like you’d expect with any new group like this, but they just got a new manager a few weeks ago and he seems very receptive and supportive. I’ve met with him a few times and I think he’ll be a great ally. We’re hopeful the road forward will be smooth and we’ll just continue improving things. As it stands, [the climbing club] meets monthly, on the last Thursday of each month, but if we get the right support and keep on growing our participation like we have so far, who knows where it could lead!
PS: When you’re not pulling on plastic in the gym, what is your favorite outdoor climbing spot?
AY: Probably The Red. At least it’s the most familiar to me. I’ve been climbing there for years and it really has so much to offer; everything from super beginner-friendly routes, to some of the hardest of the hard lines in the country.
PS: Is there any type of climbing you prefer or avoid since the injury? Do you like techy routes, or lines that offer more powerful movement?
AY: Styles I avoid. I’ve never been super powerful and the injury didn’t help that, so big, thuggy routes aren’t really my style. With my right side still being the most affected, I can’t really pinch either. When I climb, my right thumb has to stay against my index finger. If it separates, I actually start losing strength across my whole hand and forearm, like to the point that I can’t pick up a glass of water. I also stopped bouldering because I don’t want the risk of coming off a rock onto my head or neck. As for styles I prefer, I love really overhung routes. I also figured out that I can crimp pretty well. My wrist is weak, but because of how my hand moves with it, it can actually help me out. I can leverage my fingers into the crimped position by turning my wrist one way or another.
Aika climbing at the Red River Gorge
PS: Since your right side is more affected than your left, do you seek out particular directions of climbing, like right or left facing corners, or something else that maybe caters more to one specific side?
AY: Most of the time, I just climb what’s in front of me if it looks interesting or engaging. I don’t really pick any one sort of route based on it being right or left sided. I have done some lead climbing, but I can only clip with my good hand, so if I want to get on the sharp end, that is something I have to keep in mind, otherwise, anything that points up and looks like fun is what I prefer to climb. Hah!
PS: Do you deal with any sort of regular pain or other problems?
AY: I actually stopped taking a muscle relaxant when I really got back into climbing, because I need my muscles to be tight and to have my head clear, but that has definitely has had some affect on my pain. To deal with it, I have a daily routine of yoga and stretching that I go through which helps keep my joints and muscles moving smoothly. I’m very strict with my diet, focusing on foods with anti-inflammatory properties. I also practice daily mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is a form of meditation, to help with chronic pain.
PS: Is there anything you struggle with, or used to struggle with regularly? How have you adapted to work through it?
AY: Actually, one of the hardest things I still haven’t figure out is opening plastic water bottles, the kind you’d buy at a gas station, while I’m out. I can open Nalgene type bottles fine, because they’re rigid enough I can squeeze them with my legs and torque the lid off, but the plastic bottles are too flimsy and if I squeeze them, they spill water everywhere. Another one is when I turn my palm up, my fingers retract. Like I mentioned before, it’s great for crimping on climbs, but it makes stuff like getting change at stores a challenge. As for some of the things I’ve done to adapt; I use prismatic belay glasses, from Belay Specs, which help me to not have to bend my neck back to look up at my climber. They really save my neck and actually help my balance too. [Belay Specs] has been super supportive throughout my entire journey, and it’s been great to have a company like them in my corner. Another climbing adaptation is that I wear a size smaller shoe on my right foot, which makes my toes a bit more rigid. It seems to help them work much better on smaller edges. Outside of climbing, my office and coworkers have helped me adapt as well. They installed a dictation program which helps reduce the amount I have to physically type. They’ve been so understanding and supportive, which has really helped with getting life ‘back to normal’. I work about thirty hours a week, which allows me time to manage my pain, but also to focus on fun stuff, like training and climbing.
PS: Has your injury helped you look differently at life in general, or at anything specific?
AY: I’d like to think I’m a better physical therapist now. I feel like I probably have more compassion and patience for people who are recovering from injuries. I’d never wish this injury on anyone, but without it, I never would have crossed paths with Paradox or met any of the amazing people associated with them. There are still days where I get irritated and my patience comes and goes, like when I’m trying to open one of those stupid water bottles! I wouldn’t say I’m happy or glad about being injured, but overall, I really do think it’s been a catalyst in opening my world up in a very positive way. I mean, I got to compete at worlds in Spain two years ago, and I’ll be doing it again, this fall in Paris. I definitely wouldn’t have become a competitive climber without it.
PS: Has your injury taught you to interact with people differently?
AY: There are definitely times when it’s hard to deal with people. Mostly it happens when someone doesn’t realize I have a disability and is telling me I’m doing something ‘wrong’, for example, in CPR class, they kept telling me my hand was in the wrong place or position, which was frustrating. There are some negatives about having an invisible/non-apparent disability, but I also make a point of not telling people that I have a disability, if I can help it. I’d rather put in a bit of extra effort to figure out how to make something work, than be treated with kid gloves. One of my favorite quotes, is on a plaque that I bought after my injury. It says:
“Every unexpected change is an opportunity for something wonderful.”
It’s so simple, but it struck a chord with me and I really try to view life based on it. A lot of the time, the simplest ideas can be the most profound.
PS: Do you have any tips or tricks for anyone who might want to get started participating in adaptive climbing?
AY: I’d say the biggest thing would be to keep a very open mind. Don’t limit yourself based on what you think you can’t do. Go out and see what’s available, and find out what you can do with it. You might find it will take a lot of work, but you also might find out it was much easier than you expected. You’ll never know until you give it a shot. Next would be: only participants can determine their own success. And remember, success doesn’t always have to mean reaching the top of the wall. Yes, for some people, success is climbing to the top, but for others, it’s simply getting out of a chair and getting off the ground for a bit. Define what your success will look like, and then work toward that. Lastly, don’t compare yourself to your ‘old’ self, or to others. Just focus on the current ‘you’ and work to stay positive. If you surround yourself with the right people, you’ll find and gain positive energy from them, and be able to accomplish anything you set your mind to.
Aika joined Paradox Sports to tackle Ice Climbing at North Conway