Summer, 2007---The Flight (and Fall) of the Yogini
I don't remember the exact day it was, but I know it was probably in the fall of 2006... I don't remember exactly what pose it was, but I know it was somewhere near the end of my practice, deep into the arm balances of Ashtanga's third series... When suddenly there was a loud clunk! that came from my right clavicle, and I felt it jump under my skin. My right shoulder started to feel warm and wobbly, and my chaturanga was all wrong in the next vinyasa. My arm was unsteady and my elbow swung way out to the right and there was nothing I could do about it. "Hmmmn,” I thought to myself hopefully, "maybe my body is shifting, getting stronger, realigning." You see, in Ashtanga Yoga Vinyasa practice, loud clunks and "strong sensations" are commonplace, our teacher K. Pattabhi Jois called them "openings."
I had been practicing for 13 years by then, and was used to my body being rearranged on a regular basis. A sore back, sore sacrum, sore shoulder, sore wrist, sore knee, sore neck-- I saw all of these as normal, necessary-- even honorable phases through which we all must pass on the way to the perfect yoga body/mind, one finally free of resistance and pain. Growing pains, that's how I thought of it. "Do your practice and all is coming,” is another quote from Jois (I read in a blog the other day a friend of mine rearranging the words a little to say "do your practice and all is coming… apart!").
"As long as your pain keeps moving," I used to tell my students, “It's probably alright." But this pain did not move on, it moved in. For 9 months I limped along, adapting and readapting my practice, until there wasn't much left of my flowing sun salutations (too many chaturangas). I "faked" vinyasas and only straight arm balances were possible. I felt like I was sliding backwards down the mountain which I had worked so hard to climb up. Meanwhile I saw my fellow students moving forward and soon they would be passing me! I know, I know, yoga is not a race, but I was discouraged.
When I was around my fellow Ashtangis as they flew gracefully through the air I felt jealous and angry. When I was around my teachers I felt like a disappointment to them, a failure. I was desperately clinging to the person that I had been before this injury-- the top student, the highly respected teacher. Now I couldn't even do the simplest asanas. I had injured myself! How could I have been so careless? Yoga teachers are not supposed to get injured doing yoga! This is bad advertising! Now how could I be trusted to guide anyone else's practice?
How many times over the years had I seen other people become injured and secretly thought to myself “If they had better alignment, that probably wouldn't have happened?" Or, “They unconsciously created this injury to avoid doing the work" or “If they were stronger in character they would be able to handle the intensity of this practice." Basically, I was thinking, “If they were better people, if they were more evolved, if they were as good as me, they would not get injured." But when I saw my own broken body strewn along the side of the Ashtanga Highway with the scores of others, I started to panic-- what a reality check! I didn't like seeing myself there. I had thought that I was somehow immune to injury by now, I thought I knew what I was doing-- look how long I’d been practicing! It was ugly and painful to realize how wrong I was, and how wrongly I had judged other people and now such heavy self judgement was falling on me.
One morning I woke up and I realized that I had to stop. I had to stop going to my beloved shala because it had become a place of self loathing and negativity. I had to separate myself from my Ashtanga friends and from my teachers. I needed time to think. What had happened to my fundamental practice of Ahimsa (non-harming in word thought or deed...)? I had moved so so far away from that. The asana practice I had once held holy and precious and good was now a source of incredible pain and embarrassment. My husband gently reminded me that one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result every time.
I still didn't know what was wrong with my shoulder. I didn't have an MD. I never went to doctors! I went to a chiropractor, I went to an acupuncturist, I found a physical therapist who would work with me. Sometimes I had three or four appointments a week. They all helped a little with my symptoms (weakness, pain, clunking, sore clavicle), but I never really got better. Eventually I stopped going to the chiropractor. I soon exhausted the knowledge of the physical therapist. I started humming a little song to myself that went, “There's a hole in Tracy's arm where all the money goes..." (borrowed from an old song by John Prine about a drug addicted father).
One day my acupuncturist said, “Maybe you separated your shoulder, you should get an x-ray." So I did, but the results were inconclusive. Soon after, my friend the veterinarian said, “You need an MRI." I didn't even know what an MRI was. Someone told me this mysterious test would cost $2000! I am a yoga teacher. I don't make a lot of money. I work for myself. I don't have any savings. I only recently got health insurance for the first time in my life, and it is the cheapest policy possible with a $6000 deductible. I had always bragged to my friends that yoga was my health insurance, and in my opinion insurance companies sold fear laced policies that were based on purely negative thinking.
Yet here I was, injured with no plan of escape. I work with my body, now my body doesn't work. How could this be happening to me? I felt stuck in limbo. Then, completely unexpectedly, a friend sent me a check for $2000 and said "please, go get an MRI." As soon as I got over the shock of her generosity I scheduled an appointment with the Sports Medicine Doctor that she recommended, Dr Green. The MRI showed that I had torn my supraspinatis, a beautiful (and important) little muscle in the quartet of rotator cuff muscles that goes from the top of the scapula over to the top of the humerus. The doctor was amazed that I had been able to tear myself apart doing yoga without any outside force acting upon me. He told me that in an injury like this there is usually an impact with another body involved (as in football!). He also said my 42 year old shoulders looked on the inside like a 90 year old woman's (or a professional weightlifter's). I had prematurely worn out the cushioning cartilage in the joints. He scolded me for trying to use my arms like legs. He recommended that I change yoga styles unless I wanted to repeat the same surgery on the other shoulder in the near future.
Once I understood the physical reality of my situation, everything began to make sense. Of course! Why did I not think of this myself? I had taken anatomy classes three different times! I still had all my old books, but I had never even looked at them once to try and figure this out for myself. It was so obvious to me now. Why didn't anyone else suspect a torn rotator cuff? Why didn't my teachers suspect a rotator cuff? Why didn't the acupuncturist, the physical therapist, the chiropractor? How much money had I thrown at this problem? I could have easily paid for an MRI by now with all the appointments I had gone to (and maybe a new car as well).
It was as if a spell had been broken. I woke up from the nightmare of self pity and trancelike paralysis I had fallen into. I began to feel really angry at Ashtanga Yoga, at my teachers, at the chiropractor who had been telling me all along that my shoulder was fine. I also felt angry with myself and then so so sad that I had used my yoga in such a violent way. How had I convinced myself so thoroughly that I was being careful? I had been completely sure I was doing all the "right" things. How could I have been so blind to the danger I was in? How could I have been so wrong? And now, how could I begin to forgive myself?
I asked myself “Self, how did I get here?" I thought about the ambitious western culture that I live in. I thought about the linear progression of Ashtanga, and how that way of approaching asana combined with my cultural conditioning had helped to seduce me into pushing ever "forward" in order to "achieve" more. First series, second series, third series-- like gears in a car, moving me faster and faster down the highway of asana to the final destination of... Of what???? A crash? I thought about my primary teacher, and how good he was at encouraging us to do more, to go further, to get stronger, to try again and again and again when we got stuck. His voice in my head saying “Come on!" much like a football coach, and me, desperate to please, to be a good student, to prove myself. I also thought about my fellow students and I worried that they might be heading to a similar unhappy end.
I asked myself “What is the purpose of yoga? Why am I doing this practice? What is really important?" As a teacher I had been adamant about reminding people to be gentle. I told them that the poses weren't important, they were merely tools to help bring mind and body together using breath and awareness, like bread crumbs leading you back home to your Self. I suppose the old adage that we teach what we need to learn most applies here. Meanwhile I was doing my practice to please my teacher. I was doing my practice to stay in step with my community of yogis. I was doing my practice because I felt proud of it, I felt like it made me a better person. I was doing my practice because I wanted to be a good girl. If I was a good girl then people would like me. As I looked further inward I began to see how far off track I had wandered. None of these poses mattered, just as had I told my students. I had fallen for a false idol. They were vain gyrations in space (to borrow a phrase from my friend Scott). For me they were not just vain but also dangerous. Staying healthy was more important. Being gentle to myself was more important. Being true to myself was even more important. I realized that I had been largely guided by external forces up to this point, and my inner voice hadn't been developed sufficiently to keep me safe in the intensity of this practice. I started to wonder if I knew enough to keep my students safe if I couldn't even take care of myself. I started to wonder if yoga teaching was the right job for me. Was I unknowingly leading other people down the path to injury?
It was a sports injury! My yoga practice had become like a sport-- aggressive, competitive and intense-- and I loved it. I was amazed by what I had been able to achieve over the years. I was proud of my body's ability to go further. I felt so good at the end of my practice-- sweaty, exhausted, and euphoric. I was purified. I liked it when people complimented me on my beautiful practice and my strong flexible body. And I was not alone. I was surrounded by other people who also loved to push (punish?) themselves. Every day after practice we would compare war stories about what hurt and where and how far we had gotten. It was a macho culture of tough love where pain was the norm and we just kept on pushing, endorphin junkies high on yoga. But the price for this was too high! I felt like Icharus, I had flown too close to the sun and my wing had melted, sending me plummeting to the earth with a sickening thud.
I agreed to let the surgeon reattach my torn muscle, and to trim back my clavicle as well. Apparently it was running into the other bones in the acromioclavicular joint because the cushioning connective tissues had worn away from so much use. According to everything I could find out, the odds for full recovery are pretty high, but Doctor Green said "I can only guarantee two things: One, this is going to be extremely painful; and two, it is going to take a very long time to heal (about 9 months)." I was not afraid. I had survived a broken neck in 1990 and had worn a halo brace screwed into my skull for three and 1/2 months. I had been doing Ashtanga all these years, my shoulder had been injured for over 9 months already, I could handle a little more pain. But I was not prepared for pain like this! After the surgery it felt like there were termites gnawing away voraciously at the bones in my shoulder. I could not sleep. I was never comfortable. I couldn't even lie down. How could one little muscle cause so much trouble? My life came to a screeching halt. I couldn't work, I couldn't cook, I couldn't play guitar. I couldn't do any asana. My right arm hung heavy and useless in a sling for a month. Any time I moved it there was searing pain. I felt helpless and uneasy in my body.
So I waited. I tried to breathe and I waited. I tried to let go and be calm and I waited. Now all those years of practice began to pay off! I could quiet my mind. I could relax my body. I could look at this recuperation phase as an opportunity for deep meditation and healing.
When the sling finally came off, my little arm was just hanging there, skinny and almost paralyzed with stiffness and pain. Could this really be my arm? Impossible! After so many years of having well behaved arms of steel, this was quite startling-- this limp bony disconnected excuse for an arm. What had they done to me? Or more accurately, what had I done to myself? Was getting this surgery a mistake? Too late now. Keep breathing, try to make the best of it.
After a month of physical therapy not much had changed, but it was time to get back to work. In the two months of time off I had been unable to come up with a better idea of how I would support myself. My friends and students had a fund raiser to help me start paying back my hospital bills, but the money was already spent before I got it, and I had so many bills!
Rather than getting a desk job I decided to use my injury to help me to become a better teacher. At first people said to me, “How will you teach, you can't even move your arm?" to which I answered, "I don't know, I'll figure it out, I have no choice." My friend Heather, the smart one, said something like “Just think, the classes you teach will not be about the students seeing how amazing you are, but about them and how amazing they are!" What a concept. And hopefully if I am honest and vocal about what has happened to me, other people might be able to avoid going the same way.
There are some other unexpected benefits from this experience-- for example I have a deeper relationship with shoulders and pain and injury in general, which is very useful as a teacher of yoga. I am experiencing firsthand what it feels like to adapt asanas to my own body in my current physical condition, which then translates directly into me being able to better understand students who come to me with injuries of their own. I am trying to feel the essence of poses, and to break them down into smaller pieces that are easily accessible and safe, but still interesting and challenging. Lucky for me this is helping me to heal my own body at the same time.
My personal practice as I knew it has totally unraveled. My understanding of yoga and of myself is still up in the air. I have had to completely let go of most everything I thought I knew and who I thought I was. I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I am ready for anything. And nothing. Will I ever do another flip? Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter? No. What matters? That I am kind.
March 19th, 2017--
Reflections on Self Compassion (How to be a Grown Up Part II)
I have been consciously studying and practicing Self Compassion for a few years now and I am still amazed at the power of such a simple practice. It is the number one most useful way I’ve found so far to transform my experience of life from bravely surviving by the skin of my teeth to resiliently and joyfully thriving. “Super Power” is the term that stubbornly arises whenever I search my mind for the right words to describe the strength of Self Compassion.
My practice of self compassion begins when I bring attention to the many common and habitual ways I am mean to myself (in word, thought, or deed). Once I have that inner light of awareness turned on, I can then notice when I’m veering off track and choose to replace meanness with kindness. It is ahimsa, (the yogic principle of non-harming), directed inwards towards the self.
When I am kind to myself, my whole being softens and settles and I have more peace. I feel more safe. I am more confident and optimistic. I get through difficult situations with more ease and I can just think better, so I make smarter choices overall. Life is much improved. It’s like becoming your own best friend.
At first, the notion of self directed kindness sounded outrageous and absurd, even. I seemed to have absorbed—as if from the very air itself—the belief that to be purposefully nice to myself was somehow weird or wrong or selfish or lazy and would surely cause harm to myself and others (and I have lots and lots of theories about this which might make an interesting topic for another time). I had been operating on the largely unconscious assumption that all niceness should be directed towards Others, whether it is healthy for me or not, and that treating myself sternly would surely lead me towards increased honor, respect, and spiritual enlightenment.
The problem with this theory is that when we are overly generous towards others and miserly towards ourselves, we start to become resentful and burnt out and ill, among other things. In short, we cannot hold healthy boundaries. We take on other people’s problems and ignore our own until eventually we break down (physically, mentally, energetically). We dry up. We often have the conscious or unconscious expectation that someone else should do for us what we cannot seem to do for ourselves. We are disempowered and disappointed.
It turns out that only we really know what we need or want. We are the expert we’ve been looking for. Others can guess, but that’s a risky business at best. Furthermore, once we are adults, it is really no one else’s responsibility (or business) to take care of us, but our own. There is no Prince or Princess Charming (or parent figure) out there holding the shiny magic key to our happiness (neither can we rescue anyone else). I know, it’s upsetting. But really it is not upsetting at all, it is incredibly freeing and empowering. “You mean I don’t have to lie here forever, like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be awoken with a magical kiss?” Or “You mean I’m not responsible for everyone else’s happiness?” Phew. What. A. Relief.
Other people can help us to love ourselves, in the best case scenarios—our caregivers when we are children, our lovers and friends as we become adults—but inevitably it comes down to us to know what it takes to care for ourselves and to make it happen. If we don’t learn this skill, we can’t fully develop into adults. Likewise, we need to allow others the space to develop these skills for themselves.
Once we learn how to be kind to ourselves we have more capacity to be kind to others, which is a a lovely side effect. Contrary to my original concerns, being kind to myself does not lead to selfish and slovenly behavior, instead I feel more generous and patient and happy around others. I am learning how to say no so that when I say yes I really mean it.