Thursday, March 31, 2011

Anatomy of an Injury

By Annelise “Lulu” Hagen, New York Yoga Instructor

“Well, at least you’ll deepen your understanding of anatomy, ” I consoled myself.

I just left the doctor’s office after some scary symptoms showed up, leading me to wonder if I had a respiratory infection. I found it hard to breathe, and experiencing sharp stabbing pain from my diaphragm up to my left collarbone. I worried that the walking pneumonia I had contracted a few years ago was returning, or maybe an old bout of Bronchitis was flaring up. I knew that bronchial infections had a way of coming back during the holidays, like unwanted guests. “I feel like I got sucker punched in the gut,” I said when describing my symptoms to my husband.
Bronchitis was flaring up. I knew that bronchial infections had a way of coming back during the holidays, like unwanted guests. “I feel like I got sucker punched in the gut,” I said when describing my symptoms to my husband.

“Your cartilage is separated from your sternum and ribs. It’s a common injury,” my doctor informed me.“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Just rest and take Tylenol and naproxen. These take a while to heal, and can be easily re-injured.” Oh great. I thought. He means I should stop doing Yoga for a while. “What about supplements?” I persisted.
“You’re just aging,” he replied. “Your tissues and joints are less resilient. If you can figure out something to take for that, you’ll be a millionaire.” Wow. So I am not only coming apart at the seams, I’m also a crone doomed to decrepitude.
“We’re learning a lot about aging and the cells, but it won’t come home to roost in a practical way for another 100 years. Too late for us!” he added cheerfully. He bounded off to see another patient.

I left the building and ruminated. While I trusted my doctor, I felt dissatisfied with my diagnosis and the apparent lack of a solution. Periodically, I get an injury that forces me to slow down, something I usually resist. Although these injuries have helped me to delve deeper into anatomy, thus sparing my students the same pain, I was getting tired of being my own guinea pig. I wondered if I was just recreating the same old drama of going over my limits and having my body slam the brakes.

When I got home, I hit the internet. I Googled “separated cartilage, ribs,” and found several helpful websites for athletes and weightlifters. I even got a name for my problem. Interestingly, the runner’s website I discovered suggested taking Glucosamine. This would certainly address the joint issue. “OK, so I will take glucosamine and lay off the deep twists and backbends,” I thought. I was a little bummed out, as I had just begun to kick up my physical practice a notch after an enforced hiatus due to mothering a toddler.

Pain is the body’s way of informing us that we need to pay attention. Like anger, it is a red flag that we can heed or ignore. I know myself well enough to know that I could go either way. I like to believe that I am open to change, but basically, I want what I want when I want it. I can be a little compulsive, allowing things I enjoy to become catch-alls for my stress and tension. In other words, I can use my Asana practice as a fix. I talk a good game about Yoga being an eight-limbed path, but the truth is, I sometimes short the Dharana and the Dhyana for the Asana.

Like other karmic lessons, injury would keep happening until I got the message and changed. I remembered what Sharon Gannon, one of my first teachers, said. “If we practice for small, selfish reasons, we will not progress.” Wasn’t it true that lately I had gotten a little more gung-ho about my physical practice in order to ‘get back into shape’? Yes, I was approaching my practice from an ego-based standpoint. I wanted a tighter butt, flatter abs, and a bit of a high. Moreover, by identifying with my body, I was forgetting that my true Self had nothing to do with the physical. I recalled a Jivamukti teacher named Ruth who had once had us chant, “I am not this hairstyle”.

As is my tendency, I began to scrutinize my motives and stringently chastise myself. Then an inner dialogue, between the disciplinarian and the id began.

“But I am a teacher! Of course I have to embody the asanas perfectly! Does being a teacher mean ignoring pain and approaching your practice from Vanity?” I knew the answer lay in the middle. I also knew I needed to deepen my meditation practice, and that this was the perfect time to commence. The chitta vrittis were merciless. Irony stabbed me sharper than the injury. Just the other day, I had quoted the Yoga Sutras on attachment:

Sutra 2.7
“Sukhanusayi raga”
-Attachment is that which follows identification with pleasurable experiences.

Sutra 2.8
“Dukhanusayi dvesha”
-Aversion is that which follows identification with painful experiences.

Using Swami Satchitananda’s lucid commentary, I had told my students that want and aversion were two sides of the same coin, and that the Yogi avoided both as impediments to the path of realization. Thinking that your Yoga practice would make you more beautiful or even fit was a trap, I said. Similarly, avoiding situations that were unpleasant was also a roadblock. We must cultivate self -study and look within, for the source of happiness comes from inside. Like the musk deer who runs everywhere looking for the source of sweetness, it actually emanates from ourselves.

Ok, great. I get it. I have been pushing a little too hard, and if I lay off, and surrender, I can align with my higher Self and let go. My old and deep-seated beliefs were causing me suffering. Just what were these attachments, in the form of beliefs, anyway?

1. Pain is necessary and virtuous.
On some level, my striving and pushing to be better and go harder and deeper was an attachment to pain. Also, when I thought about the area I had injured ( the physical corollary to the heart center ) I realized that I was somatizing an emotional imbalance; that, as a new wife and mother, I was being stretched to give more and open my heart- maybe I had gone a bit far, and needed to reserve something for myself.

2. Things have to be hard to have merit.
I believe that I have to struggle to be worthy. In doing so, I miss out on Grace.

3. I am running the show.
I don’t want to slow down and surrender. It’s my way or the highway.

I realized that the feelings of powerlessness I had been experiencing in my life were overwhelming to me, and that I feared slowing down to experience them. Since having the baby and cutting back on work, I have felt more dependent on my husband.

The economy tanking had caused my private client base to dwindle. Making less money had activated old fears of abandonment and shame. I was struggling to regain “control” and in the process, I was abandoning my best ally: a higher power.

The old mantra I have used in meditation came back to me. “be still, and know that I am.” I don’t have to be perfect. I can just be willing. I sat down and read a little from one of my meditation books. Then I sat and observed my breath.

Slowing down to meditate wasn’t easy for me. I had fallen out of the practice, and I was having trouble getting back on the horse. My mind wandered down familiar pathways of judgment and future tripping. I even blamed myself for not meditating well enough. Luckily, enough residual bhakti lingered from my past efforts to help me back to one-pointedness in brief flashes. I reminded myself that this was the process- observing the mind doing its contortions without judgment, and coming back to the object of concentration. I am here now. I am in this moment.

I realized I was ready to let go of my attachment to pain. I don’t know how I got so attached to begin with, but I knew I was ready to let go.

A few days later, my husband and I had a play date with another couple from our daughter’s preschool. We were enjoying canapés and making small talk when I discovered that the dad of the kid we were visiting was both a physical therapist and a cranio-sacral specialist. I told him about my injury. He perked up. “Do you mind if I take a look?” he asked. He gently stood behind me, and with the lightest of touch ran his index finger along my top rib and sternum. “Your rib is out.” He said. “I think I can fix this. “Go ahead”, I told him. With the most subtle pressure, he gently slid my rib back into its socket. I immediately felt a sense of relief and the aftermath of the injury’s trauma as realignment settled in.

After the adjustment, I resumed my practice.

And guess what? The pain came back. So now, here I sit, typing this piece. When I get done, I am going to meditate. After I have some toast and some coffee. And check my email. Really. On the other hand, maybe I will just take class. I can modify, I swear!

AHIMSA (non-violence) begins at home

If I am hard on myself, and perpetuate painful practice, I ultimately cause violence. The antidote to violence is compassion. Rather than judge myself harshly, I must come to an understanding of myself and of my tendencies, with love and humor. By releasing the idea that I have to be perfect, and embracing the concept that I am perfect as I am, warts and all, I remove the need to improve. And by not needing to improve, I am free to be myself. My practice then becomes one of love and peace, rather than striving and forcing.

“Yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have that strength, but don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities. In fact, that is the natural law. If a river just flows easily, the water in the river does not express its power. But once you put an obstacle to the flow by constructing a dam, then you can see its strength in the form of tremendous physical power.”
-Swami Satchitananda, commenting on sutra 2, 30 : “Vyadhi Styana Samsaya pramadalsyaviratibhrantidarsanalabdhabhumikatvanavasthitatvani cittavikspeastentrayaha”
(Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained- these distractions of the mind stuff are the obstacles.)

Ultimately, through self-study and a balanced practice, I may apply this sutra:

Sutra 2.16
Heyam dukham anagatam
-Pain that has yet to come is avoidable.

The path of Yoga is, ultimately, a process. We commit ourselves to a mysterious path that may have no discernible endpoint. Along the way, we encounter challenges.

Through these inevitable obstacles, with fortitude and attention, we may realize a greater strength. I am grateful to my injuries for teaching me these lessons. And I hope that I can continue learning with more joy and less pain along the way.

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