Teacher’s Pet: Or, What I Learned From Pain
If I had had a different sixth grade math teacher (or, while we’re going here, ninth grade biology teacher or twelfth grade English teacher(s)), my life would probably look much different than it does now. It was in Mrs. C’s “honors” math class that I developed my pure aversion to numbers, especially multiplication. As preparation for state tests—and life, she claimed—it was important to develop the skill of completing as many multiplication problems as possible in one minute. We completed these “Multiplication Minutes” every week, which became not only a test of mathematic proficiency but also of psychological endurance. As the weeks went by I got closer and closer to 100%, and once I landed there I held my breath and did all I could to hold myself up.
As I cautiously moved my right leg forward into a pigeon pose preparation in yoga class last week, I considered whether the minutes I sat at that middle school desk, furiously calculating and scribbling in smeared pencil, were more or less painful than this. Not only was my left hip, stretched into extension behind me, feeling the (literal) burn of inflamed tendonitis and impingement, but I felt my eyes start to burn at the memory of years and years of practicing this pose with grace and fluidity. Arcing up and over into three-legged dog, then swimming through to a graceful forward fold—rather more evocative of a swan, I liked to think, than a pigeon—was a flow I had mastered with the precision of my times tables. But here I was, faced with a problem I couldn’t solve fast enough, couldn’t massage or stretch away. I knew the answer well enough—come out of this pose! take a few days off your mat to rest! Practice restorative!—and yet the stern teacher that could drill me into submission in the past had left the room. I’d fallen into such complacency in my self-care practice that my logic-based learning muscles had weakened as much as my soft tissues.
There is a great comfort in having the answers at the tip of my tongue or fingers, a satisfaction that only quantitative subjects like math would provide me in my schooling. In acing the Multiplication Minutes, I formed an impression that being a good teacher and student involved an exchange of mastery and certainty. My near-photographic memory was my home-turf advantage, since I could imprint upon my brain the various permutations of the numbers and their products. There was no room for contemplation or reflection, and indeed that was the only way to survive Mrs. C’s classroom. In only the way that the most cruelly effective coaches can pull off, Mrs. C had a wickedly big, open smile, infectious laugh, and twinkly blue eyes; she lured students like me, who were hungry for the outside acclaim of meeting her impossible standards, to her like the Pied Piper, and taught us that in order to feel worthy we had to suffer. Extinguishing anything resembling shame, defeat, or frustration with pure logic was the only way that the Minutes wouldn’t eat you alive.
But here on my mat, in my body and not in my head, I was suddenly no longer a student sure of her ability to master the problem at hand. And while there was still a teacher at the front of the room telling me what to do and how to do it, giving me the problems to solve quickly and on repeat, there was another one, with a much louder voice, coming from inside. The pain I felt couldn’t be extinguished through learning, but had become the teacher itself challenging me with a new kind of lesson.
Until I felt it in my own body, I associated pain and yoga in the way that Mrs. C had taught me to multiply. Asana is lauded as the panacea of ailments from stiff low backs and text thumb to digestive upsets and anxiety. Like many, I had discovered yoga as a means to heal a devastating combination of self-inflicted physical and psychological pain; like many I enjoyed watching my body and mind transform under the spell of the routine and discipline. Each sun salutation, backbend, and savasana was like a new multiplication problem that with practice I could memorize and master. When I took that craving for knowledge to the next level and completed several teacher trainings, I dove in with my sequencing rules, do’s and don’ts of bent- and straight-leg postures, and the list of contraindications for most every pose (curiously enough, many ailments being the ones that people are sent to yoga to heal). My sixty-minute classes were nothing like the frantic math sprints of my youth, but they had the same air of satisfaction upon completion. I never knew when a student would through a few 11s and 12s at me, but I’d done my homework. Solving the challenges their bodies presented gave me an even higher yoga high than I felt while practicing on my mat.
Just when the vision for a new yogic life started to click into place, my body started to kick up a little protest. The first hip impingement took months of experimenting (and some expensive office furniture) to remedy. Then came the hamstring strain, the ankle strain, the second hamstring strain, the scoliosis, SI misalignment . . . you get the picture. Each time I felt some new burn or swelling, I’d do what I’d been taught to make it right, feel better, and move on for a few weeks sans pain. And, somehow, I’d always be surprised when it showed up—it must have been that run on Tuesday or that pair of shoes, I’d think, trying to find the rogue variable that threw me off course on the multiplication track.
It wasn’t until I sprained my thumb (catching myself in a demo of twisted triangle) that I realized why, despite my truly having all the right answers to these injuries, they kept happening. I’d tricked myself into thinking that I’d finished learning, that my certification for teaching meant I could know the right ways to move and feel and get the right answers every time I did them. Wrong. When I decided to go to class with an OTC brace on my wrist, telling myself I’d modify but having no intention of really changing anything, my body changed the whole format of the test. Unable to use my hand or arm according to the rules of practice, I was back in school under the tutelage of my own feeling body, relearning how to hold myself up without bearing weight on one arm. Savasana felt extra sweet that day, for the effort and focus I exerted to do less added up to much more than what I exerted in my pain-free yoga mode.
From pain, this teacher whose class I didn’t sign up for, I’d learned that “knowing” doesn’t do anything for you in the ebb and flow of reality. Rather, the ability to look outside the patterns and familiarity of what’s known is what relieves us from suffering. In unknowing the reality of pain, I felt smarter than I ever did after getting a 100 on a test. I’d allowed the simple, uncomfortable reality of being awake and sentient in my body, of knowing the present intimately and literally in my bones, to be a measure of worth, not a hurdle to jump over or push through. Even outside of the patterns I knew to be right, I was enough.
In sixth grade, I believed that I needed someone in front of a classroom wielding a red marker to teach me all I needed to know. I also believed it was possible to achieve something like knowing. But learning from my body-in-pain has given me a skill set even more valuable than multiplication. While I certainly don’t seek out injury or physical suffering, or recommend that anyone does, its appearance is a reminder of the miraculous uncertainty of being alive. The experience of being a human in a body isn’t something that can be tested or graded, yet it teaches a kind of wisdom I now readily surrender to. In my current state of acute hip pain, I will still autopilot diagnose myself, propping up pillows and adding in isometric holds to work against the degeneration of soft tissue. But in accepting the uncertainty of what causes pain, when it will stop or how, or why this is happening to me again, I can sink more deeply into my own resilience. And the surprise of what I’ll have learned, and who I’ll be, on the other side of pain is what will keep me coming back to this classroom—this seat of learning that is my body.
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