Discovering The Healing Power Of Yoga
Chefs and cooks work long hours, performing repetitious and demanding physical movements that can take a serious toll on the body over time. I didn’t take care of myself in my twenties, and my body’s response was to start falling apart in my thirties, one piece at a time.
I was in and out of physical therapy, and on escalating doses of naproxen, for years. I continued to work long hours through plantar fasciitis, ankle tendonitis, metatarsal tendonitis, trigger finger, a damaged meniscus, and a back injury. As grueling as the other injuries were, it was the back injury that changed my relationship to my body in a lasting way. It made me see that I had a false perception of my own strength, and revealed how weak my core was. I’ve never felt as vulnerable or helpless as I did when I hurt my back. I closed my eyes, looked into my future, and it scared the wits out of me……I knew it was time to start taking care of myself on a much deeper level than I’d considered before.
Yoga Nidra (sleep yoga) was the first form of yoga I’d ever tried. It was winter in upstate New York during the time of my back injury. I would come home from work, take off my back brace, crawl into bed, lie on my back, close my eyes, and listen to a guided Yoga Nidra session comprised of a body scan, sensory prompts, and guided visualization. It was a tangible link between my present injured state and a swirling dream of finding healing. I was hanging off the edge of a cliff, but Yoga Nidra had a firm grip on me. During the next few months, it became the lifeline I would use to pull myself up, day by day, away from that scary edge.
Some months later, I damaged the meniscus in my right knee. The knee was drained and injected with a steroid, and eventually drained and injected again. The drug brought a mask of temporary relief that lasted less than a month. Around this time, I was diagnosed with “trigger finger”, a variation of carpal tunnel. The thumb and forefinger of my right hand swelled up and lost their range of motion – the result of too much repetitive knife-gripping over the years. My hand was injected with a steroid, but – as was the case with my knee – the relief wore off in a few weeks. I remember calling to make an appointment for another cortisone injection and being told no, because I’d already been given the maximum yearly amount that is safe for a human body.
Now what? I was up against a wall again, and I knew my organs were working overtime trying to process all the drugs. Medication was not a sustainable solution. The approach so widely embraced by my country’s medical system was not going to work for me. To use a sports metaphor in western medicine’s defense, though: I was not the injured athlete who sits out the rest of the season to recuperate. I was the injured athlete who was still running up and down the field all day long, making plays. The treatments may have been much more effective had that not been the case, but it still wouldn’t have changed the fact that they were not an ideal choice for long-term healing.
Western medicine couldn’t heal my body. The realization of that, along with my acceptance of it, slowly sunk into my bones. A couple of months after my last cortisone injection, I tried a “medical yoga” class, a synthesis of restorative yoga and physical therapy, intended for people with injuries. It was taught by a nurse from the local hospital. I went once or twice a week for a month and had a small taste of the therapeutic benefits of restorative yoga. My intuition and my body both whispered yes, this…give yourself more of this. I was still hanging on to a few preconceived notions and false misperceptions about classes at yoga studios: too much dogma / I don’t want to be the only man in the room / don’t you need to be flexible?
I was on the threshold of turning forty when I began practicing Kripalu yoga at a local studio in New York. My primary teacher, Steven, was an older man who had once been an auto mechanic, sustained serious injuries, and eventually rehabilitated and transformed his body through yoga – a perfect teacher for me. This was just what I needed, not a giraffe-like twenty-something who didn’t know how it felt to be in an overweight, overworked, injured, middle-aged person’s body.
It was plain to me that I was now taking a big step down a healing path and was thrilled to have found what I would come to think of as “my medicine”. So what if I had to modify most of the poses? I found peace of mind, a rested heart, and profound physical therapy there on the hardwood floors of that second-story yoga studio, daylight streaming in over the many plants near the windows overlooking the street. I was acknowledging myself in a way I never had before. I surrendered to the discomfort of the poses, and to myself. It was cathartic to stop fighting, to stop resisting against the painful parts of my life. I’d never related to life that way before; I’d always fought, always resisted.
In the course of my two years with Steven I lost thirty pounds, my carpal tunnel healed completely, my other injuries healed almost completely, and my knee healed by about seventy-five percent. (I think it’s important to note here that the purpose of yoga is not to “get in shape”, though that often inherently occurs as a side-effect.) Now, five years into asana practice, I feel stronger than I ever did in my youth.
Joel Kramer has described yoga as “a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding”. Kripalu Yoga, much like the Insight Yoga developed by Sarah Powers, is often described as “meditation in motion”, and focuses on restoring your connection with yourself through movement and stillness, offering clarity and calm. It’s a much slower vinyasa (the joining of breath and movement). You linger in each pose, staying in both the discomfort and the comfort, observing whatever comes up for you, escalating the act of self-inquiry, allowing insights to take root. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for healing to become possible, bringing a clarity and a sense of wholeness to what can feel like scattered pieces of yourself, parts of your life you haven’t made sense of. It also lays a foundation for self-acceptance that – paradoxically – brings with it the possibility of change. You become a scientist whose lab project is your own behavior.
What drives your habits, your choices? One of the central points of practicing yoga is simply to raise the question: what do I spend all my time doing, and why? thereby revealing what it is in your personal psychology that limits your potentialities and feeds your fears. This willingness to self-inquire is your base-camp: to meet whatever you find with a tender acceptance and soft attention. From there, you just continue working with yourself, in much the same way a kindly grandmother might lovingly knead dough and patiently bake bread. You make loaf after loaf, becoming ever-so-slightly more skilled each time.
Yoga asana, yoga Nidra and meditation have calmed the extremity of my highs and lows, connecting me to a much more anchored center in which to be with myself, and from which to carry myself in the world. These practices help me appreciate and make sense of the victories and losses I’ve experienced, and inspire me to call into question how we define gain and loss, success and failure, in western-minded American society. It helps me make contact with my heart and the ground of my being, which gives me welcome relief from the self-identity my mind is always subconsciously working so hard to maintain, in order to be seen in the ways it wants to be seen.
We all have a lot to learn about how and why we see ourselves the ways we do, and why we relate to other people, and the rest of the world, in the ways we do. Yoga has the potential to assist us hugely in that endeavor. In the same way that your body learns to soften its rigidity and surrender to the discomfort of an asana pose, your ego-mind begins to loosen its grip on its own constructs and beliefs. One begins to lean in the direction of experiencing life from a place of curiosity rather than emotional reactivity.
As I continue the discipline of yoga, the process continues: old parts of me long to be identified and released, washing away to make space for new roots, new parts, new dimensions to be brought to the surface, acknowledged, realized. I’m left with a sense of steadiness, evenness, that stays with me whether or not I’m on a mat.
Steady breath, steady practice, and sometimes even a little steadiness on the shaky ground of life.
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