I had an awakening this week, right here in my body, when my low back seized up! I was taking a very gentle yoga class, from a teacher I respect, when I gradually found myself in more and more pain. When it came time to go to all 4’s, I felt like one of those guys who you see in movies who have been shot a thousand times, yet still manage to drag their bodies up from the warehouse floor. When I tried getting my feet under me, I was more like a dump truck trying to do a wheelie. I could tell it was serious so I called for help. Admitting I was hurt and that I needed help is still pretty new for me.
I’ve been resting, icing, heating, mildly medicating and seeing professionals. I am healing. This is the only way now, and I hope I am really learning how to trust that I will heal if I step back from whatever my typical life is, rest, and let my body do its magic.
Up through my 40’s, I could usually just push through injuries. That was how I dealt with everything, by firing up my will engine. Just before I turned 50, I tore my rotator cuff (shoulder) and it changed the course of my life, guiding me to my current vocation, yoga therapy. My shoulder woke me up. It seemed like some force in the universe was tired of giving me subtle hints, and leaving notes where I’d catch on, so “it” gave me no choice. I was broken, and had to quit using my body carelessly. I was able to find the courage to move away from my habit of worry and pursue a deeper passion to help people heal. I also had no other choice. Before my shoulder alarm shrieked me into reality, I had been volunteering at the food bank, helping a family with a toddler and gardening for older neighbors. I was helping support this world, and it seemed so noble. But I was not fulfilling my karmic work.
Along the karmic path, we are shaped by our experiences, our families, our culture, the era in which we’re born. These all make etchings on our hearts, minds and bodies. For many years of life, we’re trying to understand who we are and why we behave the ways we do. If we have the good fortune of access to teachings, we might learn that we have some agency in the process of “becoming.” Many spiritual traditions teach that we can rise above our habits, our traumas, and the beliefs that have shaped us. Science now supports this idea, espousing that the brain is “plastic” and can change at any age. Science and spirituality agree that the way to do this is by redirection and repetition.
Neurologically, we build roads or pathways towards whatever we think, say or do. Like any path, the more often it’s travelled, the wider, stronger and more easily accessed it is. If I always brush my teeth with my right hand, I have a lifetime of roads to coordinate my body and brain. When I try to do this simple, everyday task with my left hand or my foot, it’s like bushwacking my way through the rainforest with a paper knife. I look and feel like a toddler, because my brain is a toddler for this activity.
Likewise, my life shaped my belief system to value independence, to the degree that I believed I couldn’t or shouldn’t ever get sick or injured. I didn’t know how to let anyone take care of me, so even as a child, staying home from school was not a treat for me. Getting hurt now still triggers the fear that I will be left behind, forgotten and my children won’t have care. The mental path in that direction is still with me and vulnerable situations can tilt me in that direction. However, I keep practicing with my other trail system now, and learning that I have many options.
To switch paths, we need awareness. One way to shake yourself awake is to notice when you’re repeating words you’ve said to yourself before. If your thoughts start to race or build to a catastrophe, with words like “always” and “never”, you’re likely in an old pattern.
Then, you have to pause if you want to be free. It’s like the moment just before you hit Send. Recognize that you are making a choice. If you can say no to that choice, then you have infinite choices. Let your body calm down – try taking 3 breaths. Notice the tension in your physique and explore relaxing just one part, one shoulder, one side of your face, your belly. Consider doing nothing as one of your choices. Explore just sitting there until you know your next step.
After my back froze, my big first step was admitting that something had gone wrong with my body. I couldn’t walk properly, nor bend down to get an ice pack from the freezer. I needed help!
Maybe what I needed even more than physical support was to practice reaching out and having someone show up for me. My husband did everything and more. He loves taking care of me and rarely gets the chance. I had to give myself permission to cancel this and that, to do “nothing” for a few days, to just sit there until I knew my next kind move. I had to recognize that I never know what’s coming next and it’s still OK.
I have been practicing pausing, softening and letting those muscles relax. I get tricked by my old familiar mental routes – they can feel so right because they’re like old friends from middle school (now why did I leave her behind again?). I still feel unsure when the answer is to relax, do nothing, and trust that I will be OK.
With the advantage of hindsight, I can see that all my life’s lessons have been laid out like the pied piper’s treats,this loss and that injury always let me where I needed to go. Yet, in the moment, I often forget that somehow, everything eventually will make sense. My wise body is still guiding me, so I will keep practicing so I can learn from this wise, aging teacher, and the everyday surprises.