Yoga begins with listening

I spent four days in October immersed in anatomy, breath work and yoga with my teacher Leslie Kaminoff, who came to teach at The Yoga Bank in Widnes. It was a transformational and deeply fascinating experience for me and one which has left me contemplating what yoga is and how we teach it, along with the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies shape our experiences of living in them.

My story, for the last three years, has been one of chronic pain. I look back now (hindsight being a wonderful thing) and see how I slowly lost all of the movement I took for granted in my daily life, and how I kept trying to ‘get better’ but never really got better at all. Back in 2015, one of the first things that I had to give up was teaching yoga class; something which was quite painful at the time considering how much I loved sharing it with others. My pain was so intense that I could no longer demonstrate or sit on the floor, and if yoga has taught me anything its that pain needs to be respected! My personal yoga practice then began to suffer, as I could find no way to practice that seemed to ease any of my pain. I kept trying to practice, feeling like there must be some healing accessible to me somewhere, but as time went on no matter what I did, it always caused me pain. It was a long, tearful, frustrating and confusing period of my life. I know from conversations with friends, yoga teachers/bodyworkers and clients, that my experience of chronic pain and the ways in which I struggled to find answers are nothing unusual.

I kept going somehow, with frequent physiotherapy sessions, massage and myofascial release. I had periods where it seemed like the pain eased off a little, but each time I tried to do a little more movement, the pain would return. Somehow in the midst of all this, I managed to go rock climbing and mountaineering in the French Alps and ran a 10km race! By the spring of 2017, I had reached a very low place. Stripped of my ability to walk, run, climb, cycle, sit, stand or sleep without pain I knew that there was something seriously wrong, I just didn’t know what. Chance took me on a bodywork course in Oxfordshire and while I was there I took professional advice. I came home feeling terrified and relieved in equal measure that someone had given me a possible diagnosis: a labral tear.

After a few months of discussion, x-rays and scans I had reached the point where I understood that whatever was causing my pain was not going to go away without medical intervention. I knew that no matter how scared I was, I would not be able to move forward with my life or have any chance of living without pain if I didn’t let go a little and allow someone to investigate what was going on in my hip. The operation followed in July this year and no labral tear was found, but I did have cam impingement in my right acetabulum (the hip joint) and deamination (this is where the tissues come away from the joint, destabilising it). Serious as this is, I remember not feeling terribly comforted or relieved after my operation even though a labral tear would have been a much worse outcome and required a much longer period of rehabilitation. I think I had been so ground down by the constant pain, the unanswered questions surrounding it (how did this all happen?) and a now inbuilt fear that I would never be better, that I could not process what had been done, nor the need to start undoing the ways in which my movement and perception of my own body had changed.

The post-operation period was a fascinating but frustrating time for me as a therapist. Rehab focused on improving range of motion and isolating muscle groups so that they could be strengthened,  but I felt like much of what was actually challenging me wasn’t being acknowledged. I got told many things which seemed very contradictory, and I came home each week from my sessions feeling confused and emotionally low. I tried my best for the twelve weeks post-operation to do the exercises I was asked to do. Sometimes they caused me quite a lot of pain. I distinctly remember during one of my physiotherapy sessions – when I challenged the requirement for me to run on a running machine – being told “you are fixed now”. Wow what an answer!

When we have suffered with chronic pain, even if the source of the pain has been healed, patterns of thinking, responding and movement remain embedded within us. It is not easy to turn over months or years of being in pain – deep within your nervous system, you remember the pain and the bodymind doesn’t necessarily understand that the source of the pain has been changed, or even that it may have gone altogether. This is one of the reasons why telling someone they are ‘fixed’ is unhelpful. It does not acknowledge the complex relationship between body and mind nor that what can often hold us back are patterns of movement and ways of thinking underpinned by a nervous system which has been on high alert for a long period. We have been protecting ourselves and that has become the norm.

As you can imagine, therefore, booking myself into a four-day intensive yoga workshop after what felt like an eternity of not doing yoga was a pretty challenging thing to do. It took me weeks of consideration and even longer to book the place. I was frightened because I had lost my personal practice. I was worried that I would not be able to do anything and scared that my body would not let me!

We did a lot in our four days of exploration, but two events for me really broke things open for me, and not just on a personal level but with regards to how I choose to work with my clients, the majority of whom suffer from some form of chronic pain. On the second day, we were discussing the complexities of Urhdva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose). I can honestly say that I have no memory of ever being able to do this pose with ease. In fact, I distinctly remember never being able to enter the pose without having a teachers’ ankles to hold on to, or some straps or props. It was never a pose that came naturally, never something I could breathe in and therefore something I did very little of. I had convinced myself that my tight shoulders were to blame and therefore, spent many hours trying to ‘open’ them up. It never made any difference!

What is so interesting about having a body, certainly in terms of doing yoga, is that simple words can totally transform your practice. I remember being there in the room lying on my back with everyone else, listening to Leslie talking about verbal queues for the pose……my stomach was turning over because I truly believed that if I even attempted it something awful would happen. Maybe my leg would come off?! (that is quite silly but you get the idea of how my mind perceived my body). And yet, as I listened to the queues I released that I had placed my hands by the sides of my head…..I moved my feet into a place where they were comfortable, I engaged and pushed away, and then all of a sudden there I was, in wheel pose. I came down and sat up, quite shell-shocked. I looked around and thought wow, I think I need to do that again, so I did. After the second round, I lay on the side of my body as tears came forth. I released the story I had been telling myself since almost the first day I had suffered from hip pain: that I had broken my body. I also realised at that moment that it simply was not true – I was not broken, and I never had been.

Later on, towards the last day of the workshop, we spent the afternoon discussing the therapeutic side of yoga. It was humbling to hear so many stories from other people who had all suffered from chronic pain, including one lady who had suffered a massive injury during a yoga class (yes this really does happen). It fascinating to watch Leslie helping people to understand themselves and their stories.

We came to the ever-complicated issue of squatting and I realised that a feeling of fear was welling up inside of me. I didn’t think I could squat and I didn’t have the confidence to try. This is quite strange considering that squats formed a major part of my rehabilitation. You would assume that I had got quite good at them but actually I struggled with them, and they left me with tension which I am still trying to unpick. Leslie came over and asked me to squat. I went down and then my legs starting shaking, it was like hitting an invisible wall (I think if you look closely at the top picture you can even see this on my face). I remember Leslie standing behind me, reminding me that he was there and that I wouldn’t fall. He gently shook my shoulders, he asked me to take a breath, and then he said down you go, and down I went.

Leslie stepped away from me and there was I, squatting, quite happy and utterly speechless. I realised that the story I had been telling myself, the story of having broken myself, was sat there in my nervous system. All those years of pain meant that any movement outside of the movement I had become accustomed to (and let’s remind ourselves that was very little movement at all) would induce a sense of panic in me. My body was saying no, not based on any physical issue or lack of ability, but on the premise that for ages I had not done these things because they caused pain. My brain, my nervous system and my body were only behaving in a way that had become the norm. My friend Jools texted me later said: “so you think you can’t squat!!”.

What can we learn from these types of experience? I think a huge amount. Clearly, the body and the mind cannot be separated and the stories that we create through our experience of our bodies can be very powerful. The stories can become what limit us rather than anything physical. In order to change them, we must be willing to step into space where we are can explore what happens when we challenge our perceptions. We need this space to be held for us, and we need the support of others, be they, teachers or therapists, to have confidence that we can change things. Sometimes all that is needed is a kind word, some support, someone who believes that we can do it. I am reminded of Richard Freeman’s book The Mirror of Yoga, where he so perfects reminds us “Yoga begins with listening. When we listen we are giving space to what is”.

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