Christmas day twelve months ago we were ice skating in Bryant Park here in the city when I fell in the crowded rink and broke my wrist. Much of 2009 was dedicated to rehabilitation! As we approach the New Year again, I find myself flooded with gratitude for yoga. My practice helped me regain my range of motion and reduced my pain while constantly nourishing me with a sense of possibility and encouragement.
Recently one of my private clients, a 62 year-old woman who had a stroke several years ago, called yoga sneaky. “Compared with the roller blading I used to do, it doesn’t seem like I’m doing much. But here I am, just a few months later, much stronger. I can totally feel it. And my mood is better. My exercise therapist is so impressed with the gains I’ve made in my balance. He’s always commenting on it.” She’s a consistent practitioner, and I’m thrilled for her.
Her remarks also highlight some of the illusions we have about health. For example, the idea that only aerobic activity “counts.” I have good friends who wrestle with eating disorders, chronic pain, and autoimmunity, and none of them will practice yoga because they “need more exercise.”
Another misleading idea about health
is that what we “used to be able to do” somehow represents a halcyon age, a time of fitness we struggle to recover. Yet it’s well known much of what we do when we’re “healthy” contributes to compromise or breakdown we experience later.
There are studies that show the depletion of calcium, the stress on the endocrine system, the wear and tear on joints and connective tissue, the general drawing down on the immune system to name just a few things that are likely the result of not only work/ life stresses but athletic overtraining, dieting, and other lifestyle “health” choices.
Tenzin Wangyal teaches that before an illness is evident physically, it’s been developing for a long time. “[Problems] begin in the subtle levels and move toward more substantial manifestations.”
By the time we have symptoms, the causes of problems may be far in the difficult to discern past.
For example, while it may really have been beneficial to get outdoors for exercise every day in my thirties, I now wonder if it was detrimental to my long term bio-mechanical health to always be running nine miles. Science and medicine just don’t have clear answers to these sort of questions, so getting involved in self-blame or giving up in despair are equally unhelpful to maintaining health over time.
Complexity is difficult to represent, and we have little patience with open ended explanations when we’re so used to being offered simple straightforward (if inevitably inaccurate) answers. The dumbing down of science through funding inbreeding and profit motives has led to the lie of the scientific method: the expectation of cause and effect as either good or bad, when in truth, cause and effect are themselves utterly flawed oversimplifications.
Most of us would settle for skipping the theories if we could figure out how to increase our chances of living productively, with less pain, longer. A new client came to me troubled with inner ear issues, saying, “Getting old is hard to face because we lose strength and flexibility, and even our balance. How can we enjoy life?”
Strength, flexibility, balance, the changes of age?
The coping and thriving with life how-to is Yoga.
Doing yoga can’t necessarily change things about past activities that influence current health. Meaningful, life-giving coping and survival may include longer term life-detrimental consequences, too. The fact that I fell hard on more than one occasion while winter hiking years ago may have weakened my wrist. By most reckonings, the hiking itself was healthy. Maybe the falls were harder on my bones during menopause. Maybe none of that has anything to do with my wrist breaking: it may have been the torque from the angle and motion of my fall.
I met a woman in my surgeon’s office who had broken her wrist and had become wheelchair-bound afterward. It may have been depression, pain, malingering, or the inevitable result of her earlier life circumstances, there’s no way of being sure.
On the other hand, we may, by the actions we take today, add healthy days, weeks and years to our lives. We may be able to change the course of some developments, mitigate the effects of others, invoke entirely new thriving such as increased neuro-plasticity, rebalanced blood chemistry, freer ranges of motion that give more accurate information to our vestibular – ocular systems, cutting down on dizziness and bio-mechanical inaccuracy.
Yoga can change how we cope with frustration, lessen pain, and address fear
Through yoga I maintained flexibility throughout my body, overcame the contraction that set in after the break and surgery; I sustained neurotransmitter and blood chemistry levels that sped nutrition and supported important optimism in my psychological outlook.
I’ve been in conversations with teachers who regularly remonstrate that people in gentle yoga classes “need to be pushed.” At a presenter reception this year, two nationally celebrated teachers sneered about Kripalu when they were introduced to me, calling it “Cripple U.”
Kripalu teachers themselves harbor ambivalence about what they call “real yoga.” “When I think of gentle classes,” said one of them, “I think of people who are afraid of a little work.”
Presence and its subsequent health benefits are not functions of spiritual sophistication or technical achievement.
“Slowness,” writes Daniel Odier, “is a divine thing. We have lost the habit of it.” There are times when gentle is yoga for all of us.
When I think of who shows up in gentle classes, I think of people who are dealing with change, relationships, overwork, elderly parents or sick children, chemotherapy, broken limbs, dislocated joints, connective tissue injury, hip replacements, fibromyalgia, strokes, post traumatic stress, grief, exhaustion, hypertension -
- in short, people who are dealing with real life, not fantasies of being in control or being good looking or living forever. To me they seem a lot braver about facing fear and acting than self-described advanced yoga practitioners are about dealing with theirs.
Yet, even those who are suffering or recovering need an intelligent engagement of the innately life-giving joy of body, what F. M. Alexander termed “the use of the self,” which does include advancing appropriate challenge. Be mindful when “gentle,” however compassionate it is, becomes a kind of autopilot – surely that isn’t yoga.
To help ourselves or any student we have to interact in ways no dogmatic approach can incorporate.
We have to practice.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.