Learning to listen to the body

The Before

After a shoulder injury last summer from prolonged wear and tear, my body’s limitations hit me in a very real way. I took for granted that my body has always been relatively flexible and that even with years of competitive dance where I pushed my physical body to its threshold constantly, it was still young and pliable enough to bounce back without so much as a couple sore muscles. So far, I’ve even made it through life without breaking a bone despite my inherent clumsiness.

So when this injury persisted weeks after a normal post-workout strain would, I become worried and mostly frustrated. I eventually gave in to the opinions of modern medicine, who quickly informed me that I had shoulder bursitis or ‘impingement syndrome’:  a pinched tendon in my shoulder that over time becomes inflamed and painful with activity, especially when moving the arm above head height.

After a few months of physical therapy, my frustration grew in response the slow progression of improvement. It felt as though my shoulder was fighting against me. It didn’t respond to my requests, and it yelped in pain when I tried to coerce it into obedience. I would try to listen to my physical therapist’s advice: don’t do anything to inflame it further. We need to let the inflammation calm down before we can build your strength and flexibility back up. It made perfect sense of course, but after a week or two of not doing anything, I would get restless and inadvertently cause more pain and inflammation.

The Change

It took flying all the way to a resort off of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for my first ever yoga retreat to finally understand my issue. I wasn’t listening to the signs my body gave me. I was impatient with myself and unable to admit what I saw as defeat. The defeat of not being able to lift a dumbbell at the gym. The defeat of feeling my shoulder momentarily dislocate even while running around the block. The defeat of pain during minute daily tasks.

Thankfully, my wake up call came in the form of my yoga instructor at this autumn retreat: Kathryn Budig. As if the fates had guided me to someone who would truly understand, this wonderful, determined and strong woman was also recovering from a shoulder injury. Through her own acute understanding of the muscles and tendons that work cohesively towards correct body alignment, I was able to practice yoga for nearly 4 hours each day for the whole week. With her guidance, I learned to respect my shoulder’s abilities at that present moment, to protect it with a deliberate focus on alignment, to truly experience for once how mind and body all worked together for a common goal.

Throughout the yoga retreat, Kathryn’s main focus and intention was simple: Observe without reaction. Take in the surroundings, external and internal actions, small movements in your body, even slight discomfort and observe it without jumping to an immediate reaction. It was a message rooted in meditation, in being completely present without judgment. In short, it was a message I needed not only to hear, but to experience.

Gradually, I felt myself give way, trading in that mental roadblock of frustration to accepting what was in the present. I caught myself whispering during an especially long hold of single pigeon, this is where you are today. This is what your body feels like today. That doesn’t mean it will be this same way tomorrow, so be OK with where you are right now. It sounds trite, but as someone who grew up competing for everything from school grades to dance trophies, I needed to have that internal conversation and affirmation. What really made a difference for me was what happened to my body once I truly felt acceptance.

It began to open up and respond to me again. My shoulder and I were a team once more. I paid attention to keeping my shoulders and upper back aligned, and once protected and in its correct place, my shoulder began to bear weight without much effort. The girl who could barely carry a messenger bag a week prior was learning to do headstands in the middle of the room and arm balances for the first time. It was liberating and exactly the result I needed to affirm my newly curated thoughts of accepting the present. Once you accept and embrace the world, the world opens up for you. Like a Wes Anderson movie without all the sadness.

The Present

Now, three months later, I am practicing yoga almost daily. Kathryn’s yoga retreat is an experience I keep coming back to, and its lessons have awakened a new fire in me. I’ve had the pleasure of taking another class with Kathryn since she is locally-based, and even back home, her words remain an applicable reminder. I hope to  continue my practice with her, as it seems her timing is impeccable. (Seriously, as an aside, she just posted this relevant piece on yoga and pain. The context that her words were born out of may be different, but the message is the same. Get it girl!)

What always drew me to dance in my youth wasn’t the competitive factor, but the ability to express a myriad of things through the body. In a way, yoga is my body’s new form of expression. I treat it as an active meditation, a place where my body can communicate to my mind its worries, its weaknesses, and most importantly its strengths. It is that search and yearning for strength that brings me back to the mat. It is the place where I can hear my whole self and learn something new.

And my shoulder? It is still on a long road to recovery. Yet, as I keep it protected, it holds me up(side down) happily and with a nurturing strength.



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