“I would tell them that when you look at a person, you never know what the’re hiding.”
― Jodi Picoult,
My first yoga classes were a revelation.
I had no idea that there was such a thing as “scientific yoga.” My brief flirtation with the craft before my illness was defined by my failed efforts to imitate the contortion presented by the yoga teacher leading class. When she spoke, it was in soothing tones, about energy and chakras and other ethereal concepts. I remember the heavy scent of incense and the time that I nearly fell over onto the woman beside me. My laughter was cut short by the side eye given me by several clients in the room. Serious stuff, this yoga.
But there was not much scientific substance in that particular class, at least compared to what I was encountering at Breathe into Motion. Mike taught about biomechanics, and used parts of an artificial skeleton as a visual demonstration to reinforce his point about protecting the hip joints. He imparted a great deal of information to us, his clients, in the pursuit of safe yoga. It was clear to me that he was very focused on helping each one of us get better. The talking was hardly idle chatter. Admittedly, much of what he had to say went right over my head. But all the same, the educator in me was appreciative of his efforts to help us understand our bodies, and how to move without pain.
The problem wasn’t the delivery, or the environment in the studio. This was a clearly relaxed place, where clients were welcome to ask questions, to scale back, to not get things perfect in the first try. Or to modify the pose to suit their individual needs. No one was doing the same thing, and some even sat in chairs. There was an easy back-and-forth between Mike and his students, often punctuated with laughter. If I had been able to relax, I might have enjoyed myself more from the very moment I stepped onto a mat.
But the problem was that the pain was too high. It took up so much space in my head, that I could not think clearly. The fact was that I had done very little socializing since leaving my job. My world had become small: bed, couch, doctors’ offices, hospital. Thanks to the high CBD oil, I gained enough control over the pain that I could venture outside the house again. Yet I struggled in a crowd full of strangers. It took an enormous amount of energy to just follow a conversation. My memory was rusty, making it impossible to recall names only moments after introductions. Trying to learn even rudimentary facts about anatomy and biomechanics? Well, he could forget that – I was having trouble just standing there, finding the stamina to respond politely to quick greetings.
Of course, I plastered over these anxieties with a huge smile. I’d learned as a vice principal that a smile was a useful tool: it diffused tension, helped others around me relax, made me seem less authoritative in a conflict. (And, of course, it also was expected by most of my doctors: How’s the pain level, you ask? Oh, well, it’s there but I’m doing OK. Flash smile. Move the conversation along to scheduling the next appointment or discussing an increase in meds).
Eventually, it would become clear to me that the one person I could not fool with my grin was actually the yogi before me. He knew how people in pain moved, even those of us who were good poker players. And so he set about gently coaching me to face the truth and really see what had happened to my body. But it would take many classes before I was ready to pull my fingers out of my ears and listen.
Until then, I was in full blown vice principal mode, thank you very much: I had a plan. Ignore the pain (because incurable, permanent, difficult to manage). Focus on the rest of my body, and push it hard to build muscle, flexibility, balance and resilience. And every time I left the studio after class, only to have Mike inquire as to how my pain was? Oh, well, it’s there but I’m doing OK. Flash smile. Exit.