“Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind.” – Patanjali
The first sign of progress had nothing to do with soothing the physical pain -I was still pushing too hard. Yoga was working on something else: helping my mind remember it could focus on something other than the pain alone. Of course, that internal dialogue between my brain and my body was, admittedly, rather juvenile at times:
Brain: Mountain pose? Standing isn’t supposed to be so complicated.
Body: You’re joking. We’ve not been properly aligned. For years.
Brain: That’s not my fault.
Body: Actually it is. You’re in charge up there. Now shut up and concentrate.
Standing – paying attention to my feet, making sure the four corners of each foot were affixed to the mat. Ensuring my knees were not turned outwards and correcting that by spiralling my thighs. Balancing my pelvic bowl by tucking my tailbone. Taking note of my hiked up shoulder blades and drawing them down and back in two separate and slowly fluid motions. Making sure my head was aligned properly by sitting it on top of my spine, without its typical unconscious tilt to the left – my brain was quite busy attending to these principles of alignment. It was a welcome break from its obsessive worrying about the return to work in my current condition.
Of course, standing as I completed all of these small adjustments wreaked havoc in my heels. Ever observant, Mike suggested I put my shoes on to relieve some of the pain and tingling that was beginning to crawl up my legs. It was the first of many modifications to come, but even I could see the wisdom of this concession.
Our repertoire of poses expanded in each class. They were built slowly and deliberately, as we listened to Mike introduce each new pose, explaining the biomechanics and anatomical principles behind each stance. I watched as he laid out the recommended adaptations for his students, tailored to each injury, or medical challenge presented in the class. His coaching was careful, respectful and imbued with humour. The entire experience was a masterful demonstration of differentiation: each student would, if they chose to take his advice, build an exercise prescription unique to their needs and designed over time to relieve pain and encourage healing.
It was a marvellous demonstration of how yoga, properly practiced, could calm the mind, reduce the pain, and help the nervous system reset itself. I just didn’t believe it applied me and my hopeless situation. So I continued to push myself into the full expression of each and every pose. As the CIPN symptoms squawked, my brain walled off its protestations. This was an engrained habit, common to chronic pain patients. I’d done this for years on the job. I was doing it now in the studio, under the watchful eye of the yogi who cringed internally as he observed my recklessness. Measuring my mental resistance, Mike knew I was not going to be an easy convert to embracing a pain free practice. But he kept trying, doggedly throwing out suggestions in a general and genial manner – which I disregarded completely.
Until one day, I was unable to hide a painful reaction to kneeling on the floor. The searing pain in my heels forced me out of position. I nearly yelped aloud.
“Try this,” Mike appeared by the mat, placing a rolled up Pilates mat under my feet as a bolster. Immediately the pain symptoms subsided. I was startled by how one simple adjustment made my body breathe easier. For the first time, I began to wonder if this was a better way of doing yoga.
“Yes!” my body said.
“No!” my pride interjected.
“Uh oh,” my mind whispered, even as I smiled my thanks to him. Of course I said nothing about the pain in my arms, wrists and shoulders.
This dance – learning about the limits of my body as I ignored both the pain and the offers to reduce it through modifications or props – kept my mind busy for the full 90 minutes of class. I was doing yoga – all wrong and unintentionally aggravating my injuries – but even so, the studio was quickly becoming a haven against the anxiety that had taken up residence in my head. As my concentration skills improved, I felt better after each class, simply from the benefit of gentle movements and the feeling of accomplishment by being off the couch.
Yet the drive home was always an experience of grief: I was beginning to attune to the injuries. For the first time in years, my mind was clear enough to perceive the damage which was more and more apparent as I forced myself into each stance. The worst pain was the ache in my chest as I questioned how I’d ever reclaim what was broken beyond repair.