“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― C.G. Jung
My arrival at the yoga studio found Mike standing by a mat, with what seemed a mountain of props: yoga blocks, towels, bolsters, straps. They lay in a heap, awaiting the start of a new chapter. I’d promised to practice kindness to myself, by not tolerating any pain. Whatsoever. I’d also promised to be truthful about the pain as we began what Mike called the “search for baseline.”
Baseline, I learned, is the point where one is able to complete a series of postures, in a pain free range of motion. The first hint of discomfort was met with a variety of tools: props to reduce the pull into my extremities. If these were not sufficient to the task, I was to cut back on my range of motion. My feet were super sensitive, and we worked on finding the point at which I could stand in various postures without pain. First I kept my shoes on. Then Mike added another layer of support by placing another prop beneath my heel. When this was insufficient to mitigate the pain, he added a second prop. And then suddenly I could stand in a “closed warrior” stance without pain. This process unfolded, pose by pose, where Mike added a prop, modified the stance, swapped out certain postures that were too demanding of my fragile peripheral nerves, or suggested I sit down in an active rest cycle.
I had to be absolutely ruthless in my intolerance of any ache, increased tingling, or burning pain. Honestly, that proved to be the most difficult challenge: I’d developed quite a tolerance for pain post cancer treatment. My brain was unlearning the well worn neural pathway of silencing pain. There were moments when I’d use a prop, or adjust my stance, and when asked if that hurt, I’d blank out. A momentary disconnect would occur, and I’d have to concentrate hard to discern what my body was telling me. And then, I’d have to filter the automatic minimizing and dismissive phrase or gesture that surfaced.
This was hard work. Of course, my brain was trying to protect me from disappointment. The words “incurable, permanent, difficult to manage” whispered in my thoughts as we sorted out the adjustments. Even after everything that had happened, I was the embodiment of a reluctant adult learner, skeptical that anything could be done. My independent nature bristled at the idea that I was so busted, I needed someone else to teach me how to do basic things – lying down, or standing up – all over again.
But I was desperate.
I was also realizing that Mike’s powers of observation were far more intuitive than my poker playing skills could manage. Now that I’d agreed to follow his lead, he was assessing each move, every posture, and continually broke down each pose until the answer to “Does that hurt now?” was a clear and unfiltered “No.” I was amazed at how quickly he spotted any equivocations, and kept deconstructing the stances until he was more satisfied I was inching towards baseline.
This was no simple task, because these injuries are neurological in nature. Neuropathic pain is delicate, fussy and easily triggered. Once flared, it takes a great deal of effort and time to calm the body’s nervous system. Thankfully, I began to feel relief with each class, and by the time I laid my body down on the mat for meditation, it ached less.
But even with all this work – Mike’s keen eye, his ability to problem solve and implement adaptations – I had yet to have a class where I was absolutely pain-free. Had it been up to me, I would have been happy to work with the exercise prescription we’d developed. But this was not the studio for that kind of compromise. My body was withholding a few secrets, of which I had no conscious awareness. But Mike wasn’t fooled, and as he watched my exit from class each day, he pondered what we were not yet seeing.
A note from my physiotherapist in the coming week would provide the missing pieces for Mike. Suddenly, he uncovered the secret my body had kept. And then, he faced a dilemma: the next modification I needed was so drastic he wondered if I would finally just walk away from the yoga program entirely.