“The cure for the pain is in the pain.” – Rumi
One week after sitting down in the Soft Kitty chair, my body began to take notice.
The first change was the easing of the pain in my feet. I’d been living with what felt like hot, burning nails jabbing into the soles of my heels for years. The force of walking ground the pain further up, into my ankles, and then extending into the Achilles tendons. In turn, the sensation crept up my calves, which tightened, putting more pressure on the peripheral nerves. Compression, of course, aggravated the damaged nerves, causing an endless loop of increasing pain. At its worst, the bones in my legs would ache, down into my ankles, to the tips of my toes.
But for the first time, I noticed the pain in the heels beginning to lessen. Of course, as the nerves in my heels stopped firing so desperately, the whole chain began to loosen too. While I was not entirely pain free, the noticeable drop in the thresholds was a shock.
The fist of tension that had been gripping my heart? It too eased, slowly, as hope began to sprout. Was it really possible that sitting down in the “Soft Kitty” chair, as we’d begun to call it, was the key to unlocking a quality of life that had eluded me for years?
My mind, noting the change, began to seem more “spacious.” Pain takes up a lot of real estate in the brain. It crowds out memory, weakens concentration, keeps the centres of emotion lit up. Frustration saps energy, making just getting through each day a terrible challenge. It also tends to push one to ruminate on the past – getting stuck in a feedback loop, lamenting the loss of health, and the capacity to complete simple tasks with ease. The resentment created by these losses heightens emotion, which, in turn fuels the pain. Given my personal wiring, it also ginned up my stubbornness, which I channeled into an unhealthy drive to override my body’s needs.
My assumption, when I arrived at the studio, was that pain, like cancer, was something to be fought. I had, by force of habit and conditioning, taken an adversarial stance against the chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN): there was no way I would yield to its demands. I would do whatever it took to win back my health. I had learned, as a cancer survivor, to wall off the fear of relapse, reducing its hold on my head to the smallest possible space. This discipline allowed me to live largely free of the worry that cancer would return. My intention was to do the same thing with the CIPN – just wall off the pain, and focus on everything else.
As it turned out, these were exactly the wrong tools for the job. Ahimsa – living in a way that did not bring harm to myself – was reshaping the relationship I had with my own body. The practice of Satya – the decision to speak truthfully to myself – meant that I had to turn towards the pain, rather than away from it. It was an uncomfortable paradox: sitting down reduced the suffering of my body, while heightening the pain of grief. My body had known all along that it was irrevocably changed and would not ever regain its previous health. As the physical pain eased, the space it created in my mind made room for this truth. Thus, the entire discovery was bittersweet: yoga, via Mike’s BIM (Breathe into Motion) system would, over time, teach me how to live in harmony with my body. It would also help me move through the grief of loss, by teaching me to simply sit with the pain, giving it permission to exist alongside of my desire to be free of it.
The shelter of the Soft Kitty chair was rewiring me from the inside out, as the rocky path towards hope took shape before us.