Thursday, June 3, 2010

Look, Ma, I can do this with one arm tied behind my back!

Have you ever heard of frozen shoulder? This is not some new, chic cut of beef at your local chophouse, folks. I currently have roughly 30% of normal range of motion in my left shoulder. And as a once-per-week yoga teacher (meaning, not professional, but still very much engaged with teaching and practicing) this can really get in the way. Forget demonstrating a pose with arms out to the sides, what about even the business of working to find a comfortable position to sleep, or strongly regretting reaching up mindlessly to attempt to put a pony tail in my hair. Ouch!

Okay, so this is not all that tough, honestly. I've been through childbirth, breast cancer and reconstructive surgery, not to mention some long drawn-out periods of outrage and remorse before. Like every other human on this planet, I have some experience with difficulty. With this, the worst I can say is that it's a constant vigilance to remember that I'm not at 100% on that side, or else dealing with the immediate reminder of pain that comes when I twist through a doorway a little too quickly, say. And in the long run, I feel I'm at peace with the fact that there's likely to be some pain and loss of function sometime between now and when I finally shuffle off this planet. I can even say that as one of the long list of side benefits of a meditation practice, I have become something of a connoisseur of discomfort. It's the only way to really look at and gain insight into this aspect of life, the suffering part, you know? What is this sensation? Burning, throbbing, pressure, tingling, etc.? Is it static or changeable? Unpleasant or simply intense?

What inquiry really comes down to is, what attitude arises relative to the discomfort? I've mentioned that the physical discomfort thing is just fine right now, for however long or short, and intense or light, that it needs to be. But what about the discomfort of having your capability taken away? What is it like to be a yoga teacher who is limping around the studio with one broken wing?

One answer, a real temptation, is to go into pity mode. Why me? When will this ever be resolved? And worse, how can I practice or teach without my down dog pose (you maybe know this one, hands and feet on the floor, butt up in the air, like a two-sided human tent)? Then there's the pride option: I'm going to look pretty strange, hobbling between my mat and the wall of the studio, trying to keep up and failing any appearance of that. There are also the temptations of anxiety, depression, resignation, denial, annoyance, frustration, sloth; there's a multitude of lousy places to take this, right? Some of these have attempted a visit as well, trust me.

Today I was at my beloved Thursday morning yoga class with Jeanne Ann Whittington. Jeanne Ann, ever generous, had agreed to focus this class, at my request, on shoulder function and alignment. As an acupuncturist, Chinese medicine practitioner and super-alignment Anusara yoga teacher, Jeanne Ann is an expert in my book at helping one work wisely with such a shoulder disability. So here I was, facing a movement class designed at my specific request, with a choice. Do I skip the class? The shoulder's been hurting more in the last few days, and I certainly know I need to protect it from damage. But I also know that it's possible to stay very present to sensation and actually learn a lot by working through the physical experience of this shoulder moving in its limited range. And I prefer if at all possible to keep the rest of my body awake, open and strong. So I went for it. And if you'd been a fly on the wall, it would have looked pretty strange, this asymmetrical, floppy arm, half-there series of movements I followed.

But here's what was cool: this practice became very clear because I had no idea what I could do. You know what that is: It's beginner mind! I had a million questions to work through...How can I move this? Can I do this pose at all? What does it feel like? Where is the edge between comfortable work and painful striving? How does it feel to crumble on the mat and give up when you'd normally be flowing through the thick of it? What can I do here, and what can I gracefully (maybe, I'm ever hopeful)  surrender to not having, today? Everything was new today on my mat. What a gift!

There came a point when I remembered that this is always life, and will be until my last breath. There's arising and passing away of strength, of mobility, of physical capability. I had a view of myself in my last day on earth, breathing. I pictured myself saying, what do I have here? Okay, got breath, nothing else anymore. So how is this breath? Is it as full as possible, right now? How about this one? Not really with all these words, but just tasting, exploring and maybe even enjoying the experience of still being priveleged to breathe, whether quietly, or labored or panicky.

So don't worry about me, or my shoulder, or anything. Because I won't. It's all an adventure, seeing what I've got today and doing the best I can with that. And how about you? What can you do, right now?

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