Teachers and Other Helpers

Recently, I waded through the reams of commentary on a New York Times magazine article on the dangers of yoga-related injuries To me, the most sensible comments simply acknowledge that injury is possible in any physical activity (including sitting and typing, as I know from experience). Why should yoga poses be any different? What emerges clearly for me from all of this is that practitioners need to approach yoga sensibly and make sure they have a good instructor. I want my teacher, at the very least, to pay attention to how I am doing my practice and adjust me in the postures when I need it. The best teacher, in my experience, is also a coach who will encourage me to challenge myself when I am being fearful or lazy and remind me to be patient when I am pushing too hard, and who knows me well enough to tell which of those is right in the moment.

Over my years of practicing yoga I have also found that having the support of other helpers can make a big difference at key points.  For example, my chiropractor played an important role in helping me heal my hip injury and still helps me manage the imbalances between my right and left sides. I have also gone to an acupuncturist and a physical therapist for help with specific issues. Lately, however, I have been working with a massage therapist as part of a concerted effort to improve my posture. Aside from having a closed chest that pulls my shoulders forward, I have a tendency to raise my left shoulder and collapse into my right side. I know this has been a pattern for me at least since the age of ten or eleven, when my mother took me to a doctor to ask about it. The other day the massage therapist was honing in on the hard knot this tendency has created over the years in my left shoulder. The pressure he applied was very painful, and in the midst of it he said, “Focus on the time in your life when this pattern started and release it if you can.”

Without knowing it, I had prepared for this moment: for more than a year I had been doing a targeted stretch of my left shoulder muscle; and over a much longer time, I had reconstructed the history of my feeling that I needed to shoulder the pain of my loved ones. With my shoulder throbbing, I went back to the time when, for two or three winters, I spent a month or so with my grandparents. My aunt used to come to New York and take me to their home in Virginia by train. I remember the train’s sleeper car as a great adventure, but I was only two or three years old my first trip, so I’m pretty sure the separation from my family was traumatic. When I asked Mom about it a few years before she died, she said she had felt terrible about sending me off but she just couldn’t cope with three young kids. It was not until my college years that her mental illness was formally diagnosed.  Yet I imagine that, on some level, my little-girl self perceived the depth of my mother’s struggle and decided I needed to be strong and independent for her sake. That’s where I located the origination of the knot. I felt the sadness of that part of my life and also reminded myself that I no longer need to carry that burden.

The knot released and my shoulder relaxed. Whether this was a permanent fix of the problem remains to be seen. But it was definitely a step forward that, as hard as I work on my own, I could not have taken without help.