Just Breathe


“What could he have done or said differently? What change would have altered the course of events? In the big picture, nothing. In the small picture, so much.” ― Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

So I’m injured right now. It’s not the first time something has happened, nor most likely the last sadly, though it sure would be nice! It wasn’t because of anything in practice, but other times, yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit practice has been a crystalline snap in me being hurt. Ahimsa, do no harm, has many facets, and sometimes it’s just not beating yourself up on mistakes of the past, but learning from them. I’m in the midst of dealing with/recovering from bilateral acute Achilles tendinitis, yet in many ways, my practice couldn’t be better. How is this possible? By giving up any expectations beyond the gratitude of just being on my mat again, by not caring how deep, what it looks like, by just trying to see what’s possible. Granted, either having experience yourself and/or guidance from a long term instructor can enhance and help, I would not recommend working through this alone as a novice, as David Keil so beautifully put it in his fantastic book on anatomy

If you have practiced asana consistently for ten years or more for at least one hour each day, it is certain that you know the workings of your body quite well. You may not have the technical anatomical names or understandings, but your kinesthetic knowledge is a very real and powerful way to know the body. This is knowledge that can not be learned from a book.

I’ve been lucky enough to have guidance of a fabulous long term teacher and practitioner telling me to trust myself and the knowledge I’ve gained in practice and just start moving to see what works. She, as well, has been giving me ideas to add movements to work the bones of practice I’m not able to do in a conventional approach. The beauty of a long term practice, in grasping that asana come and go, is having the wisdom in appreciating where you are right now, and knowing what your body is capable of attempting. Certainly by no means am I happy that I can’t bear weight standing, it really sucks quite frankly.  However, instead of dwelling on what wasn’t possible, I decided to creatively figure out just what I could do, without exacerbating the tendinitis, if my legs were cut off below my knees. My first week my practice was just reading, meditation, and breathing, it was perfect and the best I could do. 

So I got the courage to come to my mat. At first I just sat and silently gave my intentions and opening prayers. I chose to start sitting and breathing through a sun salutation in my head. Comically the holds in down dog were harder to breathe through, even though the movements weren’t really happening, the chatter of idea of movement was easier than the stillness. It was worth noticing, worth trying to gain a quiet surrender to the count without the action being necessary. I tried again, without expectation but awareness, and let my bundhas help out this time, and magically the experience became easier. I tried to envision just how I could create this with my limited ability and took the advice to trust myself, to just start moving if it felt right. 

So as an example, Sun A from my knees, inhale arms up, exhale deep fold with arms stretched into child’s pose, inhale look up with my hands still outstretched on the ground, exhale bringing my hands more inline with a chaturanga sliding my legs flat and down more like a cobra, inhale into updog, keeping my feet relaxed, exhale into a tabletop, arching into a cat for the down dog hold of five breaths, inhale child’s pose outstretched looking up, exhale head down, inhale back up on knees, arms up, exhale standing on knees, samasthiti. 

It was awkward at first, I was slow, and using too much shoulder in the first day back, not giving myself enough exhale in my cobra/plank, as I was intuitively just trying to figure out what could work to maintain the integrity not just of the movements but the fluid nature of the breath count as my guide for stability. I needed to just let go of trying for more of anything.  It took me three days of practice to figure out Sun B with any continuity of warrior 1. The first day I just pulled each leg back out behind my tabletop, holding it up to keep it straight, the second day I added bringing my knee forward to my chest before bringing it back down, on the third day I did both actions and added a passive pigeon with my front leg pulled in next to me and stayed low in my squared hips but lifted my arms. The key was not trying to rush it, the key was just seeing with discernment and curiosity versus critism of what could give me the best floor version of a warrior 1, while maintaining my breath. It was surprising just how much work it was, by the time in finished all ten that third day and went straight to dandasana, I was not just covered in a sheen, but had a few drips of sweat equity running down my arms, yet felt steady, calm and relaxed. 

The beauty of trying to figure all this out was in getting there was no need for more. As dynamic as each asana can be, there is something to be said for giving up on any muscular contraction, I was finally figuring out how to surrender, how to balance effort and ease. As I incorporated what I could of the seated sequence of primary, I noticed just how relaxed and deep I was able to go in asana when my only concerns were not hurting my Achilles, so keeping any tension from my legs, combined with breath, bundhas, and dristhi. Purvotansana while in lotus, to protect my ankles, feels really good by the way! A friend tipped me off to that one. 🙂  

There is always more to learn. Seriously, triangamukapada paschimottanasa felt better and more even than ever before. I can’t say how it looked,  but I felt aligned in my hips, folded forward straight out, with ease, clasping my wrists without even a smidgeon of lift in either hip instead of that elusive hair width of extra force needed to balance out what touches the floor. I only did janu A as it didn’t want to mess with my heels but again I felt completely stabile. Mari A and C though not perfect, had so much more twist from the right areas in my obliques and thoratic spine but not pressing my foot into the ground, but just having it gently upright in the right location letting my breath guide the movement much more than I usually allow, so much for muscling into things, ha. 

I only did a few more asana after that piece as accessibility became more difficult,cherry picking around my in ability to use my ankles, but next week, who knows?  I did manage a decent backbending sequence of shalabhasana, first one legged, than a few in full expression, a single gentle danurasana, and ending with three half backs held smoothly with breaths in modified ustrasana, finally ending it with reaching down for a final deeper hold. The only part of the rest of closing I left out was headstand. I can’t pop up into a headstand because I push up from my feet and for fear of landing on my feet wrong, but maybe I could with an assist or a block. I know I’ve explained quite a bit in the technicalities, and practice is so much more than that, but just as in the beginning of learning anything, that piece is integral to find a stabile seat. Whatever takes place, as long as I’m breathing, I’m practicing. As a sweet friend asked me after practice how it went, I smiled and said, it was creative. It’s just getting to the mat, it’s not how much you can do, or how well, but not deciding anything is impossible, not giving in or giving up. Life doesn’t get easier, but how we choose to handle it and the choices we make, make all the difference. 

The Undiscovered Country

I don’t know if other countries allow medicines to be advertised as freely as they are in the USA, but it seems every time the tv is on there is some ad for something that cures or treats some terrible affliction, like restless leg syndrome. What I find most remarkable is the list of side effects, read quickly so that maybe you might not think much of these bizarre complications like uncontrollable gambling or sexual urges. The fact that these potential oddities are included, makes me wonder, just how many poor hapless souls lost their fortunes or morals before the correlation was figured out? Just how many test subjects count, to make the warning? 

I thankfully don’t have restless leg syndrome, but I did have the flu, and some minor complications from it, the walk in clinic prescribed me an antibiotic. Four little pills changed my life last week. Four doses of levaquin. Here’s the FDA’s warning box about it.

Tendon rupture or swelling of the tendon (tendinitis).
• Tendon problems can happen in people of all ages who take LEVAQUIN. Tendons are tough cords of tissue that connect muscles to bones.
Some tendon problems include pain, swelling, tears, and inflammation of tendons including the back of the ankle (Achilles), shoulder, hand, or other tendon sites.

So, that happened, rather abruptly, painfully, unexpectedly, to me. I haven’t been able to walk in over a week. It is still unknown what my recovery will be, from a stand point of can the tendons regenerate and heal, or was four pills enough to cause permanent damage. Regardless, I have 5-6 weeks of extremely limited movement based on my hospital stay last weekend, and follow up with an orthopedist and amazing infectious disease antibiotic expert. I let the pity party last a week, no shame, I needed to cry, let my frustrations and fears get out instead of fester. Practice has taught me more than anything else, to accept myself when I’m vulnerable, when I need help, because nothing makes you stronger or more capable of compassion, than allowing compassion for yourself. That knowledge has been a a great gift. 

So I’m no longer wondering if I’ll be able to come back up on my own in karanvandasana when Sharath is in New York next month. I don’t know if I will even go, except to watch, if I’m allowed 🙂 I’m not quite sure when I’ll be standing in samasthiti or holding a down dog again…it depends on when and how I heal, if my tendons rupture, if they unravel. I sure hope not, I hope they are mending.  But what I do know is this, I will be at my son’s high school graduation cheering him no matter if I’m in a wheel chair or crutches and I will get on my mat again. I will try. I don’t know what my practice will look like. What does that even mean? I obviously work at my asana, that’s just my wiring, I want to figure them out finding stability and ease though alignment synchronized to breathe. Quite frankly I never know how I look. Is my correct, correct, and what is correct exactly? I just know how I feel, when it’s aligned,  tristhana, breath, bundhas, and gazing point, making magic. 

So I plan on trying to make some magic, modifying creatively, with some advice from sports medicine experts, with mindful intent that this is a practice for life, done to enhance my life, not to live for practice, much less a picture perfect one.  I may cry, I may laugh, I may get scared,  I may heal, one breath at a time. I just know that I will try, with compassion. The possibilities are endless. 

Heart murmurs. 

So the saying goes, the only people who can’t do yoga are lazy people…yet there are exceptions. One such exception, is sick with a fever. Building heat with a high temperature is dangerous, and I have been layed up with the flu all week. The high fever, not only technically meant no practice, I truly didn’t have the energy to do more than lift a mug of tea or cup of water to my feverishly parched lips. My family enjoys making fun of my dramatic flare, like when they ask how I’m feeling. I guess most people might respond, “achy and weak”, but I sigh and moan, saying it feels as if someone has stragically placed ten pound sacks of sharp, cold and dirty gravel all over my body, is that not the same thing? I honestly didn’t think of that first, brief, accurate synopsis, until suggested to me, by my husband, as he was chuckling at my words, and yes, I laugh, but still those bags are heavy, moving is tricky. 🙂 

I thought today might be the day of getting a few sun salutations on the mat, as my fever broke yesterday, but alas, my body told me differently after I got out of the shower. The effort to do more than put on a fresh pair of pajamas and climb into bed, was too much. Anyone who knows me well, knows this is not my normal modus operandi, considering I usually have to tone myself back a notch. I haven’t felt  so completely exhausted with a flu bug, ever. 

A few friends have kindly checked on me, and comically about half asked me point blank about the flu shot, had I gotten one? The answer is no, I didn’t. I swear I don’t understand why asking that helps, if I did get the shot, well, then what? It didn’t work? Bummer. But if I didn’t get the flu shot, do I deserve the flu? Is there less empathy for my lack of conformity? Do I have to defend my choices and the validity? Will my allergy to the ingredients to the shot make that ok again? Why do I feel so annoyed by this? Am I over reacting? We may all be human, but the medical aspects or choices are not one size fits all, nor is anything else except for being human, flawed and all. Where oh where is the tolerance and compassion over the dogma? 

Dogma is defined by the Oxford dictionary as such: 

dog·ma

ˈdôɡmə/

noun

a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

Interestingly enough, the origin of dogma, from Ancient Greek and Latin,  came to use in the mid 16th century: via late Latin from Greek dogma ‘opinion,’ from dokein ‘seem good, think.’ Seem good, think. Just look at it, ‘seem good, think,’ also regarded as opinion. I’m too sick to really go off on the tangents I’d normally explore without getting lost or sidetracked. However, I think the concept, in line with Plato’s quote of Socrates,  “I know that I know nothing” or “I know one thing: that I know nothing,” are much better starting points for life, for practice, for asana, for everything, than a perspective of black and white irrefutable dogma. The more we judge,assume we know, claim to be wise or elevate ourselves against the differences or choices anyone else has made the more we open ourselves up to sensations of different than, anger, distain, fear, disgust, and detest, instead of love. I recently read a speech given by a favorite author and poet, Sherman Alexie, something he said in it, resonated with me. “I’m going to approach everything I do with as much love as possible. I fail impossibly like most of us, but I still try.” I think that’s the secret when we don’t get to caught up in ego, start with love, it really does make everything easier, maybe even kapotasana. 


Art work by Rachel Giannascoli, I love this drawing, it’s from an album cover, for Alex G. Beach Music, take a listen!