[NOTE from the author: I found this blog post still in draft form. I wrote it nearly four years ago. I didn't change a word before setting it to publish today, 8/11/18.]
I had a midwife in Michigan who became a good friend. She once shared with me that with each of her own births, she learned something important that helped her in her care of other birthing women. After going through a particular procedure during her fourth birth, she vowed never to use that procedure again on another woman in labor. Up until then she'd reassured women of its importance and that it wouldn't be too painful. What she learned in her own labor was that it hurt like hell, and it didn't do much to help labor progress at all.
What does this have to do with yoga? And what does it have to do with me and you? After all, I'm not a midwife, nor do I perform medical procedures. But many of my students and clients come to me with injuries or chronic pain. And I experience both injuries and chronic pain myself. And I find my own experiences have much to teach me.
• Sharing an injury creates empathy.
I have had various foot and ankle pain from years of dance injuries. Sciatica was a lingering dance injury, too. My knee hurt from running. I also had the experiences of my two very different childbirths. Each baby sat very differently in my body creating different complaints during pregnancy. One long labor ended with surgery after pushing for three hours. The other went fast and ended with multiple tears. Two giant babies left me with an SI injury that I still deal with once in a while. Each of those trials has given me insight into similar situations that my students go through. I can understand and commiserate and give hope to others enduring what I've also endured. I can provide comfort from having been there, and knowledge of work that helped me, what was recommended that didn't help me but might work for them, and what I have seen help others.
• Not having injuries in common can lead to judgment
Recently, I've been working with more than a few folks with frozen shoulders. It isn't as though I dismissed their complaints, but I admit it always looked to me that if they would just move their arm, it would loosen up. Now, I am the one watching my own shoulder movement rapidly decrease. I've been working like crazy to keep it mobile, but driving and computer work are faster at limiting my movement than the yoga is at battling the issue. Here I am with a frozen shoulder, and no, it doesn't just move and loosen up. And it hurts like hell if I force it. (And sometimes it hurts like hell from some random reactive movement like losing my balance and throwing my arms out to stop a fall.)
This week, I reassured one woman, who insisted that her shoulder wouldn't have gotten so bad if she'd tried harder to move it. No, it may well have run the same course any way and she doesn't need to feel at fault for not doing more. I listen to myself counseling others to be patient with small changes, even as I learn that frozen shoulders without an initial injury often take 12 - 18 months to heal regardless of treatment. Patience, indeed. All my assumptions about what a frozen shoulder meant have disappeared, and I am brought up short that I have helped anyone at all with this given my previous lack of understanding. I can look at the students who have recovered and see hope for my own progress. (And I can ease up a bit on myself, knowing I have helped others and that this will change for me as well.)
• Not having personal experience of an injury can lead to blame
I had a fantastic therapeutic massage today from someone who afterward implied that I brought on my frozen shoulder myself by not maintaining mobility when it started to hurt. He also wanted to know who told me it was frozen, doubting my diagnosis. This person, so very good at his own work, has no idea what I've been doing to battle this issue. He has no idea who I've seen for assessment (which happens to include my family practitioner, a physical therapist, three massage therapists, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and my own work with clients who have this condition). And yet he felt confident in his assertions that it was created by my lack of movement, that it wasn't even really frozen. So you know what else I'm learning to bring to my students and clients? Don't blame the victim. Don't presume to know. I like to think I haven't done that, but I am much more sensitive to the possibility now than I used to be.
• Shared experience isn't really shared
I would also suggest that even having had an injury yourself doesn't mean you can know another's experience of it. I have had vertigo off and on for a few years. An episode for me usually lasts for 20 - 30 seconds at a time, recurring several times a day for a few weeks, and then it resolves back to normal. I don't get nauseated. I can drive and walk and teach. I never understood why someone would need to be home from work for weeks on end. Until this week when I experienced a roller coaster ride in my head that lasted two minutes. It was so severe, I was nauseated for the rest of the morning and mild dizziness remained for most of the next 36 hours. I drove when I shouldn't have since turning my head from one side to the other only increased the spinning effect. A chiropractor visit got me back to functioning. Three days later, my vertigo returned although not as fiercely (no loop-the-loops, just spinning). Nausea returned with it. It seems to have settled down after the massage. Here I thought I knew what vertigo was because I've had it before. But now I have an entirely new perspective.
Every complaint, every injury or pain is like that. We are individuals. Learn from your own experiences and let that inform your teaching. Let those bits and pieces of knowledge gleaned help you empathize with your students, but don't assume they give you complete understanding. We are all specific, with different pain thresholds, different amounts of reserves, different histories, and different experiences even of the same issue.
Personal experience will inform your teaching. Utilize it. But don't let it be your only guide.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.