Uncomfortable truth

Life has been full of physical discomforts recently. Terrible toothache at times so bad I was maxing out on various types of painkiller, and for the final 45 minutes or so before the next dose reduced to whimpering, foetal position pain. It’s nerve-related and there’s no relief to be had from that. Just an extended exercise in panic-limiting breathing exercises. And these wonderful drugs. Favourite moment was needing to attend a board meeting at work, during which I paced the perimeter of the room, trying to distract myself from the pain, almost as though I might outrun it. In extremis we behave with simple animal behaviours. 

Then the physio. Some manipulation of the cervical and thoracic spine, the former very painful at the time, discomfort from the latter stealing over me increasingly in the days following. It feels as though I’ve taken a kicking, and the sensation is such to bring a vague but persistent sense of nausea. When I’m at home I rest on a hot water bottle, in the office I fidget and sigh.

And before both of these there was an episode of the usual muscular discomfort I get from time to time, ME/CFS related. I’ve never found any relief from this — stretching out gently stops me adding tension on top of it, but otherwise it seems to be a patience game, waiting for it to pass in time. Keep warm and hydrated, that’s the best care I know.

So around these various circumstances, asana practice has been pretty interesting. Beyond the usual game of measuring effort and ease, finding the edge to play along or the comfort to take. Beyond the game of how to keep smooth breath through demanding sequences. Now the rules shift and then change again, depending on the type and level of physical discomfort. Is asana practice a welcome distraction or verging on torture on this day, at this moment? Through all this it’s clear to me that the highly annoying trope that pain is a great teacher holds true. 

My tooth pain teaches me about fear, vulnerability, patience, breathing. It teaches me also about jaw tension and how the muscular effects of this radiate down the body. My physio re-assesses me and sighs. His work of the past weeks is all undone by this ongoing bracing against the dental pain. He patiently sets to work again, restoring my lost mobility. 

Under the physio’s eye (and hand), I start to learn to isolate sensations in different muscles in my neck and shoulders. I become more intimate with them. After his manipulations I walk out from his room less physically constricted and I have a couple of glorious practice times with increased mobility enabling deeper spinal extensions and rotations than ever before. So many new sensations and places to explore. Literally a new perspective as I can now move my neck further and change my line of sight with it. It feels as though I’m experiencing each asana for the first time. I feel open and receptive, there’s more space and more movement. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Pretty overwhelming experiences, and difficult not to want this mobility to continue. The hovering nausea and cramping soreness seem a reasonable trade-off.

The physio is encouraging me to stretch deeper into areas of discomfort where my inclination is to withdraw from this warning sign from my body. Working on a particular asana with my yoga teacher suggests here also there might be some uncomfortable work to do before any sense of ease might be achieved. It all seems a far cry from the usual cautions in class about not pulling too far, not striving towards a shape, but simply following the breath. Perhaps there’s some profound lesson from both physio and teacher about how to read the signals in my body and respond wisely. But I don’t get it yet. Is this yoga? And what limit to put on such efforts and discomfort, keeping boundaries so that yoga doesn’t become a subtle form of self-abuse?

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