Disclaimer: For anyone who has expressed care and concern towards me in the past few months, I thank you. I appreciate the support I have received during this ongoing health struggle and in no way intend to make you second guess the thoughtful and loving treatment I have received. This is not directed at anyone in particular, it is merely a general critique of the cultural norms I have noticed while dealing with my health issues. To everyone who has reached out, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Today I want to to explore the beliefs and superstitions we hold around health as yogis. Back in mid-February I noticed some stiffness in my right knee. It would bother me after sitting for long periods of time or walking too much. Mostly I attributed this to the long and cold winter and my overflowing schedule that had not allowed for much in the way of a structured yoga or gym routine for the weeks prior. The knee stiffness however grew more troublesome and began to swell. Gradually the area around the joint became painful and the discomfort started to spread progressively to my other knee then my hands, wrists, ankles, feet, neck, hips and back (yes... basically my whole body).
Flash forward 3 months to the present where I have seen my doctor and her residents more in the last few months than the accumulated total of the last 10 years. I have had treatments with almost a dozen different practitioners and body workers from numerous modalities. I have had very caring and kind people give me unsolicited advice as to what they think it might be and what I should do about it. It has been interesting to watch my own reaction over time. At first, I expected things would just “clear up” on their own or that the next blood test or practitioner would have some answers. Uncomfortable is my new norm at the moment and although I am terribly frustrated I am doing what I can to stop that from seeping into my words and actions.
Overall I am sick of feeling pain. I am sick of talking about it. I am sick of thinking about it.
The reality is that whatever is happening right now may never get better. It could be something serious or it could disappear on its own without any explanation. I don't control it. After seeing thousands of pain-related cases in my Chinese Medicine practice, I now find myself on the other side of chronic pain and the unknown, getting a glimpse of what so many of my patients have gone through. This experience has taught me more about the reality of their lives than any textbook ever could. Here is what I have learned:
1) No one wants to play 20 questions when they are in pain.
When you teach yoga and can no longer get on and off the floor without a huge production, it is impossible to hide the fact that constant discomfort is the current reality. Concerned people around the studio of course ask, “What happened?” My honest answer is, ”I don’t know. I just woke up one day with pain and I am trying to sort it out.“ Unfortunately, the next statement isn’t typically:
“I am sorry to hear that. I hope you figure out what's wrong and get better soon.”
Usually it’s something along the lines of:
“Did you hurt yourself doing yoga?”
“Have you been tested for (fill in the blank)?”
“My friend has (fill in scary disease) and it started the same way. It's just horrible! Have you seen your doctor yet?”
“Have you tried (fill in the supplement, essential oil, therapy etc)?”
While all of this comes from a place of kindness and love, being on this side of a barrage of questions and advice is totally exhausting. Because of this experience I have come to realize that people who are in pain are probably doing everything they can to figure it out and get treatment. Unless you are a specialist of some kind or they have asked for your advice or opinion, think twice before you share your diagnosis or start asking overly personal questions.
2) Respect their privacy
I am a fairly private person, so for as long as I could I didn’t want to appear to be in pain at work or when teaching. Showing concern is lovely and kind, and we all know that people giving advice or asking questions is an expression of that care. Something I don't think many people consider is that when someone is in pain or sick there may also be something serious going that they have decided to keep private.
Health issues, especially serious ones, can quickly become content for public consumption and speculation and I have noticed that most people don't consider this more delicately when they ask questions or discuss another person's condition at inappropriate times or in groups of people. I have gone through this with my own clients who didn't want anyone outside of their close circle to know about their health condition because they wanted to focus on getting treatment. A good rule of thumb is if the person hasn't told you first hand what is going on with them, it isn't your place to bring it up in conversation. Whatever their reason for maintaining privacy is no one else's business.
3) Keep your superstitions to yourself
One of my biggest pet peeves during this whole ordeal has been the number of people who have asked “Could this pain just be emotional?”
Ironically, in acupuncture school one of the questions we were taught to ask (which became a clinic favourite for me and my peers) was “When you got sick or injured, what was happening around that time in your life?”
We would “thoughtfully” probe further, “Did you have a break-up at that time? or change jobs? What was really going on for you emotionally?”
If that person indicated that there was stress of any kind, we would add that item as a main causative factor of the person's issue and try to resolve the disconnect that occurred. While there is nothing wrong with that method and I can confirm how much stress plays into illness, having worked with thousands of people in a holistic manner, my outlook has changed drastically.
Here is the key problem. When you ask someone if their illness might be entirely due to their emotions and stress you subtly shame them for being unwell. You make the person feel like whatever is happening to them has been brought on by not addressing something the "right" way. The worst part is if the other person denies that it is purely emotional the questioner smugly assumes that they have really hit something important.
If you hang around the yoga world long enough you will hear all sorts of unfounded conclusions being drawn based on old-school superstitions. Things like practicing headstand brings immortality or to get rid of any disease you need to hold the "prescription posture" for 25 breaths exactly. I once heard a senior teacher say that emotions get trapped in the hips and then for a few years I walked around saying it myself. Basically because a teacher I liked said it and I liked the way it sounded, I concluded that anyone with tight hips must be suppressing their emotions. It couldn't possibly be that someone might have tight hips from their lifestyle or their physiology.
It would be a huge service if we as a yoga community collectively stopped assuming that every single physical issue or injury has some deeper meaning to be probed and obsessed over. Nor should we be shaming yoga practitioners and teachers if they happen to get sick. If I were doing some extreme yoga practice without guidance or a spotter, fell and broke my leg, that would be on me for being foolish. However, the fact that I am in pain and no one has been able to figure out why doesn't automatically mean that there is something wrong with my emotional well-being, my diet, my yoga practice or my karma. Taking responsibility for our health is important but trying to concoct a deeper reason for everything isn't always helpful, in fact it can be crazy making.
Even though I have been on the journey to recovery with hundreds of people in both treatment and yoga, I now understand chronic, limiting pain and weakness to a degree I never could before. I too have been guilty of asking too many private or personal questions, fallen prey to superstitious thinking around illness, and given unsolicited advice (i.e. offered health advice to people who aren't my clients and didn't ask for it). In each instance my behaviour came from a place of caring and wanting to help. I now know how intrusive and exhausting these things can be on the receiving end.
I have told you what not to do when someone is ill or in pain, but what can you do instead?
My wonderful friends and family have done the following in no particular order: made me meals, helped me put my shoes on, washed my dishes for me, brought me flowers, stayed in and watched movies with me when I can't go out, given me a break from talking about pain, driven me to the doctors, made me laugh and loved me even when I am miserable and frustrated.
Photo Credit: "Gatos" by Enrique Molotkoff