In yoga we learn to accept that the body is not always symmetrical. The way in which we inhabit our bodies creates all sorts of imbalances and differences from side to side, from hip to hip, from arm to arm. This is an essential lesson in teaching and in practicing, because it encourages both loving-kindness and awareness of the present moment that can dispel goal-oriented thinking.
I like to think of myself as someone who knows her body, someone who understands the tweaks and the twinges, as well as the strengths, and understands that achieving balance is not merely an attempt to be the same from side to side. After all, a lifetime of dance and regular movement practices would indicate a certain level of body awareness, yes? Well, this may be so, especially in comparison to the average person who spends most of his or her day sitting and doesn’t know the difference between a scapula and a sternum. Lately, though, my body has been teaching me more about what I don’t know than what I do.
My close friends and dance colleagues will tell you that I’ve spent a deal of time the past few years complaining about my “broken wing,” also known as my left shoulder. First aggravated during some rigorous dancing in college, my shoulder has pained me for years. As many young (read: unwise) dancers do, at the initial onset of pain, I danced through it by popping ibuprofen and pretending it would go away once I had some time off. And the pain did disappear sometimes, but only intermittently, coming back to annoy me once or twice a year and leaving me with some weird tension and muscle weaknesses in between.
This is a common story I think. Dancers become used to injuries of overuse, and as long as motion is still possible, the tendency is just to keep on moving. We deal with the discomfort, rest when necessary, and mostly just accept that this pain or tightness we feel is just one part of our relationship with our own body. If you ask any dancer if they have any chronic pain in their bodies, most can give you a lengthy description of their ailments. For myself, I accepted long ago that my left big toe, my right hamstring, my lower back, and my famous “broken wing” were probably going to irk me for most of my life. In a way, these little pains become part of our body identity, a map that we travel through from step to step, continually finding ways to accept, problem solve, balance, and sometimes, compensate for the little quirks that make our bodies uniquely ours.
Late this summer I became aware that my broken wing was feeling more broken than usual. Worried by a sudden acceleration of symptoms that haven’t changed in years, I finally took myself to the doctor at Harkness Dance Center to have my shoulder checked out. Buoyed by my anatomical knowledge as a dancer and yoga teacher and, let’s be real, some self-doctoring via WebMD, I felt confident that I would get a vague diagnosis of impingement syndrome, bursitis, maybe a minor rotator cuff injury, and then be referred to the wonderful world of physical therapy.
For the most part, my self-diagnosis and treatment predication were correct. However, what my preconceived notions had not predicted was the profound muscular weakness in my left arm that became apparent during my exam.
After performing several exercises to test my strength, pain tolerance, and flexibility, my doctor asked me to extend both of my arms forward in front of my chest with the palms of my hands face down. He then proceeded to press down on my forearms and asked me to resist. My right arm: strong and sure. My left arm: instantly swung down by my side like a pendulum. I had absolutely no ability to resist the pressure my doctor was giving, and more to the point, I had not expected that to happen. My jaw, literally, dropped. I laughed out loud and said, “whoa! I had no idea!” We tried it again, and got the same result. I was floored.
Other than begrudgingly accepting the obvious lesson that we should see the doctor occasionally instead of relying on Web MD (ego check!), I left that appointment feeling a little off-kilter. My broken wing, a term I had comically applied years ago, was not only, indeed, “broken” in a sense, it was also a very, very different ailment than what I thought it was. The idea that I was capable of standing on my head, but not of resisting a little arm pressure, and didn’t know it, was disconcerting to me.
This experience has not only reawakened the mystery of the body to me and its wondrous ability to adapt, it has also thrown the concept of balance into the forefront of my mind and my practice. I think sometimes, in our practices on the mat and our outside life, we are so determined to strive for balance, for equanimity, for everything to work as a whole, that we miss crucial lessons that could, with time, propel us forward instead of holding us back. How can we learn what we truly need to balance if we never allow ourselves to fall, to be off-kilter, to really experience the pain and discomfort that, in the end, will teach us what we need to do to be stronger?
Balance is not the same as standing still. It isn’t equivalent to maintaining the status quo. Balance can only be achieved by learning how to adapt to the constant fluctuations in our bodies and our lives, not by trying to prevent those fluctuations from happening. I needed someone to show me how seriously weak and out of alignment my shoulder was in order to accept that it was time for some serious change in how I was practicing and thinking about my shoulder alignment and movement.
We are now moving into late fall, a busy, off-kilter, unbalanced time for many people anyway. I’m wondering: what if we lean into that imbalance instead of resisting it? Will we start to fall? Maybe. Will we crash to the floor and never get up? Doubtful. Somewhere between standing upright and laying on the ground in a heap are important lessons we need to realize, lessons that will teach us about our strengths and our weaknesses, lessons that will show us where to take risks and where to back off.
My broken wing and I are headed to PT for some serious re-acquainting. Where will you go?