Courage versus fear; progression and expansion versus stasis and contraction
As I reflected over this past week, I was wondering to myself what one trait or word could I use to describe how I am able to be resilient despite many of my past traumas. My friend asked me this week that very question, “how do you keep going, parenting, teaching yoga, having the energy to wake up and walk and exercise; how do you never quit?” As I was reading through a book called, Mussar Yoga, which touches on blending ancient Jewish spiritual practices with yoga to transform the body and soul, the word popped out: courageor the adjective courageous. In my yoga studies, I have read through the works of the Dalai Lama, the Bhagavad Gita, Pope Francis, and traditional Buddhist traditions. Although I’m Jewish, I do believe that yoga is a uniting practice of all religions and is not bound to any particular religion, after all the meaning of yoga in sanskrit is union, oneness. I want to make this clear before there are any judgments made in terms of what I’m reading or where quotes or meditative practicescome from where I have learned. Practicing yoga is about having the courage to believe in yourself and spread wishful and peaceful thoughts to those around you.
This is week four with my broken leg. It almost feels innate how I walk slowly picking up my left leg straight with each step, methodically, and almost meditatively. I went to get a massage this past week thinking that “my body must be really out of wack and lopsided from walking funny,” it was exactly the opposite, the tension in my back and my foot from old injuries had released! Crazy, right? Counterintuitive, most definitely. What to conclude? There is a saying that when a big problem comes up the small ones seem to go away (or maybe I’m just saying that).
When initially, the big pain popped up (I heard the sound of my cracking knee cap), and the part of my brain that is involved in interpreting pain, the parietal lobe, from the neurological system that is intricately bound and powered to supply the brain with messages from pain receptors throughout the body, interpreted and yelled loudly PAIN. The parietal lobe receives these messages and interpreting them from my body, clearly thought that a broken patella overrode the slightly achy foot and back. This is the scientific explanation for the initial resolved back and foot pain.
However, there is clearly a psychological explanation. Given my history with recovering from many physical traumas, my mind may immediately and inaccurately believe that something has to be in pain. My negative cognition somatically manifests in an achy back (which was a definite injury after months of bedrest, and indeed may be achy but not to the point of complete focus and perseveration) and foot (which was also based on a past injury as a result of bedrest). My negative cognition and beliefs that I cannot heal predisposed me to my frontal lobe (that part of the brain that makes executive functions or decisions) to react and for me to firmly believe that these were still injured and were never getting better. Nice negative spiral thought process, real adaptive, huh? Back to my explanation; when the real pain of the broken patella set in and the certainty of it’s injury (physical evidence of the x-ray), my frontal lobe was forced to face the objective facts. Pain in the knee. Pain in the knee. A throbbing mantra that replaced the mantra of “my back and foot are never getting better.” Something new to perseverate and focus on…a new challenge to face.
Here’s the third part of this process and what I believe to have happened. It is not simply a scientific explanation nor a psychological explanation of why my back muscle tension and foot tension had somewhat released because of breaking my leg (really, that makes absolutely no sense, right?) Here’s what I think (and perhaps I think too much). Scientifically and involuntarily, my brain received painful messages from my body about my knee, which overrode less painful messages from my back and foot, causing my frontal lobe to stop perseverating over back and foot pain and address the real problem at hand, seen objectively in the x-ray, the broken patella. With a real and new pain focus with strong pain receptor messages, psychologically my back and foot became impacted. No longer a focus of attention in my brain, they began to unclench and relax. It’s not that there was no physiological difference in my back tension or foot, it was real, the massage therapist felt it, but it was part of a whole process that included a painful distraction, a new focus, and a relaxation of the now “forgotten” injuries.
Today, I was told I could take off my brace and start bending my knee slightly. Automatically, my body tensed on the right side more than it did in a straight-legged splint. What is this called? Fear…fear that I will mess up the healing that I have done, use my left leg too much, and not know my limits. I was expecting a hinged brace, which would have essentialy made the decision of how far to bend my knee for me, but progression is in my hands now and as is fear. It was almost easier with the splint. Because of this tension and fear, my pattern of clenching (storing tension in my right lower back has somewhat returned); I have right-sided back pain again. This is an example of me now having to face the next stage of recovery, courageand trust in myself that I know my body and will listen to how far to push it’s range of motion. After all, the doctor trusts me to know how far to push my range of motion or else he would have conservatively given me a hinged splint. If I don’t attempt to bend it and am cautious and wear the straight-legged splint more than I should (should wear on long walks), I will not return to normal range of motion. Here is an example where fear can limit progression and healing and where caution has to be taken with courage to push to the edge and not beyond. Right now, I’m in fear mode with right-sided back pain…but I will address my fear over the next couple of weeks before my next doctor’s visit. The doctor clearly believed in my ability to know my limitations; extrapolating from the intention of yoga to learn to believe in yourself, I need to reflect on my inner belief in myself and confidence and fight courageously.
This whole process summed up shows how the mind and body interact with one another to actually influence tension in our muscles, posture, and thought processes. Quite remarkable! Or it simply shows that I’m a head case (quite possible, but aren’t we all to some extent?) Now, I certainly am not saying that if you have nagging aches and pains or perseverate over a rationally small problem, but you irrationally have hyped it up to a huge problem, to break a leg or to run into a huge problem. I definitely am not happy that I broke my patella to discover just how distorted my thought process was and how it has affected my judgment of pain, my belief system in my ability to get better, and my muscle tension, nor has this discovery cured me of muscle tension, clearly.
As outlined above, I have learned about my distorted thought process and how it affects my judgment, emotions, and actual physiological symptoms. In addition, I learned that I had not been practicing my golden rule of yoga; “what you do on one side you must do on the other,” for several of my favorite poses. I realize now (yes, it’s weird that I didn’t know, but I’m essentially ambidextrous, so questions of dominance are always difficult!), that my left leg is my dominant leg. I always follow the golden rule when I’m practicing my vinyasa and flow sequencing. Sequence on the right and then sequence on the left. However, when it comes to kicking up into handstand or forearm balance or even favoring a side in one-legged crow, I favored kicking up with my left leg and one-legged crow on my left side. When I practiced myself daily, I “cheated on the golden rule of yoga.” As a result, I got stronger and stronger kicking up with the left leg and balancing in left-sided one legged crow with the right foot even straight, but did not have the courage to step outside of my comfort zone and at the same time try kicking with my right leg. Yoga is all about balance and unity. I had created an imbalance.
Today, I was told I could take off my brace and start bending my knee slightly. Automatically, my body tensed on the right side more than it did in a straight-legged splint. What is this called? Fear…fear that I will mess up the healing that I have worked so hard to achieve, use my left leg too much, and not know its limits. It was almost easier with the splint. Because of this tension and fear, I’m clenching and favoring my right side (imbalanced) and I have right-sided back pain again. This is an example of me now having to face the next stage of recovery, courage and trust in myself that I know my body and will listen to how far to push it’s range of motion. If I don’t attempt to bend it and am cautious and wear the splint more than I should, I will not return to normal range of motion. Here is an example where fear can limit progression and healing and also where caution has to be taken with courage to push to the edge and not beyond. Right now, I’m in fear mode with right-sided back pain…I need to reflect on this state, challenge it, and overcome it.
Courage is a state of expansion; fear is a state of contraction and an attachment to the status quo (i.e – I was very happy easily kicking up with my left leg, so why go out of my comfort zone and kick up with my right leg? Or I was easily walking 8 miles a day with the splint and not worrying about hurting my left leg, why push it and start to bend it?) Sometimes courage is forced on you and sometimes you have a choice. In my experience having been through many traumas, I have picked myself up and had the courage to move forward with my life.
An example of this is in losing twin daughters after a horrific pregnancy beginning with quintuplets and reducing to twins. They were born and passed away just after 2.5 hours. I was a mother for 2.5 hours and then motherhood was taken from me along with my physical strength after having endured hospital bedrest and surgeries. Three months later, I had the courage to start infertility treatments again; the only option being single-embryo in-vitro fertilization. Injecting hormones into my body everyday was hard enough, the initial IVF not working was a disappointment, but again I had the courage to try again. I did not care about the hormones that I was putting into my body, all I wanted was to expand and have a family. Put on bedrest just at 25 weeks with my son, I lived daily in fear of having a very preterm infant who would suffer. I lived in fear that my anxiety of preterm labor and delivery (as with the twins) would affect the outcome of my present pregnancy. However, I had the courage to live day to day, minimize my googling, and surrender to the unknown and unpredictability of my pregnancy. Sometimes courage is in just accepting that which we can’t control. All I could do was strictly adhere to doctors’ orders, and so I did. Jack was born a month early, a healthy baby boy.
But, it didn’t stop there. I had always envisioned trying to expand and have a larger family. One year later (as soon as I was allowed to start the IVF process again), I did IVF and became pregnant. A high risk pregnancy from the start filled with a bunch of details I will spare you, 4 months of bed rest, Ruby was born also a month early, and also healthy. My courage after such a tragic loss of one’s children to continue to try to expand and challenge my limitations and boundaries, because that’s what courage is, allowed me to have a beautiful family. If I had given into fear, fear of IVF, fear of preterm labor, fear of carrying another baby, or fear that I could not sustain months and months of bed rest, or fear that I would completely emotionally breakdown, I would not have a family filled with love, compassion, health, and fulfillment. Is this to say that my twin girls are forgotten or that I had replacements, no…courage allowed me to expand beyond my limits and I was rewarded with a beautiful family, but my daughters will never be forgotten.
In comparison to my pregnancy experiences, you would think that breaking a leg and being in a straight-legged splint for at least four weeks would not test my limits. You are very wrong. Physical activity, running around with my children, having control over my body is now sacred to me after losing so much control over my body during my pregnancies and in other traumas. When I broke my leg, I immediately went into fight or flight mode. A lot of me wanted to just flee; take to my bed forever until my bone was healed. It wasn’t the pain. I hiked down the mountain with the broken patella and drove myself to the ER and only when I saw the breaks on the x-rays did my eyes well up with emotional pain and fear of losing my ability to have a physical outlet. The courageous part of me decided to fight; I would do whatever it took to keep my sanity and to mend my leg. Walking and walking in my splint – yes the weird one-legged walking lady all around Williamstown. My courage allowed me to see the situation for what it was, surrender my control over the very fact that what was broken could not be instantaneously fixed, but also to realize that the situation was not beyond my ability or capability to not only live through, but to learn from. I like challenges, I always have. The challenge of hiking up the hill of the Clark for the first time in my brace made me feel that I could do this. Was it as wonderful as running or hiking with two legs, no, but I had surrendered to the fact that that wasn’t an option.
When I looked at my watch and saw that I had walked 8 miles for the first time with the splint and walking with the splint was feeling almost “normal,” I realized that not only could I do this, but I was doing this and unlike the recovery after atrophying from bedrest from my pregnancies, I could fight the atrophy with safe exercises to keep myself strong. I do have control of my body and I have the courage to fight what is painfully (pardon the pun) a reminder of the periods of my life when I didn’t, when I had to surrender to the unpredictability of perhaps delivering a very preterm baby and facing life/death of a newborn.
Yes, my negative thought distortions continue to tell me that my leg will never get better and it will never heal. These, too, I have to fight against. I don’t have to have hope, because that is perhaps futuristic thinking, but in the present moment I have to live, enjoy the ability to walk outside (even with a splint) or be proud of my cycling with one leg, and take pride in my courage to kick up with my right leg (against a wall of course, courage does not equate with excessive risk-taking and stupidity), get into one-legged crow on the right side (of course the left leg naturally had to be straight!), and today being able to swim with no splint because the healing process has gone so well. The one thing that I’m most proud of is my taking head on this challenge, fighting, not giving up, and being an example of strength and resiliency to my children. After all as my 4 year old says, “mommy does everything on one leg. I want to be strong like mommy.” It's all about family.