A yoga student of mine shared with me her concerns about a loved one. She asks:
So what can I do about my sister-in-law? Every time we call and ask, “How are you?” she replies, “I’m in pain.”
Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
I ask, What are you doing about it?
“There’s nothing that can be done except drugs.”
Have you tried everything?
“I saw a chiropractor a long time ago but it ended up hurting my neck.”
What else could you do?
“There’s a surgical procedure developed in Germany, but it isn’t approved here.”
Could you go to Germany to get it?
“I’d have to learn German first and I’m not good at languages.”
Is there any position that you have found to relieve the pain?
“It hurts too much and once the drugs bring the pain down, I try not to move.”
What else can you do?
“Cut my spine off.”
When I meet someone who is experiencing chronic pain, I often ask them what modalities they have explored to help them feel better. The most common response is that they have been seen by many doctors and chiropractors, have had a battery of tests including X-rays and MRIs, and were prescribed drugs that they can’t pronounce. Some people tell me they’ve also tried massage, acupuncture and physical therapy. This list is often accompanied by the exasperated phrase, “I’ve tried everything.”
If I sense they are open to having a discussion, I inquire into whether they’ve explored their habits of movement. Some people tell me “I try to sit up straight” but most of the time they kind of look at me blankly and shrug. From this response I infer that they view their pain as something that needs to be fixed from the outside, from another person or technique. They do not consider that they might be able to reduce or eliminate their pain by their own actions.
I can definitely empathize with the sentiment of wanting to cut off one’s spine. While I was writing my dissertation, I had severe pain in my upper back. Sometimes I day-dreamed that someone with a sharp knife would just happen to come along and cut out the painful spot at the bottom tip of my left shoulder blade.
Fortunately, it was around this time that I met Elise Miller, a Senior Iyengar teacher and yoga for scoliosis expert. One of the first things she taught me was a simple scapula mobilization technique, which sent me on a path toward self- healing. See Video.
Within minutes of doing this movement, the pain subsided and I began to connect with my body in a new way. This experience made it clear to me that I could have some agency in my own healing. I began to listen to my body’s needs with curiosity and patience. It was my first step in learning that paying attention to my habits of movement was my key to staying out of pain. I have now spent more than two decades exploring this realization and sharing it with others, starting first on the path of becoming a yoga instructor and ultimately a movement educator.
Sometimes I want to say that everyone can benefit from choosing a path similar to mine – using movement as a healing modality. However, I know that there are situations when a person is going to experience a kind of physical pain that cannot be alleviated by movement. There are also other psychological, emotional and economic reasons why someone may not have the time, resources or interest to explore movement.
However, I think that most people, such as my friend’s relative, are living within a cultural paradigm that tells us when something is broken we need to find an expert to fix it. The general ethos of our society does not encourage us to take the time to reflect and consider what patterns and habits might be causing the problem in the first place. This is especially true in our health care system. We live with the prevailing ideology that, if we are in pain, we must go to a doctor and only they have the expert knowledge to fix us.
Also, our economic system encourages a culture of consumerism that thrives on quick results. When we don’t experience immediate gratification, we often think something may be wrong with the approach and look for another place to spend our dollars.
In addition, many medical professionals don’t expect their patients to invest the time and energy in themselves or simply don’t have the time in a 15-minute appointment to give more than cursory guidance and support.
Fortunately, I see a shift in this paradigm. More people are starting to take control of their own bodies and medical professionals are increasingly supporting this change. Because our health care system is so complicated, change will be slow but I’m optimistic that people increasingly will find healing paths that are holistic and sustainable, and that eventually, no one will feel that the only solution is to cut off their spine.