January 17, 2014

A Yogini Takes it on the Shoulder. ~ Janet Arnold-Grych

I’ll admit it.

As a 48-year-old yoga teacher I liked it when 20-somethings would leave my hot yoga class a bit surprised someone their mother’s age could provide such a challenging class (they’d be shocked to see my 60-year-old teacher who could kick both our butts).

Maybe not the most yogic of orientations but energizing nonetheless. So, it was humbling when after relatively few bouts with injury I was waylaid by a torn rotator cuff.

When I told students and friends I’d be having rotator cuff surgery, most immediately inhaled through their teeth and offered comments like, “Wow, I had a friend who had that and it didn’t go well for her.” or “I hear that’s really tough to come back from.” The knee-jerk lines were hastily followed by stammers of, “Oh, but I’m sure you’ll do just great.”

There were times when I honestly wasn’t concerned, that I knew it would be Ok. After all, it felt like the solution couldn’t be much worse than the problem. Then there were other times I wondered if I’d be able to do yoga or teach it and that stopped me cold. Yes, I have a day job and I work very hard at doing it well. But yoga…to me, that’s the rich stuff. It shapes who I am on and off the mat. If that aspect of my life were removed, even temporarily, how would it change me?

What if I couldn’t do the type of practice that had become so familiar to me?

The surgery itself went as planned and I braced for the long road foretold in my friends’ concerned faces. It’s true, rotator cuff surgery isn’t a cake walk. Slowing shifting positions in my borrowed recliner or gingerly placing my arm into the sleeve of my oversized fleece could cause shooting pain. And sleep, that wasn’t in the cards for a long time. Yet, I found my forced “cocooning” oddly comforting.

Worried thoughts poked through—about my arm, my yoga practice, my job—but they were trumped by a feeling that maybe this physical reorganization was part of a plan. In yoga class I’d occasionally share passages explaining that suffering arises from expectation. Remove the expectation and you remove the suffering. I decided to simply ride the wave of recovery and try not to worry so much about the outcome.

Plus, I honestly believed my body would heal faster from a place of calm rather than fear.

About four weeks post-surgery, I began therapy with a lovely woman named Cecelia who now has a permanent spot on my Christmas card list. A couple sessions in, I was allowed to slowly extend my rigid arm by myself along the top of a table and step back. Despite the stiffness of my arm and the small yelps of discomfort it elicited, I felt reunited with my limb could only think, “Oh, I’ve missed you.”

The dialogue with my arm changed every day. Some days, it was downright cantankerous, others cooperative. Nearly seven weeks in, I went on my annual yoga retreat that had been booked long before the surgery. I’d stepped onto a mat at home, but only to do a few simple standing postures. I wondered if I would feel lost or frustrated because I couldn’t take the yoga classes I usually did, couldn’t do the things that had become second nature to my body.

After the longest yoga hiatus in a decade, I walked into that first gentle yoga class…and felt like I’d returned home. It didn’t even matter that my poses were a far cry from their intended shapes. In an affirmation, or grand joke, from the universe, the instructor didn’t show for class the next day. After a few quick exchanges with the organizers, I dragged my mat to the front of the room and taught class, bent arm and all. It was one of the most meaningful classes I’ve ever led, and there wasn’t an arm balance or an inversion to be had.

I went back to teaching yoga about three months post-surgery. Thanks to Cecelia and lots of work, I’m on the road to recovery but I can’t say when or if my extension, flexibility and strength will return.

And I’m not sure it’s that important.

Of course, you could say I’m simply fooling myself by touting acceptance of whatever end point I achieve.


What I do know with certainty is that the physical practice of yoga is very profound to me. It’s not the level of execution but simply being in it—feeling my feet on the mat, connecting to my body, moving in the rhythm of my breath.

It takes me out of my head and links me to something bigger and more important.

That orientation impacts more than just my yoga practice; it impacts how I do my job, how I interact with my family.

Yoga is about being present to whatever range of the pose is yours. It’s about fully showing up—on and off the mat. Never have I found this to be more true.

Even with a crooked left arm, I embrace my poses and the larger connection they create for me because they are gloriously mine.

I’m still a yogini.

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Assistant Editor: Judith Andersson / Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Bryonie Wise

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