April 30, 2014

Injured Again, but at Least I Know Tonglen. ~ Lainie Carter


I’m injured (again).

When I was dropping off my daughter’s registration forms this morning at the high school she will be attending next year, the office admin noticed that I was on crutches and asked me what happened. I casually stated that I was still nursing an injury from Sochi.

Well, okay that’s not what I said—but it’s what I really wanted to say.

Instead, like it always does, the truth came out of my mouth: “I injured my knee in yoga. Yes, really—in yoga. I know, crazy!” I say, humoring the person who had chimed into our conversation and clearly knew very little about yoga.  For those of us that do practice regularly we know that yoga can be a demanding athletic endeavor, inherent with the risk of injury, just like any other sport.

I normally practice Bikram yoga. I have been practicing yoga for about 10 years, and Bikram for about five. For a multitude of reasons, Bikram resonates with me and is my practice of choice. But, when I have extra time, I also like to practice Ashtanga.

Last Tuesday evening, I went to the Ashtanga studio close to my house and began a typical Ashtanga class. The scheduled instructor could not make it, and there was a substitute teaching. I had already informed her of my right hamstring injury, and my need to keep my right leg slightly bent during forward bends and certain other poses.

We were on our backs, with our two fingers wrapped around our big toes stretching one leg at a time out to the side, when the substitute instructor approached me. “Oh, how nice,” I thought. “She is going to give me a little right hamstring massage.”

What happened instead is that before you could say, “Eka pada Jathara Parivartanasana” (Star Hamstring Stretch), she gave me a brute force adjustment on my left leg, pushing it further to the ground than it wanted to be.

It hurt. A lot. And it continued to hurt, as she pushed down with such force and confidence, smiling at me. All I was thinking was, “Dear God, please, I need at least one good leg to practice.”

Why I did not tell her to stop will always be a mystery to me.

It really hurt, and I stopped breathing until she was finished. I will confess it here, and only here—I think I actually might have said “thank you.”

As soon as we transitioned to the next pose, I no longer felt any pain and thought, “Whew, that was a close one! I am fine.”

Or, so I thought.

Two days later, in Bikram (I had done no yoga in between), I was lifting my left leg into Bikram’s version of tree pose, which is really like standing in half lotus.

Before I continue, you should know that I have never, ever had any knee pain, or any other type of knee issue, and for me, full seated lotus pose is quite blissful.

OK, back to my tale. I was lifting my left leg “high onto my costume” (I always loved that quaint piece of Bikram dialogue!) when my knee made this incredibly loud popping sound and I saw something in my knee move in the mirror.  (For those of you who do not practice Bikram, we face the mirror throughout most of our practice.)

People around me gasped, including my instructor, and I simultaneously dropped my leg into a neutral position.  I remember uttering, “Oh my God, what was that?”

Folks out there who do Bikram know that you do not speak in a Bikram class. I heard my yoga acquaintance next to me utter, “happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts.” Comments are not usually welcome by students during the sequence, but serious times call for serious measures.

I attempted to lift my leg back up, but could not without pain, so I just left it by my ankle. It did not hurt if I left it there, so I assumed some minor type of knee or leg sprain had occurred. I caught the glance of my wonderful instructor, giving her an “I’m okay” look. I very carefully finished class modifying whenever I needed to.

Coincidence? I think not. I’ve never believed in coincidences anyway, and I have carefully done tree pose in Bikram again, and again, and again. Hey, I read William Broad’s The Science of Yoga. I always practice mindfully and carefully, and never push myself past the point of mild discomfort.

I am convinced that the forceful adjustment I received two nights prior in Ashtanga compromised the integrity of my ligaments in my leg and directly led to my knee injury.

The real pain came after class and I knew I needed to see an orthopedist to find out what had happened to my knee. I did, was placed on crutches and an MRI was ordered which I completed earlier tonight. Now I sit, writing through my fear, my frustration, my self-pity and my hope.

The idea of surgery petrifies me, because—not to throw a pity party for myself (I guess it’s too late, so I might as well invite you!)—almost exactly a year ago to the day, I dislocated my right thumb and completely severed my ulnar collateral ligament (dog walking accident—you can read the story here), needed hand surgery and could not practice yoga for four months.

It was a very humbling and difficult experience for me as I am right-handed. I developed a full appreciation for the human opposable thumb.” Those poor primates without them, no wonder they never evolved like we did. Without the use of your thumb, your hand is—in human terms—pretty useless. I breathed through that, and soldiered on. My right hand and yoga practice really just recently got back to normal.

When I was injured last year, I remember truly being so grateful that the injury was not even worse, that I did not fall and hit my head.

Tonight, I am struggling to feel any gratitude about my situation.

I know gratitude will come, it will surface eventually, but for now the feeling that “things could always be worse” swim under the surface of my demeanor and outlook.

The thought of another surgery, and needing to stay on crutches for a handful of months…well folks, it’s just really hard to breathe through. I suppose this is what all those recent hours of listening to Pema Chodran discuss tonglen meditation have been preparing me for: Another surprise curve ball that I do not want to catch.

This is a situation that I do not want as a yogi, and seriously, am petrified to have as a stay-at-home mom. Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and grocery shopping on crutches. Really?

“How many other people must be in situations like mine?” I wondered to myself. “Many,” I heard myself answer.

“How many are in even worse situations?” I asked myself. I answered, “Even more.”

Then the greatest truth in this whole situation emerged: If I couldn’t tell this virtual stranger to “please release my leg, thank you very much, though,” no wonder so many students are victims of teachers, trainers or coaches who—either willingly or not—abuse their power. What psychological mechanism is at work that renders one mute in such situations?

I can do tonglen meditation when I finish writing tonight.

I will breathe in the waves of pain, the confusion, the betrayal and I will breathe out a voice filled with courage.

Did I also mention that we are supposed to tour six colleges in LA this weekend for my son? I asked my husband, “Hon, how am I supposed to take walking tours on crutches?” He (veteran of knee surgery himself) said, “Oh you can do it! I was on crutches for six months after I had my ACL surgery.”

That wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting, so I elaborated, “But you are a guy. You have so much more upper body strength.” (Not to mention he was 17 at the time!) And my darling, my love, says “Honey, you are stronger than most people I know.”

But then I remembered the time he took me—a novice surfer—to Swami’s to surf. Most people at Swami’s are either pros, or they have been surfing for years. Suffice it to say, the “sesh” ended with me stomping out of the water, slightly banged up after getting pulverized by some (tiny!) waves. At one point, I remember believing that I was going to die at sea. I will never forget the salty water vision I had of him waving “hello” at me, not realizing that I was waving for help.

Perhaps my adoring husband’s expectations of my awesome physical abilities are a bit unrealistic. Yes, I think tomorrow I need to call the colleges to see if they have courtesy wheelchairs available for the tours.

So, what does everybody think? (Besides the obvious, that I am a fool for not saying, “Please stop, that hurts.”) Coincidence? Or, was it bound to happen to me sooner or later?

Well, I’ve already told you what I think. Now it’s your turn.

In the meantime, it’s time for Tonglen. I think I may have just found my silver lining.


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Lainie Carter