I sit quietly, breathing, and gaze out over the Hudson River. The winter sun explodes: fingers of clouds extend as though in supplication, stained pink by the sun’s last vermillion flare. An I.V. tube protrudes from my arm, and I wear a light blue patterned hospital gown.
I am in Pre-Op, awaiting my fourth hip surgery in eight years due to one hospital and two doctor errors. I have logged nearly ten years on this journey. Much of it has involved prepping for surgery, rehabbing from surgery, planning my teaching and travel schedule to allow time off for surgery, and intermittent discomfort between surgeries, all with little respite. My body has long been the instrument of my creativity, my work and joy and pain. The people I entrusted with its care have violated it. They have broken and re-broken my heart. Despite this, my heart is full. It knows its vulnerability deeply, and still it opens.
All day, walking the streets of New York City, I am my usual self. I make eye contact and engage in deeper-than-surface conversation with nearly everyone I meet: the barista at an independent coffee house. The guy behind the deli at Whole Foods. The woman in CVS in a leopard-trimmed red Santa hat whose face at first is closed (no one home) but who, under the unexpected duress of hearing that her Santa hat “totally rocks,” tells me a story of wanting to be different, to stand out, when she chose it. The look in her eyes tells me we both know she isn’t talking about her hat. When I leave, her visage bears the look of someone who hears once again the siren call of possibility.
My backpack and yoga therapy balls rest next to the hospital gurney in defiance to the nurses’ wishes; they want everything gone, want me to sit with untold time on my hands. They purse their lips, affronted by my rebellion. I relish this a little, this reminder that I am not another number. The doctor comes in; unlike the nurses, his gentle presence barely ripples the surface. We touch base about what he’s going to do; he’ll debride damaged tissue and sew together a hole in my hip capsule, among other things. We joke about the therapy balls. I give him a piece of chocolate that I’ve brought from home. In this simple interchange, my body knows: this doctor understands without pretense or preamble the importance of my body, will treat it with respect. This time will be different. This time they will see me.
There is not much time left. I place my hands on my abdomen, palms overlapping slightly. I do the Embodied Belly meditation: I inhale and feel the fullness in my belly. I exhale and feel its growing lightness. I inhale and exhale, slowly, like I’ve instructed so many others to do. It calms me. It tethers me to the intelligence of my interior. It solidifies my connection to my center. This is where I want to be, this center, when they cut me open for what I hope is the last time.
Soon, the anesthesiologist parts the curtain and perches on the radiator. He crosses his slender limbs, enshadowed by the spreading stain of twilight. I tell him that I’ll be fully awake for the surgery: no anesthesia except for the spinal. He has never had a patient request this before, so we go through it three times. He is torn; I can already tell that he’s an empath by the way he responds, repressing the smallest shudder. He tells me that inserting the needle into my spine is usually quite painful, and he’ll need two of them, so he’d prefer to put me under for that portion of the procedure. We negotiate: if I can’t handle it, they can put me out just for that part. My intention rings out like a bell, clear and loud and piercing. I will be fully present with and in my body, no matter what happens.
They wheel me down hall after hall to the operating room, talking about the Jets-Patriots game. They’re surprised when I join the conversation; they aren’t used to patients talking back. We arrive in the O.R., where the surgical team transfers me onto the operating table. “Petite!” they say. “I am NOT petite,” I shoot back. “I’m strong.” They laugh in surprise, and one good-naturedly tells the other, “No skinny shaming.” I am so grateful just to participate in this repartee, to feel myself some small part of the process.
The anesthesiologist starts the procedure to insert the needles. There is a sudden tension as the memory of his previous words surfaces. I hear the beginning of a narrative in my head: “this will be painful.” It collides with my sense of strength, and the narrative begins to lose traction. I remind myself of what I teach so often: there’s the mind’s narrative—and then there’s the body’s sensory awareness. I can decide, in each moment, to which I want to pay attention.
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly. I feel his hand on my back. “Round your back into my hand,” he says, and I do. “More,” he says, and I increase the curve. This is familiar; I know exactly what to do, how to activate the part he touches. I wait to feel pain, but there is only the smallest pinch. I wait some more, but he’s finished. He tells me, a note of wonder in his voice, that he’s never done this on a patient who’s awake. To his surprise, it was easier—I could move exactly the way he wanted for ideal positioning, and he didn’t need the second needle. I draw strength from this, allow it to seep in and bolster me for what’s ahead. In the ensuing moments before they begin, I wonder: How often would it be helpful—not just empowering, but instrumental to the outcome—to have patients more awake, more embodied, during surgery? For whose sake are we put to sleep? Could it be a cultural default setting that we’ve outgrown, a choice that isn’t offered out of habit? Later I will wonder: in how many other areas of our lives might we ask a similar question?
The team turns me onto my side, where I’ll remain throughout the procedure. I feel the anesthesia move up my legs, and remember from the previous time how it crushes the chest for just a moment. I remind myself to breathe. But something isn’t right. There is time only to say “My legs and chest feel funny” before I pass out. As I come to, a pair of luminous gray eyes hover, wide open in alarm, inches from my face. The anesthesiologist tells me my heart rate went down to 30; I can feel his distress more acutely than my own. The surgeon pokes his head around the screen. “I’m giving you one more chance, Bo,” he says, not unkindly. I understand: pass out again, and the privilege of being awake, being present, will be taken away.
Quickly, I begin to problem-solve, to try to figure out what’s making this position so difficult. My left arm rests on top of my body, and is putting pressure on my heart. This makes it hard to breathe deeply. My neck is bent sideways toward the operating table in an uncomfortable position. My right wrist, broken just a year ago in a car accident, is cocked at an odd angle, as though offering half a queenly wave. I hold an impromptu propping session with the poor anesthesiologist: at my direction, he puts a pillow under my left arm to unweight my heart, two under my head, and one under my wrist. It feels like I’m back in the restorative yoga training from the previous week, showing people the art of propping. I wonder how many patients need more anesthesia because the weight of an arm impacts their heart rate, or wake up with neck pain due to insufficient propping. What would happen if we looked at surgery in a more holistic way?
I hear my surgeon’s soft-spoken instructions to the surgical team, his requests for instruments. They move in synergy, back and forth, over my body. The cadence of their quiet conversation is muffled by their surgical masks. I hear the words “yoga teacher,” “around the world,” “unusual.” They are cool with me being awake, I realize, and that makes me unaccountably happy.
As I deepen my breath, my heart rate begins to increase. The anesthesiologist hovers, concerned. My top arm is still adding weight to my heart; I feel a fair amount of the strangeness I felt just before passing out. I begin to notice a pattern: every couple of minutes the anesthesiologist comes into view and worriedly asks “Are you OK?” I reassure him that everything’s fine. To ease his anxiety, I ask him the best range for my heart rate. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. But the monitor is in full view. I notice that every time my heart rate dips under 80 or rises above 100, he appears again to ask how I am. So I attempt to calibrate my breathing: when I see my HR go down to 80, I speed up my breath, and it recovers. When I see the number rise above 100, I slow my breath and lengthen my exhale, and it moves back into range.
We enter the heart of the procedure. My breath and awareness fall into a rhythm. I summon the strength to hold my left arm in the air above the side of my body so that it won’t compress my heart. Though it aches, it feels like part of the process. It is a small price to pay for being awake. I can hold it like this for an hour or more.
I feel my awareness move further into my body. It’s as though I’ve entered Narnia. Unfamiliar sensations paw at the ground like strange, feral creatures. A small cacophony of feelings chitters away in the background. I listen acutely, but there are things in this Narnia which cannot be named. Every so often, surges of primal fear or something like it rush up from the depths. They feel unrelated to the surgery. They are more deeply embedded as though, lodged inside long ago, they are longing to escape. Every so often, new sensations come to life and taking winged flight, rise up and out of me. I am cowed by the majesty of these inner creatures, and by this world which teems with vibrant life.
The surgery becomes an extended meditation. I hug the nest of pillows to my chest. I imagine embracing my body, this childhood friend or adversary who I meet again after so many years. At times, I am flooded with a nearly transcendent sense of connection. At other times, fear arises: not the blackbirds of my inner world but thought-vultures on the surface that peck away at my confidence, telling me that it’s too much, that I can’t do it anymore. At certain intervals, the focus of my meditation takes a surprising turn: I put together yoga outfits in my mind. Will my mermaid Teeki pants go better with the garnet-colored top or the gray one? Which Converse sneakers do I wear with them? What about the dark green harem pants? To my surprise, these “embodied fashion meditations” are nearly as calming as the yogic ones, and they dance back and forth in two-part harmony.
Just as the ache in my arms, neck, and shoulders becomes so intense that I don’t think I can hold them in place any longer, they tell me it’s nearly over. Buoyed by this, I breathe deeply, one eye on the monitor. After some time, the surgeon comes around the screen and finds me with my eyes closed: Is she asleep? he asks. The anesthesiologists barks out a laugh. Asleep? Are you kidding me? I say, and he chuckles too. He tells me it went beautifully, that he was able to repair the damaged tissue. He turns to go. Turns back again. Looks into my eyes. “You’re one of a kind, Bo,” he says. I have no strength with which to respond, but crush his words to my chest where I will let them take root later.
One of the physician’s assistants is closing the incision, and I balk momentarily. They all assure me that he’s a better “seamstress” than my surgeon, and I let go of the control. We all talk about yoga for athletes, and I tell them about my work with mindfulness, yoga, and performance enhancement with several professional sports teams. I am absurdly grateful for this conversation, for having my wishes honored, for being able to be open and vulnerable and this time, not being hurt in the process.
The hospital has no idea what to do with a patient who is fully awake, so I languish for hours in Post-Op. Fully alert, I read and listen to music. I patiently tell them over and over again that I don’t feel pain and don’t need any pain medication. In contrast, patient after patient is wheeled into the room incoherent and fearful. There is a shift change, and one nurse instructs the other that a female patient is to have morphine as requested, along with Xanax every few hours. It is so hard, this kind of threshold experience, so intensely difficult to be present. I understand why many people wouldn’t want to be awake for it, if given the choice. Yet being asleep seems to have a debilitating influence on lucidity, pain management, and even, in my four experiences, the quality of the recovery process. I remember my time in Belgium, where I taught people about to have surgery a special form of breathwork pre- and post-op. To my surprise, none of the patients I worked with needed pain medication, while the others did. A steady line of patients—and staff—came to my room after that, day and night, for this strange method of “yoga therapy.”
The day following my surgery, my only full day in the hospital, is punctuated by two happenings. First, I become aware of a burning sensation when I use the bathroom. “I have a urinary tract infection,” I tell the nurses. Impossible, they say: there’s not enough time for bacteria to colonize and cause symptoms. But they run a test anyway. Since the test takes two days, they give me medication, which I agree to take despite my preference to avoid antibiotics. The medication helps instantly. Several days later, after I return home, the nurse calls to tell me that a tiny cluster of cells had colonized; when grown in the lab, they colonized into a full-blown infection. There’s no doubt in my mind that being so deeply present in my body helped me to feel what was happening, to take an active role in my medical care. How many other patients could embodiment help, and how many outcomes might it influence?
The morning of my discharge, just 36 hours after surgery, I awaken at 2:00 a.m. with the only pain that I have felt so far. My heart starts to race. The nurse offers me something for the pain, and another medication to offset the side effects of the first. I decline, but feel adrenaline coursing through my abdomen. My narrative starts up in full force: I’ve should have listened to the nurses and waited too late, got “behind the pain,” and won’t be able to sleep. In this midst of this strong story, I put my hands on the site of the pain. I direct my awareness there and take several long, slow, deep breaths like I have taught the injured practitioners in my restorative class to do. I feel, alongside the pain, the integrity and strength of my body. The next thing I know it’s 6:30 a.m. Light is streaming into the room. The same nurse is standing at my bedside, smiling down at me. “You slept,” she says. The pain is a distant memory, but the lesson of this experience lingers.
The experience of being awake and embodied during surgery reverberates through many areas of my life. I’m highly aware of the physical space around me, of keeping my body safe. It is two weeks before Christmas and everywhere I go, there are disembodied people. Unaware of the physical space around them, glued to their smartphones, they accidentally bump me, without looking up to see who they’ve run into. They race to squeeze through doors ahead of me, taking the crutches as a sign to outrun their bearer. How did it get to the point where we pay so little attention not only to our inner lives, but to our awareness of the space that surrounds us, and of the way our bodies and others dance in that space?
During the days and weeks that follow the surgery, I reflect on many things. When we have suffered trauma of any kind—sexual assault, physical abuse, emotional mistreatment, neglect, accidents—we can feel that the body is “ruined.” We’ve lost our chance at having a “good body,” whatever that means to us, or even a good-enough one. Going out-of-body is an intelligent strategy that offers temporary respite for the abuse or neglect we’ve been forced to endure. The thing is, this strategy was never meant to be permanent. To be sure, the experience of trauma makes it hard to inhabit our body. Yet not being in the body is itself a form of trauma. It’s not an occasional happening, this disembodiment, but a global epidemic.
Anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addictions, eating disorders, and even gut issues are now being referred to by professionals in many fields as diseases of disembodiment. Embodiment is deeply important to the brain. When we don’t inhabit part of our body, our brain sounds the alarm, often in the form of pain but also with an inflammatory response. The pain or inflammation are adaptations. Yet they are something more; they are also a call to embodiment.
I also reflect on my training in contemplative practice, particularly at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. I wonder if, in the face of difficult bodily experience, equanimity may not be our primary goal. What if, instead, it’s more important to deeply, even uncontrollably, feel what’s happening in the body: the blackbirds of fear, the searing fire of rage, the bitter inner twisting of envy, the adrenaline surge and pounding drumbeat of the heart that tells us a partner may no longer be nourishing, or even safe. Embodiment has the capacity to benefit our physical health, our modulation of pain, our emotional well-being, our creativity, and our inner wisdom. It might even have a global effect, helping more people to manage their own health care, and reducing the need for or reducing the intensity of more intrusive medical procedures and pharmacologic interventions.
Our ability to immerse ourselves in our moment-to-moment visceral experience—incredibly difficult, deeply pleasurable, and everything in between—gives form to our bodily self. We need the presence of this bodily self. Without it, we fail to thrive. Without it, the immune system, nervous system, pain regulation pathways, and other systems are compromised. Threshold experiences like surgery, illness, divorce, or a loved one’s death bring us face-to-face with this bodily self. Small wonder that we may run from the wildness of this self, assume it cannot be trusted, imagine that it means us harm, or try to recover the body we had before. It is a foreign and frightening thing, to befriend this new body, this strange other. And yet, our task is to not turn away. Our health and vitality depend on our willingness to press pause, move into the bodily self over and over again, and integrate it with the well-formed workings of our conscious mind.
Just over a year ago, I broke my wrist in a car accident and taught for a while with a bright pink cast. After a workshop on the West Coast, a participant came up to offer solace. “Don’t worry,” she said encouragingly. “I broke my wrist three times… and each time, I was back to handstand in just four weeks!” Her forearm, which she held out to me with pride, was marked by calcified knobs of tissue. It’s so easy, I thought at the time, to want to restore our body to its previous function, to override any internal boundaries to do so.
After my last hip surgery, I taught a master class on crutches. When it ended, a student approached to offer encouragement. “I had hip surgery too,” she shared excitedly. “And I was back to full Lotus Pose with a bind in 4 weeks flat! If I can do it, so can you.” I looked at her corded, sinewy arms, at her state-of-the-art knee brace, and felt ineffably sad.
An inconvenient truth: just because we practice yoga doesn’t mean that we’re embodied. Nearly every week someone comes to my class, announces a 15-year yoga practice, and proceeds to share that they’ve just now discovered that they’re hypermobile—or that their practice is injuring them, or aggravating an emotional imbalance—and they’ve come to me for help. Sometimes they come without this knowledge, expecting to find the affirmation deserved by “advanced” yogis. It falls to me, time and time again, to deliver the news that countless others have not shared. Many feel betrayed by the teachers to whom they entrusted their body and who simply encouraged their mobility beyond its end range. It’s flexibility, after all, that buys us purchase into the “inner circle” of yoga.
And yet, there’s something more at play here than the primal command a teacher might wield over his students, the pull for approval that she might give and withhold in turns. We are a disembodied culture. Sometimes, this could be said of the yoga world as well, as much as it hurts to hear it—and to say it. It’s a cultural thing, this predilection for physical prowess. We value it so highly, pursue it to the exclusion of internal awareness. Why is it so, when the two can co-exist so seamlessly? If we taught interoception—mindfulness in the body—along with asana, we might have a different collective relationship with our yoga practice. Or at the least, there might be fewer injuries.
In sharp contrast to the mind, the body exists in a world of non-linear time. There is a quiet here reminiscent of two friends, or lovers, or family members who share an understanding so profound that words need not be spoken aloud. is is a world without goals, or even definitions. I don’t know where it will take me, this serpentine path of embodiment, but within me grows a new willingness—a need, really, to let my body lead the way.
In the weeks that follow my surgery, my physical therapist worries about my hypermobility and how it will affect the recovery process. His approach is ultra-conservative; apparently, yoga teachers have a reputation of “pushing it,” of driving the body past its limits. For me there is no sense of hurry. I don’t race to restore my previous functioning. I don’t even practice yoga for six full weeks—for the first time in twenty years. I teach on crutches. Being awake in my body makes things easier:I can feel the components of a pose or movement and in response, my body sends a clear “no” signal when it’s not yet time to try something again. In contrast, it emanates a “leaning toward” something when it is time. There is a harmony, a filled-out dialogue between the intelligence of my body and the needs of my mind.
This leads me to wonder: do we need these larger-than-life challenges, these threshold experiences of trauma, surgery, illness, or loss, to bring us back into our body in a deeper way? Is it possible to move toward our inner-ness voluntarily, without the impetus of trauma, the pain of suffering, or the urge to reprise the accomplishments of our former bodily self? I think sometimes that without the initiatory experiences of repeated surgery, I might have stayed closer to “Instagram Yoga,” to the physically challenging practices that drive our modern yoga culture, and even its economy. I love them too, these intensely physical practices, but they only take us part of the way in. I have come to so deeply respect the transformative power of embodiment, its role as an integral part of mindfulness, that I’ve made it my life’s work.
Why is it, these days, that we have to study and practice self-compassion, when it’s been present in the body all along? The body knows self-compassion; the beauty of restorative yoga is that it brings us into contact with this knowledge, at least to a point. How can we make our yoga practice more contemplative, and restore to ourselves what we may not even know is missing?
It is no easy thing to enter the field of our bodily self, to re-immerse ourselves in its primal language, to re-member it piece by piece, breath by breath, sensation by sensation. And it is no easy thing to do so without compass or map or plan, and without the need to change what we find. It is a meditative and deeply devotional practice. It is also an act of great courage.
How do we know if we’re on the Path to Embodiment? The terrible beauty of embodiment is that we don’t know. There’s a feeling, perhaps, of something resonating. An irreverence for how long it takes, or whether others will admire or affirm us. And there’s the answering swell of an unstruck chord in the distance that may make us want to weep with longing.
Not far off, I can see another doorway into Narnia. Unpainted and unmarked, it betrays nothing of the savage, strange, and noble terrain that lies beyond it. My hand rests on the trellis. I push the door open, and take another step toward home.
48 thoughts on “The Beauty of Broken”
Wow. Thanks for sharing your story – amazing on every level.
I actually remember you from Univ of Chicago. It is cool to see how you have integrated all your interests into your life’s work, and how they are so similar to the interests of the 20 year old you.
Oh, that’s so cool! It’s funny, haven’t thought about the 20 year-old me as having similar interests, but you’re right in many ways!
Warmest to you,
Amazing story, amazing experience and just about spellbinding reading as I wondered what happened next in your journey. Bravo to you for your strong belief in your intuition and for sharing your insights to so many of us. Brenda Santora
Brenda, thank you for your kind words. I hope your new studio is thriving!
I too have had surgery without anesthesia and used the breath and yoga to be awake. I also broke my leg and used no pain meds, a little acupuncture and a lot of breath. Luckily I got the LePage book on Yoga Mudra about three days before my break….Yoga Mudra is really wonderful when you can’t do much else! We met at Kripalu and IAYT in Boston. I am the crazed woman who saw the turtle lay an egg. This was a lovely piece to read, thanks for being able to write such articulate pieces about this experience. I hope the medical world can hear you and others about this idea. More awake, more embodied, more alive. Recently while having mini yoga practices while at the eye surgeon’s they wondered if all their patients should do yoga, so “they’d be more relaxed”. I offered to teach seated chair practice in the waiting room. They laughed, but maybe…..
Marie, thank you for sharing your amazing experience. And so many cool, innovative applications to our work start with a “maybe…”
Yes! I needed to hear every bit of your reflection – thank you for sharing your journey with us. I found you put words to what I’ve been witnessing and encouraged questions I’ve found echoing through my own thoughts.
Thank you Kimberly!
Oh No! I think you model attuned senses – interoception. So I follow along – for I like to polish my empathy skills. But I’ve a ‘clang’ reply from my tough, forceful array of quick, slick tricks ( or quik, slik trix. ) that decorate my mini career castle and staff. Now I have a whole new foundation to assess, pacify, integrate and employ. Oh boy.
Thank You, Thank You, again and again for your love and efforts. FoxBill Harding.
Slik trix- that’s great. Makes me think of the old cereal commercials: ‘No trix for kids!” And the energy you give the journey of interoception will give back to you one hundredfold, or more.
Thank you for sharing such an intimate and insightful experience of embodiment- more importantly I wish to acknowledge and echo your reflections around how each experience and the world might be a different place if embodiment was at the cornerstone of all experience . Thank you for the light and clarity you bring to this discussion- a discussion that needs to be supported . For me it is a reminder to live within the truth of my embodied experience and the extreme gratitude for all that my body supports me to do and be. Thanks Bo.
Thank you for the reminder about gratitude; there is so much new research coming out about the many ways in which gratitude helps us even things like task attention and willpower. But gratitude for the body is something we don’t always focus on; when we’ll offer gratitude for everything else we’ve been given, why not the body too, just as it is in this moment? Thank you for your reflections.
For me your story is inspirational and yes embodiment is a deeper quest than insta yoga and these depths you share I find fascinating. I much appreciated your compassion for the perspective of the surgical team – seems you embraced the whole situation – thanks for articulating the details of your journey – I look forward to practicing with you in my next next life segment – namaste
Hi Wendy, Thank you for your comments- hope your next life segment happens soon!
Bo, I always love hearing what you are up to as I read another incredible piece from you. I’m from the Boston area and have been in a few of your workshops at Kripalu. You are a great teacher and source of inspiration for students as well as other yoga teachers, for which I am one. Your insights on how we are a culture of priding ourselves on doing the more difficult poses (when our bodies might be asking for a different type of practice) resonates with me. Since breaking my back 3 years ago I know this all too well. Thank you for once again reminding all of us of the incredible power we hold within. ..and to have the patience to hold the space for healing. All the best to you!
Wow- you have been through a lot! Hope to see you at one of my classes soon… and thank you for your kind words.
Loved this piece on so many levels. Reading of the surgery made me want to cry for you. So brave and so scary. I liked the idea of threshold experiences and the excellent questions you asked. Very encouraging and insightful. Looking forward to the book and having you teach again at Kripalu. The best to you always.
Dear, Dear Ras!
Thank you for reading, and for your opinion, which I always value so much. Hope to see your dear face soon- Yoga Journal NYC? And yes, the book and Kripalu again. Big love!
Thank you for sharing your experiences,
Your insights and courage are inspiring and thought provoking.
I love yoga and have been taking classes and practicing for over 30 years.
Yet l often hurt myself in class because l am trying to win the approval of my teacher. Your writing helped me clarify how this is disembodiment. I can lose my connection to my own experience in my striving to get the teacher
to notice me. You words will stay with me as l remember what yoga is and what it isn’t.
I’m very grateful Bo.
Ps l remember you from Walden fall swims
Oh, how i do love Walden! Thank you for your kind words and for recognizing the power of embodiment. I feel that teaching is simply a chance to the bodies of the people in the room, who are ultimately our greatest teachers.
There is so much courage and wisdom in your story. Thank you for sharing it. I’ve been teaching yoga for over 10 years and yoga therapy for 2 years and its not until now after being in therapy that I’m really can feel and be embodied in myself. There are so many layers of us humans. Yoga poses that most people want to do bypass so much in order to heal. Slowing down and being with ourselves in way so we can heal and connect with ourselves and others can then happen. I would love to take some training with you:)
Lots of light and love, and healing prayers to you.
Thank you, Susanne. And back to you!
So many words. Lovely thought they are, this is so heady, so many opinions, so many stories.
One way to view Yoga is a search for truth. We raise energy to burn away anything that isn’t the true self, anything that separates us from truth. First we may need to build an identity (I am a yogi) to support our practice. In the end, however, yoga is to dissolve ego identity and the traps it sets for us… and all the mind’s words. Because the mind and all its stories are always at least a little removed from Truth.
This teacher talks so eloquently, and so much about “me”. Would be so much more powerful if she could leave the “I” aside.
It’s not “she,” it’s me: I’m right here. Good points, Douglas- you are right about the True Purpose of yoga, and truth always has many layers. This is meant to be memoire-style, which necessitates the presence of Ego as the little “self” who reflects- and which is sometimes more easy for others to relate to than dry words of advice. Here’s a more scientific article: http://layoga.com/practice/yoga/interoception-mindfulness-in-the-body/.
Hi Bo, wonderful e-news and meaningful article on so many levels. Thank you for sharing your story and yourself. I especially appreciated the gentle challenging of the status quo. In other words, just because there is a history of surgeries (or other experiences) being done a certain way, doesn’t mean that as consumers we can’t request otherwise. In good health, Lorie
Thank you, Lorie- and all the best to you.
Your bravery to go into surgery without anesthesia is remarkable and I do hope that you heal quickly. You do not mention the type of surgery you underwent but I am assuming you had a labral tear. What were the other surgeries? You also wrote that you were having a fourth hip surgery in eight years due to one hospital and two doctor errors. What happened?
Avidya about yoga poses is leading to joint laxity and hip damage. Yoga asana as practiced widely today is a major reason for yours and others hip surgeries. You also mention students coming to you with issues of longtime practice and hyper-mobility from yoga. Are you aware that yoga as practiced is most probably causing your hip injuries and others? I am helping yogis heal from hip laxity and labral tears without getting surgery. Please see my website at http://www.yogalign.com
Thank you for sharing your link; you’re doing wonderful work in the world! Helping injured yogis is an important service.
I’d recommend great care not to make assumptions like “Yoga asana as practiced widely today is a major reason for your and other hip surgeries.” Yes, I’m aware that yoga can cause injuries as it is practiced today, and as the article mentions, people come to me from such practices. But I teach yoga as a contemplative and therapeutic practice, and work in tandem with several clinics.
My yoga practice didn’t cause my hip issues; those were present long before I came to yoga. In fact, my practice has helped me heal and manage these issues and particularly, to practice equanimity in the face of someone doing harm to my body.
It’s great to be aware that there are patterns of practicing yoga today that can cause hip injuries, rotator cuff issues, meniscus tears, etc. But we have also to be careful not to go too far to that side, to assume that it’s the reason for others’ injuries. The body has anomalies that show up in yoga. Sometimes a wise and therapeutic practice can help with these anomalies, and sometimes they remain despite the practice.
I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Some hip (or other) injuries are caused by yoga, and some are not. Yoga can be healing and therapeutic, and sometimes it is not.
That definitely applies to your reflections: you can offer the wonderful tools you have without needing to assume that yoga is causing these injuries (or that, done the right way, yoga can heal these injuries). When you assume that, you diminish your work; part of the beauty in the work we do is to acknowledge the nuances of the body, the practice of yoga, and life off the mat.
Thank you for sharing.
Bo, thanks for your long and thoughtful reply to my comment. I have been very busy teaching and just recently saw that you had replied.
Can you explain your hip joint issues in more detail? A hole in your hip as described in your article is usually a labral tear. What was the diagnosis and surgical procedure? While I appreciate your literary talents, it is difficult to see the reality of what happened other than you getting a hip surgery without going under.
I am not making assumptions about yoga injuries at all. I know from my experience and the hundreds of injured yogis that I have worked with that yoga injuries are real. This is not even a question in my life any longer because I have been injured and I have seen hundreds with serious injuries too.
Here is one of Patanjali’s yoga sutras regarding those who practice ‘traditional’ hatha yoga. “Anityasuciduhkhanatmasu nityasucisukhatmakhyatiravidya”
What at one time feels good or appears to be of help can turn out to be a problem; what we consider to be useful may in time prove to be harmful.
You say this in your letter..
” My yoga practice didn’t cause my hip issues; those were present long before I came to yoga. In fact, my practice has helped me heal and manage these issues and particularly, to practice equanimity in the face of someone doing harm to my body.”
Would you be willing to explain how you think yoga did not cause your hip injuries?
It may not have caused them but since you had 8 surgeries, I cannot understand how it helped you or even led to a cure of the problems .
I do not think yoga should ever cause injuries since it is a healing modality. My focus is on creating a practice that is safe, stabilizing and has a basis in natural anatomical function. Many yoga poses go against our natural human biomechanics and these poses are causing harm and laxity to women in particular. The glamorization of flexibility in the yoga culture has caused many young women to seek dangerous levels of joint hyper mobility. I have young women in their 20’s who have damaged the hip joint from yoga. Poses have become more important than functional movement and I cringe when I see people doing plow, shoulder stand and any type of forward bends with straight knees. These poses will not lead to a favorable outcome. Women are in great danger from doing yoga poses that flatten the sacrum, stretch the stabilizers of the knee and foot and compress the acetabulum.
See this article in the New York Times please http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/sunday-review/womens-flexibility-is-a-liability-in-yoga.html?_r=0
Respectfully, I need to say: you are not listening… on such a deep level that you’ve missed my attempts to point it out to you in my previous comment.
This article is about embodiment: what it is, what it can do for us, and sometimes, the difficult things that challenge it (such as trauma) and the ways in which our embodiment will be tested over the course of a lifetime. It speaks not to yoga injuries per se, but asks the question of whether we who teach yoga (or do psychotherapy or offer physical therapy, etc.) are teaching embodiment along with, or interwoven into, everything else we are teaching).
But you continue to press forward with this theory that yoga injures people and injured me. You avoid the details I do provide that affirm that this is not a yoga injury–the doctor and hospital error I mention right in the first paragraph, for example–and persist in calling this a “yoga injury.” You then ask for details, but at the same already begin to level diagnoses– a labral tear, for example–that support your affirmation that yoga does injure people, just as it has injured you and many others that you have seen. You then double the number of my surgeries–to eight–and state that you can’t understand how yoga helped me through or–and this is the strangest of all- -could have “cured” me. Most people deeply involved in yoga acknowledge openly that we’re looking at the evolution, not the cure, of mind and body and spirit.
Giving you additional details won’t help in this conversation, nor would it clarify things to say that I don’t practice or teach any of the poses you list as problematic. You’ve got tunnel vision here, so much so that you’re not receiving even the written information in this article correctly. Rather than lecture me of the dangers of joint laxity or hypermobility (which are, in fact, distinct issues–and which I discuss in this blog directly) or referring me to articles that will help me “see the light,” my suggestion is that you hold open the possibility that you are not correct in your sight-unseen assessment of my body, of the many practitioners (physical therapy, structural integration, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic) with whom I have woven a collaborative (i.e. not absolutist) dialogue, and of my many years of experience in the several fields essential to the issue at hand. But also, I suggest that you open to the possibility that this article is saying something else entirely: something which, perhaps, has evoked a reaction within you, a “decoy” reaction that distracts from the true issue at hand.
Here’s another interpretation of the sutra you mention: perhaps a mindset such as yours (yoga injures people, likely most people) that at one time may have been helpful can in time prove to be harmful (one-sided, absolutist, not nuanced, not open, not integrative) toward the very people you’re trying to “help.” Even the term “help” creates a dichotomy in which you’re making assumptions (it doesn’t seem like you’re aware of this) about the people we’re trying to “help:” namely, that they need help, that they’re not aware of what YOU know to be true. There’s no collaborative dialogue in what you write, but rather a forcing of your opinion (however supported by your observations it may be) onto the many-flavored life experiences of others. It’s contradictory to the science and art of embodiment. My suggestion: ask someone close to you, someone not invested in simple affirmation but rather, in evolution, to shed light on the distinctions here. For what it’s worth, I do resonate (and have felt) that sort of all-or-nothing sense that we, in yoga, need more education and must take care to seek out and integrate other disciplines. But eventually, that more autocratic stance blocks out the light of insight, of seeing things in a different way.
Your articulation of your experience is exquisitely written and I do see that the premise of the article was to discuss your spiritual healing and responses to events in your life that have occurred in your four hip surgeries over the last ten years. I see that you are showing us that there is beauty in a body broken.
But why is the body broken?
When an author says things like I have spent 10 years “prepping for surgery, rehabbing from surgery, planning my teaching and travel schedule to allow time off for surgery, and intermittent discomfort between surgeries, all with little respite. My body has long been the instrument of my creativity, my work and joy and pain. The people I entrusted with its care have violated it.”
This statements leave me feeling compassion for you because you mention that there is little respite for you in this long journey. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?
What type of hip surgeries did you have?
Why do you feel that people you entrusted with your care violated your body?
Do you think that your yoga practice has changed because of these injuries?
Other yogis such as Diane Bruni and Charlotte Bell have stepped forth in a responsible manner to address the yoga community by discussing their hip surgeries in relation to their yoga practice and how it may have helped or hindered it. These dialogues help us all to understand how and why yoga injuries are happening. Both Diane and Charlotte have credited their yoga practice with helping them cope with the feelings that arise when the body is injured or undergoing surgery.
How clearly you articulate your experiences and encourage curiosity. Inspiring thank you for sharing and all best wishes for your continued healing.
Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment, Julie.
Reading this article really felt like traveling inward, into the Unknown, and feeling pain but also something like exploring a new territory… Very inspiring… Recently my health was not so good and I did not want to take antibiotics so I just went with what my body had to tell me, at some point I was a bit afraid but now I feel proud to stand, and deeply renew! Thanks again for sharing,
Good for you, Anna! The more people empower themselves, the more we get out of the Box and change the way medicine and personal health are practiced.
You really walk your talk. My goodness am I inspired! I took an intensive from you a few years ago at the Yoga Journal conference in NYC. My issues are chronic insomnia (25+ years and counting) and sometimes debilitating anxiety. Anxiety as a disease of disembodiment? I have chills thinking how many examples of disembodiment litter my life. I am committed to going back to your book and working with your teachings. Thank you so much for all that you do.
India, let me know how it works out! We have a new program with YogaWorks (NYC version in September) that combines an immersion and online course, focusing on embodiment. Stay tuned.
Bo, your words really touched me deeply. Thank you for your vision and courage to share so openly. I look forward to learning more from your work and you!
Thank you for this insightful and powerful,piece. I too spent ten years with multiple surgeries and complications. And it was through the practices of yoga that I learned to return to my body, as it was, that I began to heal. It’s quite a paradox because it’s so seductive to want to run and hide from ones body when it feels so messed up. And yet staying there and being “with” it IS the way to healing.
I’m curious about this from your article, “I don’t even practice yoga for six full weeks—for the first time in twenty years”. Are you referring to asana only? Or a complete departure from yoga for those six weeks?
Thanks for your sharing.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times!
Thank you, for voicing with exponentially greater clarity than I could hope to voice, your insight into embodiment and the diseases of disembodiment. It is my work too, but on a smaller scale.
You had me with you there, too, on the operating table, wondering moment to moment when I would give in to the fear and take the anesthesia.
Your leadership is so important to the world, especially the modern yoga world which I find often on a reckless course away from evoking the wonders of the true inner realm with all of its shadow and light, in favor of the things you mention in your post.
Wishing you well as you continue your journey. I will be sure to follow your writings from now on.
Thank you so much for sharing this experience and for the beautiful, personal and reflective way you write it – letting it take the space it needs! It moves and inspires me on so many different levels!
I just finished 3-years studies to become a Grinberg Method pracititioner in Berlin (- also a form of body-work aiming at more embodied experiences), and hearing and reading about your work (- being linked from the “liberated body”-podcasts) has brought me a lot of clarity for what it is I am actually doing, and new impulses of how I want to work. You spoke at the beginning of the recent “liberated body”-episode about how important it is with interdisciplinary exchanges – to share knowledge and experiences in order to understand and deepen the own practice. I cannot agree more – And I’m so deeply grateful to you and to other pracititioners (and to Brooke and “Liberated Body” for encouraging the exchange and making this so beautifully accessible) for the new insights, perspectives and angles you have given me through it, especially as someone just taking my first, shaky steps into this immense field of embodiment practices. Thank you!!! Warm greetings from Berlin,
Beautifully written, Bo. You’ve expressed your story with such a fine balance of personal experience, commentary on the dominant paradigm, and teaching.
I’m a movement teacher, professional aerialist and trauma survivor. I’ve had a chronic autoimmune illness for at least fifteen years, if not much longer. My limitations, along with my love of physicality, combined to give birth to a high degree of self-awareness, which morphed into something much more. The divisions between mind, body and spirit have worn away, over the years, through the integrating action of movement, mindfulness and a key ingredient – pain and exhaustion. They are such excellent teachers, if we only let them!
Last August, while teaching an aerial class, I had a massive aortic dissection. I’m very fortunate to have survived. The damage to my aorta extends from the bottom of my right carotid to six inches down both my femoral arteries, and extends into my left renal artery. My initial two week hospital stay post- open-heart surgery (11 hours) extended to over two months to deal with a failing kidney, and so much more.
I had an excellent team of specialists who were quite intrigued by my case both because I have none of the risk factors normally associated with dissection and because my complications were so unusual (including temporary paralysis). This was fortunate because it helped pry them out of the normal protocol of treatment (the cookie-cutter just didn’t fit!), to actually pay attention to my particular physiology. This was key to my survival.
The other key is that I learned to be a ruthlessly persistent self-advocate. Exhausting! I am my body, and when I feel something troubling it’s ALWAYS an indicator of problems, even if the docs say things like “you don’t feel an enlarged aorta”, or “we think you can’t breathe due to anxiety. How about some Atavan?”. I did feel the truth of these things, along with fifty other experiences of awareness outside of their idea of what’s possible. Knowing this saved my life several times over, and I dare say has taught my team something about the limitations of working with the chronically disembodied that they had previously taken for granted.
I’m intrigued by the ways it would impact health care if (hypothetically) ALL patients were connected to and trusted interoceptive wisdom. As you well know, the entire medical system (and it’s philosophical underpinnings) is built on the absence of that wisdom. The deep perceptual division our civilization has created between ourselves and the natural world we spring from, and between our cognition and fully integrated self-awareness has vast implications which, frankly, overwhelm me. I love how Charles Eisenstein frames this historically and anthropologically.
I’m sharing your piece with my FB group “Vagus Study Group” which I created as a way to wrap my brain around the complex network of forces at play in CNS regulation of safety and threat responses (Polyvagal Theory), trauma, epigenetics and healing practices. The group is growing quickly with an amazing array of curios seekers and professionals (including a lot of Somatic Experiencing practitioners). There is so much in your piece that bears on this area of study.
Beautiful work….beautiful presence. Thank you for sharing!
Can I translate this heartfelt wise article to Hebrew for my dancers? So timely – I am holding a Nia workshop focusing on being present. So inspiring and wonderfully written.
Absolutely, as long as you cite the article. We’d also be happy to put a link to the Hebrew version on our site.
Fantastic blog article Bo! I appreciate your candor and in depth journey to some of your process and healing. I am a psychotherapist and originally studied bio-energetics along with Pilates and Feldenkreis. This taught me at a young age the importance of the mind/body connection and its ability to heal. I am now at a different stage in my life and wondering how in the world I got here! Disconnected from my body for sure and slowly trying to revitalize what needs to transform.
Just purchased your book and am excited to dive in and absorb more of your wisdom about the symbiotic relationship between the mind and body.
My only disappointment is you are not located closer. I completed my yoga teacher training in Franklin MA a few years ago. I do plan to eventually attend one of your classes or better yet, weekend workshop and possibly more. I am fascinated by your work and know how valuable your work and insight are to the world, especially the yoga community. I have enough insight and connection to know when I am pushing my body beyond where it need not go but many do not. This type of insight you provide needs to be standard in training in my opinion.
I travel internationally so will not be able to attend any of your workshops, etc. until I return in mid-June 2017 through August. I look forward to doing so then. My hope is you will have trainings, etc. in MA or NY at that time. I intend to incorporate your work into my practice and bring it to others when I teach. Currently I work with the military and there is tremendous need when they are open to it.
Love your work, love your voice, love your commitment!
Thank you for your interest in this work, and also for the depth of your own work with the military and other populations. I tend not to do many trainings between mid-June and August of each year, especially locally (except our 500-hour), but you never know. Not sure where you’re located, but many of our people travel from as far away as Vancouver.
I remember reading this when you first posted it and wanted to read it a second time. I’m thankful for this post and the insights you provide. What a wonderful way to make the most of an opportunity for wonder, curiosity, and learning, and thank you for sharing your discoveries. Surgery is undoubtedly an opportunity for pratyahara (whether we want to practice this or not) and I’m glad that the medical team was willing to support you in this. I’m reminded of a childbirth book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, which includes a number of first-person accounts of childbirth, usually in the presence of a supportive midwife.
Despite the beautiful lessons learned, I hope you don’t have to do it again!
Thank you so much for your comments and thoughtful recommendation of the book; I’ll check it out.