Pain—spiritual, emotional or physical—makes us vulnerable. And if we’ve lived with pain for years, our vulnerability urges us to seek out people and remedies who promise relief, comfort, or the Holy of Holies, a cure.
In the beginning of 1998 when I was 27, it was a lifetime of pain that finally drove me to try yoga. I found a yoga teacher in the phone book and called her. I explained that I suffered from scoliosis. She said with a confidence that exploded through the phone line, “Oh, yes! I can cure you!”
“Cure? She can cure me?” I thought. “She can cure me!” I believed her to be a godsend. With her words, I finally saw an end to the grinding ache I wore in the muscles along my spine and the sharp pain lying deep in my tailbone, hips and pelvis. I imagined I would be able to sleep comfortably instead of waking up after a few hours and moving to the floor or to the bathtub because a hard surface occasionally relieved the pressure. I saw myself sitting straight in a chair without collapsing or constantly adjusting. I was sold.
I actually hated my first yoga class. My husband came with me and his naturally strong body easily shifted into poses that I could not hold. The soles of my feet and my palms sweated from embarrassment. My back pain was worse. Even though I knew I wouldn’t feel better immediately, I had been so hooked on the idea of a cure that I was disappointed not so much in the teacher or the class but in myself. I was a failure. I cried as soon as we got into the car to drive home.
But I went back to class the next week. It was a bit easier. So I continued, each class helping me to become more aware of my body and less conscious of how well or poorly I did in comparison to the other students. I was still in pain but it felt different. It felt like forward movement. As my body and mind started to shift, I became filled with such gratitude that for a few months, I owed all of my progress to my teacher. I hung on her every word. I thought she was really cool and I still believed she could cure me. I wanted more yoga, so I bought my own mat, strap, props and books. I practiced at home almost daily.
A strange thing happened: as I went deeper into my own practice, I began to see more clearly. I saw my yoga teacher for who she really was and not who I wanted her to be.
The classes began to devolve. I don’t know where they came from but a group of women and a few men who were at least 20 to 30 years older than I began to surround the yoga teacher. Like me just a few months earlier, they listened to her almost in a state of rapture. Surely, she had all the answers. Perhaps she had promised to cure them, too? I wasn’t sure. I just know that class became less about yoga and body awareness and more about pontification. With such a large group of disciples, and really that’s who these people became, the yoga teacher gave full reign to her ego. She’d make strange proclamations like, “Downward facing dog. I drove cross-country with a broken radio and that’s when I learned how to love country music.” The class would nod and ooh and aah and say things like, “Country music, you say? Where does one go to hear such country music?” Yoga class became ridiculous.
The teacher also revealed a mean streak. After a particularly fawning student would leave, she’d gossip about her to the students who hadn’t yet made it out the door. She’d tell people what was wrong with them mentally and what they needed to do about it. People would arrive with smiles, leave with frowns and yet, come back for more the next week. I began to question why the hell I was coming back. And then, my teacher injured herself and cancelled classes for a few months. The relief I felt was total.
During this time, I had also begun working with a massage therapist. She had shown up in class a few months after I did and the yoga teacher introduced her with “She is a WON-der-fullllll massage therapist!” To which the therapist calmly and honestly asked, “How could you possibly know that? I’ve never given you a massage.” The part of me that still bought my yoga teacher’s bullshit was slightly offended by this truth; but the part that was deepening smiled.
This massage therapist was to become very important. Her first words to me were, “I can help you.”
Help. Not cure. A distinction that changed both my healing and my outlook on life.
Once a week, I endured grueling deep-tissue massage therapy. During that first month, the day after the massage, the pain was so great, I could only sit ramrod straight. Layers of muscles and fascia that had been knotted and spasmed for years began to release. I learned that scoliosis had little to do with my bones and everything to do with my muscles. In the pain that came in waves, I learned to meditate. I traveled with the pain, discovering that where it resonated the loudest wasn’t necessarily its source. I was amazed by how connected I had become to my body and how I no longer had to be a slave to it. Illness and pain were a choice.
Just as important, my massage therapist and I worked together. She researched my condition. With my permission, she sought advice from one of her instructors. She explained everything she was doing, why she was doing it, and what could possibly be achieved. For my part, I showed up with trust and a willingness to try different modalities without expectation. In these massages, I learned that the cure is in the journey.
After nearly a year of intense work, my massage therapist released my psoas muscle. She accessed it through my abdomen; my breath caught as tears formed in my eyes and a sheen of sweat quickly covered my body. I think I joked that it would’ve been nice to have a leather belt to bite. But all of my practice with the massage and meditation finally allowed me to relax. When the therapist finished, my hips were symmetrical. For 15 years, my right hip had been higher than the left one. Now, I was symmetrical. Truly. It was amazing. My pants now hung beautifully instead of being hung up on one hip. We had achieved this together. I can honestly say that my scoliosis was cured.
Then, the yoga teacher came calling again, circling like a shark. Like a fool, I decided to go back to her class. She noticed the difference right away.
I said, “Yes, it’s amazing what massage can do.”
She huffed, “Your massage therapist didn’t do that! That’s from yoga!”
I corrected her, “No. This is from massage. A year of massage and a psoas release.” I went to my mat. She called out a pose. I lay on my back with my right leg pulled into me, gently cradling it. I felt my new back muscles and I rejoiced in the easiness of them. I closed my eyes.
The next thing I felt was a huge snapping weight on my right leg. The yoga teacher, envious perhaps that I hadn’t found my cure with her, forced her body down onto my leg when I was vulnerable. Pain flooded over me and I cried out. She stood up, looked down at me and smirked. In one hateful movement, she undid all of my hard work. I lay there like a broken animal unable to move, afraid to move. Finally, in pain familiar and complete and damning, I left and never returned.
My massage therapist and I could not believe what had happened—how ego, envy and competition had given my yoga teacher permission to physically hurt someone she had once promised to cure. And hurt me she did. My hips were no longer even. The psoas had recoiled. My pelvis was once again pushed forward. My massage therapist and I began again.
Without knowing it at the time, these two women greatly influenced how I interact with people—both as a student and a teacher.
I am highly suspicious of anyone who sets him or herself up as a guru with all of the answers: Do this! Buy this! Think this! Wear this! Feel this! And if you do, ALL of your problems will be solved! You’ll be happier, richer, healthier and sexier!
Now, I’m not saying there aren’t really good people doing really good work that truly helps others. There are. But I’ve also met many people who operate from a place of ego—they create a cult of personality and foster a continued independence on them as individuals. As long as their students please them, they promise a cure.
Because of my own experiences, these people scare me…but I’m even more afraid of becoming like them.
Which is why, I think, my workshop series is not more conventionally successful. I am simply not willing to tell people that I can cure them. I can’t. It’s not my job. It’s not my responsibility. And because I only give people some tools that could be helpful to them in their journeys, my workshops work only for people who are ready to do what I did and still do: to dig deep and find their own answers and truth.
That’s more than okay.
I’d rather be like my massage therapist helping one person at a time than my yoga teacher hurting many and calling it a “cure”.