I was browsing at a local bookstore when I received an unexpected call from my friend Stephanie. It was a surprise because of her private nature. A lioness of a yoga teacher but the bright quiet type who keeps to herself. An unsolicited call was something of a small mystery.
“Hi” I said.
“Hi, I think my foot is broken.” She replied matter-of-factly.
A week ago Stephanie said she awoke with a severe pain in her left foot. It was wasn’t so intense to keep her from walking or driving but stretching into a downward facing dog or Warrior pose was unthinkable. She couldn’t recollect where and how it happened. There were a few possible causes; teaching at a new studio with a hard floor; wearing cute but tight shoes. There really wasn’t anything obvious.
“My primary care physician thinks I have a pinched nerve in my foot.” She continued. “He gave me some oral steroids for the inflammation. They aren’t helping. I asked for a referral and he told me that it wasn’t serious enough to require one.” I gasped appropriately. I wasn’t new to this kind of call. Because of my background I’m often the ersatz emergency doctor among my friends. We continued to chat and discuss possible causes of injury. Having already decided earlier to consult with podiatrist the following morning we decided to end any kind of mindless speculation and wait to see what the foot expert had to say.
It Sounds Absurd
The following day I called Stephanie to see what the expert had to say. After a thorough exam, the podiatrist told her that the bones weren’t broken but that it was probable she had a genetic condition that caused a physical impingement of a nerve in her foot. She’d likely have the pain forever. With this grave pronouncement he also gave her some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs). She told me all of this in a hushed, deflated voice.
We sat stared at each other. After a sufficiently respectful pause my reaction was an articulate and thoughtful, “Huh?”
This is a woman who has an incredible practice. Both flexible and strong, she’s a 10 year yoga practitioner who hasn’t had so much as a skinned knee the years of meticulous and focused work. Now a doctor is telling her, at the age of 30, she has a genetic condition that decided to abruptly pop-up one week ago. The diagnosis sounded absurd.Putting on my Chinese medical doctor hat (it always looks like a sombrero in my imagination) I started asking her some questions.
We somehow started talking about the current turmoil in the Anusara yoga community. John Friend, the head of Anusara, was recently accused of serious allegations of moral and fiscal improprieties leading to the departure of many senior teachers. Stephanie, herself an Anusara teacher, was conflicted and confused about what her identity as an Anusara trained teacher meant. Unfortunately prior to the maelstrom, she had just reserved a spot for a month long workshop and intensive. With everything that had happened she no longer wanted to participate in this program but was reluctant to ask for a refund. Intrigued, I asked her when the program started? She said last tuesday. I then asked her when her foot pain started. She said last tuesday morning.
Emotions aren’t abstractions.
The most interesting concept in traditional Chinese medical (TCM) theory is that our physical body and our emotions are not separate things but exist a continuum. Each of our major organ is associated with a particular emotion. If our body is physically stressed for long enough we will manifest an emotional reaction. This is something intuitively obvious if you’ve ever known someone to be overworked or injured. What’s less evident in western culture is the converse: If our emotions are taxed and unexpressed this will come out as physical pain.
This isn’t a psychosomatic disorder which carries the connotation of mental instability or a deception concocted in the psyche. In TCM, energy normally flows from organ to organ along prescribed channels that line our bodies. When there is an imbalance of emotions (a preponderance or paucity) a physical obstruction within the organ occurs, energy is blocked, pain results.
Keep in mind that Stephanie is a bright and sensitive human being and Her doctors are educated professionals. Both were unaware of what the real underlying cause was. Stephanie couldn’t admit that she really did not want to do this and was deeply upset. Her doctors were constrained by a conservative viewpoint. Drugs or surgery their only offerings.
The “Take home”
Although this case isn’t reflective of every instance of pain it does reflect the majority of cases in my practice. So next time you reach for your prescription or whatever you use to medicate yourself with, stop and ask yourself,
“What really bothering me?”
The real relief might already be inside of you.
By the way Stephanie’s foot is perfect these days. I guess that ‘genetic thing’ didn’t quite work out.