4 Lessons from My Injured 'Toe Guru'
You hear it all the time in yoga land: your injuries are your greatest teachers. So, when I needed foot surgery to rehabilitate and reset a frozen big toe joint this spring, I was almost poised on the edge of my seat waiting for a Great Lesson. Of course, when you're waiting like that, nothing comes. As soon as I forgot about this lesson idea and got into the journey of surgery, post-op, physical therapy and rehabilitation, however, the lessons started to rain down - plunk! - on my head. Here are a few:
1) SLOW DOWN: Whoa Nelly! When injury occurs, so does a big slowing down in practice and in life. I had to take some time off work and projects, take some time away from the city and away from walking like a maniac up and down Manhattan all day. I felt resistance arise at first (it was like going from 60 to 0, all engines still running), but then I began to settle into the slowing down. I had time to look around. Read books. Contemplate. Rest. The sensation honestly reminded me of silent meditation retreats I've attended where the lack of speech and external stimuli allow inner truths to emerge. Without the stimulation of my regular activities, new perspectives arose. It was as if my toe was giving me a meditation retreat right there, were I was.
2) YOGA IS ADAPTABLE: My first few sessions back on the mat for asana practice were a strange mix or tentative and eager. I was so happy to find my breath in the shapes of asana again but found myself rediscovering each pose, as I had to, always assess: would this pose be okay for my foot? I had to Listen, big time. And respect. I was amazed to find, however, in the first few days back to physical practice that I felt more graceful on the yoga mat than in walking life. In walking life I was still lugging a post-op shoe around Manhattan. I was still stammered in walking. But on the mat, even with the adjustments I had to make, I felt fluid. I felt graceful. I really rocked the arm balances, loving the feeling of flight when I'd felt so pinned to the earth with my foot injury. I was amazed to be reminded, from the inside out, how adaptable and forgiving the yoga practice is. Even though I could not do every pose, I could do many, and found ways to work with my body.
3) KIDS YOGA IS PROFOUND: In my second session of physical therapy I realized my physical therapist was a guru, too. He pushed me to "reconnect my mind with my foot." He talked about how, in trauma, the brain literally disconnects from the traumatized part. It took many exercises to approach this goal of reconnection. One once-easy task was now challenging: scrunching up a towel with the toes of my left foot. I suddenly realized this toe dexterity exercise was the same one I practiced with kids in "Toe Ga." In Toe Ga we (elementary school yogis and myself) practice picking up small pom poms with our toes and placing them in a bucket. Once a silly fun exercise, I realized this was also very profound. I told my physical therapist about Toe Ga, and he not only encouraged me to do this at home to regain strength and connect my foot to my mind, but he started sharing Toe Ga with his clients.
4) WALK STRAIGHT: "Attack it!" This might not sound yogic, but my physical therapist was encouraging me to walk straight, over the recovering, sore toe instead of around. And yogic this was. I realized for years while this toe had been compromised I'd picked up the habit of walking around the stiffness. Being one who loves metaphor I wondered: where else was I walking around something in life, and not through? Now, I am reminded by my Toe Guru to walk through what I can, directly, honestly, to be bold.
Yes, the True Guru lies within. And might teach a lesson through a bump, bruise, injury, sickness, etc. I wouldn't wish a Toe Guru on anyone, but if you get one, listen up!