I've Been An Athlete My Entire Life. This Is Why Slowing Down Has Made Me Invincible
The small padded room smelled like a humid concoction of sweat, discipline, and invincibility. I paused with my face smashed against the mat, slick with sweat and the perfumed imprint of other fighters. My professor had me pinned. I caught my breath and organized my escape plan—don’t telegraph. Collect your thoughts. Keep it cool. Be smart, act swiftly.
I orchestrated a flurry of meticulous moves ending in the perfect amount of pressure applied to my professor’s shoulder joint, forcing him to tap. Our bodies unwound victoriously as he smiled and my body fell slack against the mat. My chest heaved as a mischievous smile spread over my face. I rebounded off the ground and busted out a celebratory handstand on the spongy surface of the dojo. My body was strong and flexible, reactive and malleable. I was a tiny Amazonian-in-training who could spring effortlessly from a beautiful yoga posture into a surprising martial arts attack. In that moment, the world stood still, and I was invincible.
Actually, I wasn't as invincible as I thought.
I replayed this memory as I stared at the blank white wall of the doctor’s office, absent-mindedly rubbed my throbbing left shoulder as I digested the dreaded news—a torn shoulder labrum. My body, once invincible, was slumped in defeat as my doctor scribbled down the name of a local physical therapist, suggesting I start immediately and come back in a month.
The gravel cracked and popped under the great weight of my tires and attitude as I pulled up to park. I signed my waivers and soon found myself in a room full of doll-size hand weights, massage tables, mechanical contraptions, and a rainbow spectrum of resistance bands. I was informed that the key to success was rebuilding my rotator muscles to provide safety and stability for my torn labrum to repair.
I was also told no push-ups, no pullups, and minimal weight-bearing. My mouth opened in protest as my ego prepared to blaze through my resistance exercise. I couldn’t even control what came out—a guttural, agonizing, nonverbal cry as I struggled to complete a third pull (out of a supposed 15) on the resistance band. All I could think was, how the hell did I get here?
My history as an athlete.
I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I’ve been injured off and on for as long as I can remember but have always been blessed with the ability to bounce back fairly quickly. This wasn’t my first bout of PT—my original shoulder injury didn’t come from a specific instance; it came from a lengthy dedication to my ashtanga practice. The doctor told me that the repetitious nature of my practice had overbuilt several muscle groups that had become so dominant that the smaller muscles that needed to fire in everyday movements gave up, resulting in severe shoulder pain.
That was the beginning of my first round of therapy and the impetus for my romance with cross-training. I vowed to keep my body healthy by continuing my beloved yoga practice but also through constantly surprising it and asking new muscles to work through a spectrum of activities.
Fast-forward to this day. Judging from the face of my doctor and demeanor of my PT, this injury wasn’t as simple. It was a potential buddy-for-life. How did I even tear my labrum? Was it an epic body slam in my martial arts practice? Falling from a complicated handstand endeavor? Saving a group of schoolkids from a burning bus?
A melting pot of stressors.
I wish it was a glorious story, but the stronger likelihood is that my injury resulted from a compilation of things: Separating from my husband and asking for a divorce, releasing a new book, going on book tour for two straight months, starting a new relationship, and a lifetime of working my shoulder to its utmost ability.
I believe this melting pot of stressors built to a boil and served me this injury. My resulting options were to ignore it, keep going, and tear it further, or (damn it) deal with it gracefully and give my body a well-needed rest.
So I did. I rolled up my yoga mat, gave it a kiss, and told it not to forget me. I folded up my karate and BJJ gis, placing them lovingly in a neat pile. I stepped away from the activities that filled my heart but would do nothing but extend my injury. I replaced these loves with dedication—to my therapy work, acupuncture, and herbal supplements. I started speaking with a therapist weekly to heal my heart. I opened my body and mind to a world without answers and a perpetual state of change. I felt strong parts of my body soften and flat areas widen. I reminded myself daily that this was a season—not a life sentence.
Where I am now.
Fast-forward to nearly a year later. I’ve eased myself back into my yoga practice sprinkled with vinyasas adjusted to my body’s needs instead of my ego’s. I’ve worked with a trainer to safely build my upper body strength and continue to expand my physical horizon in the constant exploration of new pursuits. I may not be able to soar through a sequence of handstand variations or pounce on the ability to escape a BJJ arm bar, but I’m still here. I'm still challenging my body in new ways, and my spirit is still invincible.
Inspired by Kathryn's story? Read about the two phrases that helped this yogi heal from a debilitating injury.