Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Questions

Teaching yoga to people with chronic pain or people dealing with a cancer diagnosis affords me a unique opportunity to witness our universal desire to reduce suffering. The most common question asked by all populations is:

"What can I do?"

I decided to take some time to share the different circumstances that give rise to this question. You may find yourself among these, or not. Keep it in mind the next time you encounter someone suffering.

I am just out of surgery to have my cancer removed and I am so scared. I don't want to hurt myself, but I want to get back into my body and feel normal again. What can I do?

I'm in pain. Everything seems to make it worse, but sitting still makes me crazy. What can I do?

In some form or another, I get asked these questions nearly every week. Our bodies were made to move, but what if moving hurts, and what if that sensation is tied to fear? I don't pretend to know what these people are going through. So, more often than not, I say nothing right way. Instead, I breathe. I pause to connect with all my senses and then notice what I feel. I then ask them to do the same. Sometimes, that's all that is needed. They already know what to do and how to do it, and I am only a reminder.

My brain will tell me that hopelessness has an effect on immune system, and that there is always some movement or breathing practice that we can do. The act of doing something - anything - to participate in our own well-being goes a long way towards balancing the situation. I only let my brain tell me this once my heart has checked in, though, because this person may not want to hear it.

My loved one is in a really dark place. His cancer has returned and the outlook isn't good. What can I do?

Knowing when to step in and when to hold space for someone we love is a challenge that everyone in any relationship faces. When caregivers come to me, I usually address the caregiver's issues, because that is who is in front of me. Occasionally, they will ask me about their loved one. Most of the time, I advise them to do as I do: pause, breathe and notice what your heart says. Another way to look at this is to discern the difference between empathy and sympathy. Here is a great 2 minute animation that illustrates Brene Brown's lecture on understanding the difference:

What if my doctors missed something? What if it comes back? What can I do?

My pain is so mild today that I want to tackle everything that I'm not normally up for, but I'm afraid that I'll trigger a pain flare. What can I do?

After checking in with my breath, and asking that person to check in with their breath, I then reflect on what is true in this moment. When I'm working with my own pain, it's the same process: breathe, notice, discern. There are so many stories floating around in our minds and our bodies, and not all of them are true. What's important is to keep checking in, keep noticing what's true in this moment, and then this one. The only thing we can do is live every day with awareness.

Next month, my daughter and I will be taking a service trip to Malawi. ("Voluntourism" has come under fire lately, because there have been many situations that leave the area no better or worse off after the group has left; here is an article about "voluntourism".) The group that is going includes several yoga teachers and students. At our last meeting, one of our leaders asked us to reflect on the Yamas and Niyamas - behaviors listed in the Yoga Sutras, and use them as guidelines as we enter someone else's world. One of the reasons I'm so interested in being involved in this trip is that the leaders took a very service-minded approach in organizing it. At our first meeting, they spoke about how we won't know exactly what we'll be doing to help the village until closer to our departure date, because we want them to tell us what they need, rather than us assuming we know. It struck me that this is the same approach that I use in my work. I don't know what the Malawi people we meet may need. I have some thoughts, for sure, but I'm going with an open heart and the practice of pausing and breathing to see what are the answers to the question what can I do?