I was born bow-legged and pigeon-toed. So bowed, in fact, that without years of orthopedic attention including casts and braces nearly from birth – I creatively learned to walk in hip-to-toe casts – I wouldn’t have walked at all, much less had the opportunity to punish my non-conforming hips with long-distance barefoot running and heavy weightlifting in my teens and early twenties. A determined little will, I learned how to bounce my cast-heavy self on the mattress of my toddler crib enough to vault my little toddler body over the raised railing meant to keep me safely on soft surface.
Once graduated from the casts and nightly braces, you could no more tell that my legs were sculpted masterpieces than you could determine how many prunings a fully grown elm had undergone. And that determined will only grew with my body, so no one could tell me differently when I was a teenage runner with dreams of marathons and a need to feel my own brute strength. Some weeks during my mid-teens I would log 150 miles, and my favored gear was none. That’s right, barefoot before barefoot was cool. Except that barefoot isn’t really ever cool for teenage girl – our footstrike pattern is narrower than our hip range, creating rotational stress forces on the skeleton – especially if she runs part-time on asphalt and concrete. At one point I could squat 450. Pounds. Not bad for a little suburban girl.
Except that the running and pressing were really metaphors I was living out, while I took over where the orthopedists wisely left off, attempting to pound my body into shape. What shape, you may ask, because obviously I was cardiovascularly fit? I’m not sure I ever knew, except that it wasn’t good enough yet, and I really loved – lived for – the euphoria. Adrenaline junkie, from my first mattress vault.
As a 41 year old yoga teacher, this history speaks to me through my joints. I’m lucky to have any cartilage left in my injured right hip, and the missing bits of connective tissue make alignment a moment-to-moment challenge. The muscular body I’d sculpted allowed me to power into Ashtanga yoga in my 30’s, continuing my pattern of subjugation of sense and sensibility, believing that working through the pain would alleviate it in the long run. It does not. Let me repeat that, because I had some apparently accomplished, seasoned, respected teachers who continue to instruct that it will. Pushing pain does not alleviate it.
The Ashtanga yoga would, however, give me the structure to begin to hunger for more quiet and listening, which eventually took me away from the programatic, forceful movements I was using. And this hunger (I’ve always loved food – both physical and spiritual) took me to the edge of deep waters. I’ve learned from Iyengar, Tantra, Anusara, Kundalini, Structural, Yin and other styles until I became able to let the yoga do me.
So today I don’t look like the American vision of a yoga teacher. I’m more well padded, happier than earlier versions of myself, and given to limp when not fully established in the core of my awareness, a tendency I’ll work with until I decide to get the hip re-surfacing procedure that’s revolutionizing hip replacement surgery. I sit differently than other meditators because of the way my right femur sits deeply in it’s joint. My relationship to alignment, perception of my core and core strength has been shaped and sharpened by the vicissitudes of my sculpted legs and hips.
I also work with my students differently than most other teachers, because I’ve visited so many points on the curve of perfect health and come so directly face-to-face with pain, transience and breakdown as well as strength, power and ability.
Yoga has been patient with me, and I continue to imbibe its lesson of perseverance, observation and responsiveness. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about yoga: it will meet you where you are and crack your heart open more gently, more surely than any lover. All yoga wants is your bare heart, naked and strong to engage the world.