Collectively, my many injuries represent joints and muscles throughout my entire body. These injuries, together with many illnesses and such experiences as being in a wheel chair, on crutches, and bedridden for long periods of time, have given me a perspective I would not have had otherwise.
I choose to be thankful
So, it may not be surprising that, as a yoga teacher, I specialize in yoga therapy for musculoskeletal issues and bring to my work an expertise and compassion borne of experience. Rather than be resentful of what appears to be more than my fair share of injuries and illnesses, I choose to be thankful for what I have learned and for the blessing of being able to help others reach for optimal health—physically, mentally and spiritually.
I would like to add that I have never thought of myself as someone prone to illness and injury–I have always seen myself as healthy and hardy. You might even say that I had to work really hard to get some of my injuries. As an athlete, ballet dancer, horse rider and trainer, I often pushed myself to limits most people would have avoided.
Injuries led me to my dharma
Looking back, I can see the hand of God and Guru clearly helping me, through my many injuries, to fulfill my dharma as a yoga teacher. The injuries cut off some of the other avenues I might have taken—professional dancing, modeling, acting—pursuits that easily could have prevented me from having a spiritual life.
It was a back injury in the early 1980s that led me to Ananda. After a completely unhelpful visit to an orthopedic surgeon, I was feeling very low regarding my situation. Unexpectedly, I received a flyer from the Ananda San Francisco House announcing a three-month intensive yoga teacher-training program. I had no desire to teach yoga, but while staring at the flyer I had an unexplainable “knowing” that taking this course would be a lifeline out of my downward spiral.
And it was! I had no idea the course would cover not only yoga postures but also yogic philosophy, spirituality, and the concept of a guru. I learned that everyone had a guru and I looked forward to finding mine.
It took several years for me to realize that I had already found my guru:Paramhansa Yogananda. By then, I had opened my own yoga studio in San Francisco and was teaching yoga.
A blessing not to feel pain
A source of deep fulfillment in my work as a therapeutic yoga teacher is the smile on peoples’ faces—the “light bulb” moments when pain has disappeared or is suddenly no longer acute. Often it’s a blessing not to feel pain for any period of time. Many students have found pain relief, healing, and have avoided surgery through the therapeutic yoga sessions.
In a therapeutic yoga session, the problem presented by the student is usually physical, but the healing is both physical and spiritual, and often unexpected. This scenario is especially true with students new to yoga who would never seek spiritual counseling.
One example was a student who complained of a chronic shoulder problem. After I led him through a series of restorative poses, he began to open up and mentioned a disagreement with his daughter. Apparently feeling more comfortable, he then launched into a discussion of the issue underlying his shoulder problem: his Catholic background, his deepening feelings for Yogananda and the yogic spiritual path, and the conflicts these feelings caused him.
I spent most of the rest of the class quoting the Bible and pointing out the deeper meanings, and showing how they parallel the yoga teachings. The student found the parallels very reassuring, and by the end of the session his shoulder felt fine. He is now exploring Yogananda’s teachings more deeply with the goal of becoming a disciple.
A way to accelerate spiritual progress
I try to meet people where they are and to help them accordingly. However, when working with devotees, I can talk openly about meditation, the subtle energies, prayer, and spiritual growth as part of the healing process, which can lead to faster results. Devotees already understand the benefits of yoga postures, how they can help us sit for long periods of meditation and redirect our energy upward to the spiritual eye.
One student needed help with his spiritual practices and guidance on a hip problem. After observing him, it became clear that one practice would resolve both concerns. I instructed him to keep his attention at the spiritual eye at all times to the degree possible.
On a physical level, this upward focus lifted his torso enough to take the load off his hips, and helped correct his hip and postural problems. As for his spiritual concerns—focusing more frequently at the spiritual eye throughout the day energized his entire spiritual life. This is a practice Yogananda strongly recommends for all devotees as a means of accelerating spiritual progress.
I put my trust in Yogananda
In my work as a therapeutic yoga teacher, I always pray to Yogananda and ask him to guide me in how to work with students so that each one receives what he or she needs. I say, “Master, this is your student, you tell me what to do.”
By this process I have spiritualized my work and it has become a form of sadhana. Sometimes the guidance I receive makes no sense to me but it always turns out to be the right thing.
Once, for example, one of my “student-teachers” was guiding an older woman with a history of lower back pain. Following the teacher’s guidance, the woman was doing leg movements and stretches that had the potential to strain the lower back. My first impulse was to rush over and “correct” the situation. Wanting to be respectful to my students (especially when they are guiding others), I paused and asked Yogananda what to do.
The answer was to “do nothing.” I asked again to be sure and the answer was clear: “Do nothing.” So, I put my trust in Yogananda and let the situation unfold. Later in the class, when the students gave feedback, the older woman expressed her gratitude and enjoyment for the helpful leg exercises her teacher had given her—the ones that “common sense” told me would not be good for her. I smiled and inwardly thanked my guru.
A different perspective on pain
As I’ve learned to rely more on God and Guru, and to understand that I am not the “doer,” I have become a more effective therapeutic yoga teacher. I receive the inspiration I need and teaching is much easier, with better results for my students. Also, by attempting always to practice the presence of God, I naturally begin to spiritualize everything I do, including my work.
As for my own healing journey, in the years since I first found Ananda, meditation and the practice of Kriya Yoga have given me an entirely different perspective on pain, which allows for a different experience of pain. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “even a little practice of this inward religion will save you from dire fears and colossal suffering.”
This article first appeared in print in Winter 2009: “Injuries and Pain as a Path to God,” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
Nicole DeAvilla Whiting lives in Marin County with her husband and two children. She teaches Ananda Yoga at the Expanding Light Guest Retreat at Ananda Village and in Marin County, where she also leads an Ananda meditation group.
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