Friday, 20 January 2017

Painful shoulder

When I woke up on Sunday morning, my right shoulder felt stiff. By lunchtime it was painful, and by the evening it was excruciating. On Tuesday the pain hadn't gone so I went to see the doctor – she said I should rest until it calmed down. On Wednesday morning it was even worse and on a recommendation from a friend, I booked to see a private physio. He said the muscles in my shoulder had gone into spasm – possibly as a reaction to the way I sit in front of my computer. He massaged the painful area which seemed to calm things down, then taped my shoulder back as a way of reminding me to hold a good posture. Today is Friday and it seems to be feeling better. More of a dull throbbing ache now.

It's amazing how something like this can bring up so much stuff! At first I was trying to work out what I did to tip the balance and make my shoulder start shouting at me. The fact that I couldn't pin it down to something specific was frustrating. Then there was the pain itself. As I've found before with pain, the more I resisted it, the more my body tightened and the worse it got! The key with pain is to do everything you can to soften around it – physically and mentally. But in those waves of excruciating sensation, it took all my concentration to stay with it. The problem with this kind of focus is that it's very narrowing. Like having blinkers on, I found it difficult to be aware of my surroundings or even hold a conversation when my focus was so tight. Pain sharpens and narrows our awareness, which is why softness and relaxation is so important.

When I heard from the doctor that it might take some time to calm down and I should just let it take its course, again up came the frustration, but also fear – what if it takes months? Can I take this kind of pain for months? What if it never heals? How can I continue working and teaching...? This is called "catastrophising", and as humans, we're very good at it!

When I saw the physio and he told me he thought it might've been brought on by poor posture... to that I reacted in indignation! "But I've done a lot over the years to make sure my posture is good... I practice yoga, I have a desk that raises up to standing height, I've been doing Rolfing over the last few months specifically to work on my postural integration, and I thought I sit at my computer with a good posture... How dare he suggest that?!" (that was just my thoughts – I didn't actually say that!).

He had this poster up on his wall (as pictured – Spinal Damage at 0 mph), and of course he's totally right. Even with the best will in the world, we all get caught out. Desks and computers are a major health risk! Hours sitting still with a bad posture puts huge strains on the body. The body was not designed to work at a desk.

Each week I volunteer with the Kings College Hospital Chaplaincy team to go in and visit people on the wards. One of the wards I go to regularly is a blood cancer ward, and now and then I meet someone who relates their story of how they first got their diagnosis. Maybe they'd had flu and got a blood test, or maybe got a test for something unrelated, and boom, it comes back saying they've got leukaemia (or similar). What I've experienced this week is so minor compared to that, but it does make me realise just how grateful I am for what I have.

In health we often go along thinking we'll be fine for ever. We forget life is so fragile. None of us are immune to pain – not even a yoga teacher that tries to take care of his body!

The Buddha described those of us that hold on to particular views, ideas, beliefs, wishes, etc, as stuck wheels (dukkha). You know, like when the brakes on your bike are done up too tight and they stick on the rims... Moving forward takes a lot of effort and we suffer. The trick is to let go and soften, and not just to know but to live the truth that everything is always in a state of change (anitya).

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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  1. Hi Mark,
    I hope you're well. You know all about my troubles with postural issues. After years of going to a physio, I've concluded that practices like physio and rolfing are only good in so far as they are corrective. The problem is that we are creatures of habit so as soon as we go back to sitting the wrong way or using our computer in a maladaptive manner, the same issues return. I have had sessions with my physio, felt great, and then had all the same problems three weeks later. I'm about to embark on a series of Alexander Technique classes, which are aimed at teaching better postural habits. I'll let you know how they go. You probably don't need anything like that at the moment - sounds like the incident with your shoulder was a one off - but if you have re-occuring issues you might want to consider.

    Take care,

    David Bernstein


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