Listening to Our Bodies’ Wisdom

Prior to coming to the Human Garage, I was disconnected from my body. My body spoke to me for years, yet I learned to actively ignore it.

One might think competitive athletes are more connected to their bodies. Perhaps some are, but I mostly disagree. I think if most competitive athletes were really connected to their bodies we’d be miserable. We learn to ignore pain, fight it, pretend that it’s not there. We’re praised for overcoming our physical obstacles by pushing past them. If we actually fully felt each ache and pain we’d probably quit our respective sports. And, our bodies are pretty amazing in going along with this ignoring until they reach their breaking points.

We disconnect from our bodies as a means of survival. It makes perfect sense and it was helpful thousands of years ago when our ancestors were running around escaping imminent threats of danger and trying to survive.

But, we have to ask ourselves: do these patterns of pain and disconnection serve us any longer?

A competitive high school and college distance runner, I learned to run through anything. I pounded my shins on the streets of New York City mile after mile. I could numb myself to just about any physical ache if I just pushed through it long enough. At 28-years-old, it finally caught up with me.

My body was talking and it was time to listen.

Over the course of just ten years, I cycled through innumerable injuries: four stress fractures on my lower extremities, multiple injuries to my left hip, IT band pain, knee pain in various areas, and tears in my ankle. In the process of staying fit and “healthy,” I actually treated my body terribly.

I remember crawling two blocks home to my Seattle apartment once when a bad fall running on a dark, rainy winter night blew my ankle out and I had no cell phone to call for help. While yoga was previously my place for healing, it was in a yoga class in L.A. I heard a dreaded pop that would take my hip out for months. A teacher gave an adjustment I knew to be unsafe for my hips. My ego kicked in, the class was body to body, and I let him do it anyway. (And in case you’re wondering, I’ve learned valuable lessons from both of these life experiences.)

I learned to disconnect from my body in order to survive. I didn’t know how much I’d suffered until the pain started to go away and my body began to unwind (insert Human Garage circa 2015). When I began to feel “pain free,” it was then I learned just how much discomfort I was living with daily.

I remember the scene of a sports medicine clinic I went to in college. This doctor treated many competitive athletes. When he did an MRI of my ankle and feet he called in all the residents. I knew it was bad when I heard the collective “oohhs” and “whooooas” as their eyes grew bigger. I showed signs of multiple stress fractures in my feet, but they were healing. It signified I’d been running through actual fractures, unknowingly, for years.

How does this even happen?

I’ve spent a lot of time with young children as a teacher. They’ve taught me innumerable things about life and our bodies, especially.

Our bodies are like children. If we ignore them when they talk to us, they will only begin to scream louder. If we don’t give them what it is they’re asking for, we’ll likely reach full on tantrum mode. Our bodies may even rebel when they feel unheard, ignored, used, and attended to improperly. The more we ignore our bodies’ needs, the louder they will begin to speak (insert chronic pain, surgeries, illnesses, stress fractures, and cycles of injuries).

I came from a family of athletes. We provided a steady stream of business to University of Washington’s orthopedic surgeons in the form of my mother’s, stepmother’s, and brother’s knee surgeries. I was a frequent flyer to their sports medicine clinic. My father had his hip replaced at another hospital nearby. Were our misalignments genetic or a learned pattern of ignoring and mistreating our bodies over time? We were avid distance runners, cyclists, skiers, and hikers. As long as I remembered, we were always on the move. We looked physically quite healthy, yet I knew the stories and cycles of pain that plagued each of us.

Our pain may manifest differently from one person, one family, one body to the next. This pain may be physical, emotional, mental. Or perhaps a combination of all of these. But, ultimately, its purpose is similar.

Pain is information. Pain is our body (and most importantly, our brain’s) way of talking and communicating to us. When we ignore it our body and mind find creative ways to grab our attention. Pain gets worse. We blow out the other knee. Our back starts to hurt. We injure something new. Surgery gives us a temporary fix, until something else starts to hurt and the cycle continues.

In the years that followed my initial running injury at the age of 16, multiple injuries would “heal” themselves, albeit temporarily. But just as each physical therapist treated one physical issue to its “healing,” a new issue would emerge. One symptom subsided and another slew would emerge. One physical symptom cascaded into a cycle of injuries.

Our bodies are designed to heal, but we have to allow them to. Sometimes, we get in our own way as we try to heal. If we want to heal, our responsibility becomes to listen to our bodies’ powerful wisdom when it begins to whisper, not only when it screams.

How do we listen to our bodies? Well, more on that in weeks to come.

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