I went to the opening of an art show last weekend. It was my one big outing for the day so I really soaked it in. I got there early, giving myself time to crutch across the parking lot and down the long hall to the gallery. I took my time looking at all the paintings, I chatted with other artists and guests, and I fielded many, many questions about my boot-and-crutches situation. Mostly, people want to know how it happened and how much longer I’ll have to use the supports. I’m off the crutches on Wednesday, if all goes well. And, Boring story really, I turned my ankle stepping off a curb… After a while, my working leg felt tired, so I sat down on a long bench to rest. One of the artists sat down next to me. He walks with a cane, and said he thought resting looked like a good idea. There was some camaraderie in his voice – the two of us with legs that wear out and walking aids.
We sat there and chatted for a long while. We talked about his painting, a bustling and vibrant New York City scene, set where the twin towers used to be. As we talked, his wife joined us on the bench. She’s an author (my daughter is a big fan) and our chat turned to historical fiction, an interest of mine and a passion of hers. The conversation slowed and very casually, my friend said something about not being so steady on his cane. He usually uses a walking aid in each hand (his friend thinks he looks like he is cross country skiing when he takes his morning walk) but in a crowd, he just brings his cane. It’s a little more subtle and easier to manage. Then he asked about my boot and crutches.
In the moment before I replied, I felt a wash of emotion come over me. Aaaah. I’m going to be off of my crutches and out of this boot before long, but my friend will not. For as smart as I think I am sometimes, this little insight got me. It changed how I responded to the question and it left me humbled. I noticed how easily I took my experience of crutches and a broken foot and then applied my take on the matter to a huge collection of people – elderly people who move slowly, people who have been in a boot, people who have had to use crutches, people who have needed care from someone due to illness or injury. A few days with a broken foot and I had it all figured out. But, come on, I don’t really know what that’s like for other people, just like I don’t really know what it’s like for the friend I made at the art show to be in need of his cane.
We all have our individual experience.
There’s the very important human understanding of empathy and compassion. It’s a gift and it’s very necessary to be able to relate to what someone else is going through. But there is a fine line between relating and making the assumption that because I can empathize, I understand.
The distinction is subtle but important and I’m lucky enough to see this in action every time I meet with my teacher or spend time with other practitioners in this Krishnamachayra tradition. It’s what I hope to offer my yoga therapy clients. When I meet with my teacher to talk about an ache in my shoulder or about resistance to something I need to do or change or whatever is on my mind at the time, I’m given the assurance and comfort of hearing that this stuff is normal/lots of people go through it, AND, at the same time, I receive a sense of deep respect for my individual experience. This is the foundation of yoga therapy. It’s why most people who work with a yoga therapist get an individualized personal practice specifically for them. It’s the reason that it’s important to be in ongoing contact with a teacher and to do your practice on your own.
I went to the doctor yesterday and I’m off the crutches and walking in the boot now. I’m sooooo glad to be done with crutches, and as tempting as it is to hate on them, I really can’t. A lot of precious things have come from this broken foot, including a better understanding of the yoga therapy work I’m here to do. Thanks crutches. Even if you’re not the best, I guess you aren’t the worst either.