My Story: Pain As A Teacher

I want to talk about pain. I want to talk about physical pain and yoga asana and becoming better teachers. I want to talk about my pain and I want to talk about all of us becoming more loving, helpful people.

I want to share a piece of my story. I do this in the hopes of inspiring you to keep putting one foot in front of the other on your own unique path.

It is a bright and windy day here in DC. The skies are a cloudless blue, and the sun shines relentlessly. It is a perfect fall day. I would love to be outside running around, but instead I am in a cafe starting at my computer, just grateful to be out of the house for the first time in two days.

My best friends are in NYC shopping for a wedding dress for our friend Cat. I was supposed to be there, but I couldn’t go. I miss my NYC friends terribly, and I feel super sad about missing out on this.

I am having a flare up of an old back injury and my whole world feels very small all of a sudden.

I couldn’t teach on Thursday or Friday and have been RESTING RESTING RESTING. It feels sooooooo boring. {I bet you know the feeling?}

I don’t think this will be a long term problem, and am hot on the trail of the culprit {an unstable SI joint}, but it brings back all the feelings of being injured from my teens and early 20s and I feel bummed.

I am also being reminded of everything my pain has taught me.

You know how when you feel stiff getting out of bed, or sitting down on the floor, and you say, in a silly way: “Oh god, I feel like I’m 90!”

When I find myself creaky and achy my exclamation is always, “Oh god, I feel like I’m 19!!”

As a dancer I was always in some kind of pain. Sometimes it was chronic, from overuse injuries like shin splints and achilles tendonitis. These were to be danced over. Sometimes it was extreme soreness from a new piece, choreographer, or style of dance. {This was DEFINITELY to be danced through.} Sometimes it was serious injury that I should have done something about but didn’t: torn hamstring, SI joint dysfunction, or rotator cuff injury. Then a few horrible/lucky times, the injuries were so bad that I was choiceless. Pushing through was not an option. One of these was the Infamous Torn Labrum Of 2006.

As a result of that last big injury, the first two years I was a full time yoga teacher I had to walk with a cane and often teach from sitting in a chair. I was 22. That is a long story for another day. {I guess I will have to write it sometime, huh?}

I have grown tremendously as a result of these injuries. The injuries I dealt with became a graduate thesis in self care, body work, functional movement patterns, and healthy ways of practicing asana. This means that I have had far fewer {if any} musculoskeletal injuries since I made a full recovery of my torn labrum in 2008.

At 32 I have already lived in so many versions of my body that were injured or unwell. I have also had many times in my life that I recovered and built up strength and endurance and once again had a body that could do amazing things.

This summer I had a pretty major problem with my thyroid that caused terrible heart palpitations, blinding ear ringing, and extreme anxiety. Even though I had no musculoskeletal injuries I could only practice the most restorative and basic asana. I couldn’t do inversions or backbends at all, and I wasn’t running, hiking, or going to spin class. {All things that I love.}

Through the fall I have been slowly and finally feeling so much better and so much more like myself. I had a friend comment that is must have been so hard to not feel like my normal active self this summer.

It was, but the dips don’t get me down too much. I have already done this so many times. I know I will get better, and I am, at 32, already deeply at peace with the rhythm of life that includes health and activity, and sickness and injury. This rhythm is part of the natural aging process, and this rhythm is also part of life because the human body is an amazing and sometimes delicate organism that needs to be paid close attention to and cared for deeply, regardless of age.

My pain taught me {and continues to teach me} how to connect with and take care of my body, yet it had another, even bigger, lesson for me.

My pain taught me to see and understand the pain of the person sitting right in front of me, and it taught me how to take care of them.

{Having such a debilitating injury so young in my yoga teacher life matured my teaching dramatically.}

Could our experience with our physical bodies support an ever-widening circle of awareness? Could it help us see that none of our pain {physical or otherwise} is unique? Could the ever-widening awareness help us see that my pain is your pain, and if you are hurting than I am hurting too?

That is what physical pain has done for me, and I am forever grateful. {Even though I am also grumpy and uncomfortable.}

If you are a yoga teacher, and you have been injured, or are sick, I want to encourage you to dive headfirst into this work that life is offering you.  We can use healing our physical bodies as a practice ground for learning how to heal the pain of our students and loved ones. We can use our pain to make us more sensitive to the pain of friends and strangers and people halfway across the world.

I’m talking here about the physical pain of multiple hip injuries, but your suffering could be the loss of a beloved, or it could be his divorce or her bankruptcy. Our hearts can break in so many ways, but could we see this pain not as an obstacle in the way, but as the very path itself?

What can we do to help heal the terrible pain of the people of this world? {Right now my heart aches for Paris and Beirut and Syria and all the places terrorized by violence.} What can we do? Other, smarter people will have much more to say about this than I.

I’ll just say the one thing I know for sure: We can use our pain to learn to feel theirs.

We have the privilege of having the teachers and time and resources that teach us how to connect and care for our physical and emotional bodies. We can use that privilege to make ourselves strong enough, and resilient enough, to take helpful, healing action in an ever-widening way.

May we all be happy.

May we all be healthy.

May we all be free of suffering.

May we all be at peace.

Please share: How has your pain changed you? Love to you, my dear ones.

22 Responses to “My Story: Pain As A Teacher”

  1. Karen

    Thanks Franscesca…I feel your pain. As a 62 and counting year old yogi I have weathered my share of yoga “issues” that usually center around too much. I look forward to hearing your ideas about advanced asana. Like all of us, I am thinking about what I can do differently or more of to promote healing and health in this world.♡

  2. Claire

    This post resonated with me SO much that tears started streaming down my face. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was 18. Now at 23, I have learned to manage the chronic pain, fatigue and headaches, and mostly block it out when I’m really focused on teaching. But then when I do get a full day off (only Mondays) I completely unravel. Yesterday I felt so dark, heavy, and depressed about the state of the world, almost like I’m super sensitive to everyone else’s suffering. I took steps to feel better, went on a gentle walk in the woods, took an Epsom salt bath, practiced some restorative yoga which set me up for a wonderful night of sleep. Without consistent self-care and solitude, I feel my teachings suffer from my physical pain, foggy head, and tiredness. I find that I am able to connect and offer more accessible classes with students from all generations, and those suffering from chronic conditions like MS, osteoporosis, herniated discs, etc. because of the suffering I have been through. I try to be as open and honest about my physical experiences and my mental states (depressed, hopeless) with students and they always appreciate that. Everyone is surprised to hear that I am “sick” because I look and act so healthy. Transparency and authenticity about my suffering has helped me the most, because the first few years of teaching I didn’t say anything about my personal life…you really do have to fully feel the pain and come to terms with the ebb and flow that comes with chronic pain, injuries, and disease. Thank you for sharing this Francesa! I will definitely re-read next time I need an inspirational pick-me-up.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Dear, sweet Claire. You are wise beyond your years and doing great work in the world. I am so proud of you!! <3

  3. Christine

    Shout it from the treetops! Owning our experience, *all* the bodies we practice in and the healing power of yoga apart from its “sculpting” benefits requires speaking from a place of vulnerability that gives us power (thanks, Brene Brown for talking so eloquently about that!). Sharing that is the real teaching.

    • Francesca Cervero

      That is the idea Christine! It’s not always easy for me to share, but I do it anyway. Thanks for the support. 🙂

  4. Jen

    Thank you Francesca, for sharing your story. So much wisdom in this post. I especially appreciate the idea of the “rhythm of health & illness”.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Ah, thank YOU Jen. I know, I like that topic too. Walking with a cane at 22 gave me a new perspective of what is possible in my body, even as I age.

  5. Jen M

    Thank you, Francesca, for being so open and vulnerable. I love the idea of using our own personal pain to learn to feel the pain of others. I have only recently started experiencing pain in my body from just general wear and tear. And while it’s frustrating, it has taught me to slow down and not rush and really listen to what my body is saying. SO important.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes, you are welcome Jen! Sharing definitely comes with a vulnerability hangover, but being received by so many supportive voices helps a lot. <3

  6. Donna S

    Thank you, Francesca, for this beautiful post. The older I get (I’ll be 60 in a few weeks), the more it feels as if physical pain and emotional pain are completely interchangeable, intertwined, and each informs the other. Big hugs on your current journey towards healing.

  7. Erika

    I wouldn’t trade my experience of suffering (age 31, breast cancer) for anything in the world. Yeah, it was a shitty year, and six years later, I still have lasting side effects that occasionally do get me down. But you are right, Francesca–it’s the pain that is the path! The thought that I could help someone who was hurting just like me to find a little better quality of life, a little more strength and confidence and peace, is what keeps me going everyday as I try to put myself out there as a yoga teacher. And I love what you say about the natural cycle of health and activity, sickness and injury. It is so important to respect that cycle. I can be really hard on myself during times of illness. As if I, a yoga practitioner, must somehow be able to avoid this and always be the perfect picture of health. I was also really in a dark place yesterday mainly because of my acute awareness of the incredible amount of suffering in the world. Luckily someone reminded me to be gentle with myself. It did not come to me naturally to do this. It’s good to be mindful of this. Thank you.

    • Francesca Cervero

      The Pain as the Path. I love that. Being sick or injured as a yoga teacher can trigger so many complicated feelings, including shame. But we are just regular humans, with regular human bodies that break down sometimes. The more we can own, and then care for our humanness, the better teachers we will be. All the compassion and love we want to send out into the world, must start with ourselves first. There is no other way it can work. Gentleness with ourselves is always the first and most important thing we can do to help others. Sending love to you dear…<3

  8. Andrea

    Francesca, Thank you for being so honest. Ive always had a go-go-go, do-do-do approach to my practice and my body is finally saying enough. I have to slow down, I have to listen to what it really wants, since its speaking to me through injury. And while it is frustrating, this article spoke to me so much, I feel I am now able to commiserate better with others, and my practice is no longer an ego-builder, rather a way to connect with myself, the divine and others. Beautiful piece. Sending you lots of love and patience and light! And I will love to hear about your labrum of 2006 incident very near here in the future. Your being vulnerable helps us all to be vulnerable as well. 🙂 XO

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thank you for the love Andrea! It makes the difficult sharing totally worth it! Xs and Os back at ya…

  9. Gail

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful post Francesca. I read it just as I was feeling low & frustrated – & your authentic voice connects & genuinely helps. Once again – one of the very few emails of real worth landing in my inbox(!!) Thanks lovely x

  10. Allie

    Thank you for sharing this Francesca! Since teaching 8-9 strong classes a week, I have experienced back pain that is so frustrating. I know this is a teaching moment for me. I am discovering what & how much I should be teaching. I guess I need to dive deeper into this and use what I am learning along the way. Healing is powerful!

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are welcome Allie! It may also be a good time to explore how much {if any} you need to demonstrate when you teach. I don’t do any asana at all when I teach, I never could have taught when I was injured if I did. Sending healing wishes to you…. <3

  11. Gracy

    Francesca love, your thoughts resonate with my heart this Thanksgiving morning! I am grateful for you telling the big messy beautiful truth of your experience with injury. I truly believe you have a book to write on this subject. I would love to get together when you are feeling ready for more movement. In the meantime, I’m sending you love from here. Big hugs, G

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thanks for the love, as always Gracy. You inspire me to share my big, messy, beautiful truth, as you do it with such grace and heart. <3


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