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Head, Shoulders, Knees and OW!

Today I read an interesting article titled “House of Pain” by Ashtanga Yogi Anne Finstad – describing her relationship with pain in practicing ashtanga yoga ( Since the birth of my second child, I have had problems with my knees. After a meniscus tear in my right knee was established, I was operated when my second born was just under a year. One full year, yet another relocation (with Germany but still…) and not enough hours of yoga later, I still felt like my knee was not right. I got a recommendation to see a doctor in this area – a surgeon who also treats the 1.FC Nuremberg football team. Bedside manners: he had never heard of ’em. He took one look at my knee, and told me that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. He said it is physiologically mended – der Kollege hat es gut gemacht. He was done (he actually accused me of wasting his costly time that would be better spent in surgery – I suppose for “paying” private patients).

I was well experienced with the brevity of German & Austrian doctors. I persisted. But why then did I still have the pain and why can’t I stand up from a squat etc? While still complaining about his time being wasted on me, he started to really diagnose me. He started up from my hip (slight alignment problem – this I knew from my physical therapy in Dusseldorf), all the way to my neck (always the right side), to my jaw. He asked if it is always my right side bother me: YES! Even while we were still in China, I had TCM therapy for my neck/right shoulder pain. It still hadn’t gone away – but after two children and two relocations within two years, I didn’t really expect it would. I just accepted it as a minor nuisance that was now a part of me. He told me that is a problem with my bite – my teeth – and sent me to a dentist (!) in Nuremberg who practices alternative medicine and who could rid me of the “infection” behind my molars.

This all sounds incredibly hokey as I write it now, however this doctor actually brought tears to my eyes (no, not from his snide jabs – my German-healthcare- skin is pretty thick) but because his diagnosis seemed to connect all the problems in my body over the past years and it finally all made sense. IMG_6548Seeing that it was not a big investment of time or money,  I did go to that dentist in Nuremberg and I did get the painful jabs in my jaw (this time, from a homeopathic injection) and the knot in my right shoulder/neck did go away. And in time, my right knee pain too. I started practicing ashtanga yoga which is rigorous no the knees but also on building up the thigh muscles. Now it’s again one year later. The reason I landed on Anne’s article today was because I was researching how to modify my ashtanga practice for knee pain. My left knee hurts.

I’ve changed. I say things like “when I was young.” Even though I don’t feel old, I know I’m getting old. I never thought about getting a “month” older, but now that I’m counting the months with my son, I often (too quickly for my taste) find myself thinking “there we go, there’s another month that we will never get back.” Kaya learned how to sit on his own in the past few months. What did I learn? I learned RESPECT. Respect for something I have most ignorantly taken for granted all these years. The machine we call the human body.

Why this revelation now as we enter 2011? Well at the turn of the new year, we experienced an episode that puts things into perspective for us. But before I get to that, may I explain that this climax was preceded by a series of events that tie into the same theme.

First and foremost, the miraculous prenatal development and birth of our son in May 2010. I admit, I doubted and underestimated my body. I watched “The Mircale of Birth” in middle school. I also knew others who carried out their pregnancies to term and had beautiful, healthy babies, but could I do it? And I am not only taking about the actual delivery – I mean, the whole thing, from conception to growing a “normal” healthy child in the womb, my womb. Now why would I doubt the most natural thing in human nature? I honestly don’t know. I don’t have really any reason to. And this is what I kept telling myself during the pregnancy. I come from generations of women who have successfully mastered childbirth. Patrick ditto. We are thankfully both generally healthy people who take care of ourselves – don’t have any (too) terribly consequential lifestyle habits besides the occasional drink in a Shanghai bar or midnight presentation for work. Then I sat back and watched the body, that machine, do it’s magic. OK, I didn’t exactly “sit” through this process. I was working up to the last week and traveling up to the sixth month. At some point, I started actually trusting this machine, exactly because it was working so well. At every check up, the doctor would listen to the baby’s heartbeat and then send me home saying “OK, baby’s very happy. See you next month.” Towards the end of the pregnancy, when I finally had to face the fact that this beautiful machine had produced a very beautiful but also fairly large bundle of long arms and legs which would have to come out, I realized that I was out of my element. My body had been in charge for a now. I tried to get the mind to catch up. I read the Hynobirthing book my knowledgeable friends gave me, I popped in the DVDs, and did some of the exercises…listening to the nice woman’s voice till I fell asleep. The most frightening thing though was that I would have to be in a situation where a team of almost perfect strangers would be more in control of my destiny than I would. When that day did come, it was a Sunday (very early morning at that), and my doctor was still on vacation (returning only the next day), so the staff were largely composed of people I had never seen before in my life. Long story short, it was a miracle. The preparation did help, but mostly it was a random and unexpected event. And I think most mothers will say the same. At some point, you give up your control and the body does its thing. While there are those who can master the mind to unite with the body through this experience (and I say this with the utmost admiration), I didn’t quite get there. I was an innocent bystander and I was lucky.

Cut to November 2010. Kaya is six months old. And I manage to put off my impending appendectomy just long enough to nurse him to this point. I am going to have my first surgery and there is no turning back. OK, I guess it was not an emergency as most appendectomies are. I could have still put it off, but at the risk of this little menace of an organ getting inflamed and causing me real trouble at any inconvenient time. So it was going to happen at a time I chose, with a team I chose, in a hospital I chose. A stranger (but a trusted one) with a sharp knife was going to cut through several layers of abdominal tissue to remove something that was apparently only created for surgeons (as my surgeon put it when I asked if I would ever need this organ at some point). But before that, another stranger was going to put a long needle between the vertebrae in my spine and inject poison that would unable me to feel my torso and legs for several hours. Would my body cooperate this time? I had just started feeling like I had a core again with several months of yoga training behind me, and now what would happen? So Control, are you listening? Handing you over to this team now – on a silver platter. See you after those sleeping pills wear off. No wait, see you after I start to feel my legs again. Not being in control of your legs is a strange sensation for those who have never felt it. It felt h-e-a-v-y. And like I couldn’t breathe, although there was no connection to my lungs. It just felt like I was a ton of bricks laying on that bed unable to move. Thankfully the sensation didn’t last too long and pretty soon I was able to feel the aftermath of the severed layers of abdominal tissue. I don’t want to make a big deal out of a small surgery and offend those brave souls who have experienced much more complex cases. Suffice it to say the machine triumphed again. Several days and a few drops of morphine later, I was good as new. I even switched to the lightest painkillers after going home in order to return to nursing more quickly. Bye bye nuisance, hello new muscle-less core. I was golden.

Cut to December 31, 2010. We are in the ER of Chong Hua Hospital in Cebu City (on Cebu Island), Philippines. Doctors who look like they should still be in high school are seeing to my husband’s case, a severe headache which hasn’t relented even after several hours in the decompression chamber at a military hospital the night before, a treatment recommended to us by the doctor at our vacation resort who had heard Patrick was scuba diving 24 hours before the headache started. The pressure was right in the sinuses above his eyebrows, so our trusted friend and ENT surgeon who we called in the US advises us to have a CT scan taken of the paranasal sinuses before we fly to Manila that afternoon. The results of the scan cause our happy-go-lucky high school musical Philippino ER staff to take on a more somber expression. Suddenly, admission to the hospital was made, flight was missed, New Year’s plans with our friends in Manila subverted. There was a new sheriff in town. The body. And here we were, taking it for granted again. But were we? After the ordeal ended (with the machine generating yet another miracle), we spent quite some time thinking about if we did or not. Many of our loved ones, who only want the best for us, told us that this was a sign to not work so hard or travel so much or take so many risks. This is probably exactly what I would have told a friend had she been in my shoes, because I believe in the body signaling messages. So was that us? Reckless, stressed out globetrotters who don’t appreciate our health or how precious life is? That’s how we are seen, so let’s look in the mirror. God, we don’t see those people, because we really, REALLY do appreciate what we have. BUT. We do see people who chose to live in and have a child in one of the most polluted cities in the world, who not only were given but sought out jobs carrying a lot of responsibility, who could have spent the Christmas holidays staying put in China but instead got on a plane to see a country they had never seen before and then got on another plane to see one of the more beautiful islands in that country AND THEN went to a resort 2,5 hours from downtown to get away from the area where most tourists stay.

I see it. We see it. We see our bodies. We are counting the months now not only for Kaya but ourselves. We have the utmost respect for that machine, and we will never take it for granted again, or at least till we do (again). Our careless youth chapter is closed. However (or furthermore), we also see our minds. This also demands to be respected. We learned that there needs to be a balance between body and mind. So here’s to a balanced 2011 for us and hopefully for all of you.

Head, stomach, skin, hair. Seems my mind took to China more than my body too. Patrick too has some complaints of physical nature. But all of those who know us well, will be surprised to find out that I was the first one with a bacterial infection. It hit the only in Week 5, just when we were laughing our way through the local food scene, hearing stories of others who suffered for several weeks/months upon arrival.

The migraines were also no laughing matter. They actually hit Week 4 and continued on to 5. Many people suffer from them in the summers here. It is just so humid. And the continuous back-and-forth with air conditioning/humidity is simply not healthy.

So does this mean the honeymoon with Shanghai is over? No, not really, just temporarily put on hold.