Falling Lessons

This past September, I was sitting on a raised platform outside of a restaurant in Les Houches, a small village in the French Alps, having dinner, when, shifting my weight to pick up my bag, which was sitting on the floor to my right, the left back leg of my chair tipped off the platform and threw me onto the street. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to try to catch myself, so I landed with full force on my left shoulder, dislocating it. The docs at the local hospital put me back together and I spent the next 3 weeks in a strait-jacket-like contraption that hugged my body and held my arm and shoulder immobile. I’ve had extensive physical therapy, which is ongoing, though not as often now, and my range of motion is almost back to normal. But my left arm, which is my dominant arm, is still somewhat weak, and I still have pain, especially when I try to sleep and when I do certain movements. As a result, although I’ve managed to resume my usual teaching schedule, I haven’t been able to return fully to my personal yoga routine. And I might need surgery to remove a small bit of bone that tore off the head of the humerus (this is apparently called a Hill-Sachs Deformity – a big name for a small fragment) and which might be the cause of the ongoing pain.

To answer your undoubtedly burning question: I had finished dinner – just hadn’t ordered any dessert.

To answer your other undoubtedly burning question: I didn’t threaten to sue the restaurant, though many people have expressed great surprise that I didn’t do so. In fact, it never occurred to me to do that.

I’ve been musing on what I’ve learned from this experience, if anything. Here are some of my thoughts, not necessarily in any order:

1. Know where your body parts are.
And that extends to a piece of furniture you might be sitting or lying on. I think we all tend to run stories in our heads while our bodies are just left to their own devices. There’s often a disconnect between what we’re thinking and what our bodies are doing. One of the goals of yoga is to restore that connection: in a yoga practice, we try to bring our focus to the sensations in our bodies. And that shouldn’t end when the practice ends. It’s important to carry that through to our everyday lives.

2. Pay attention.
Well, that’s just more of what I said in point one above. It doesn’t serve us to move through life in a haze, taking things for granted. I took it for granted that my chair was stable, and that there was plenty of room on the platform between my chair and the street. As an older adult, I’m well aware of the risks of falling. The statistics for falls in the senior population is alarming, But I’ve blithely assumed none of this applies to me since I’m (knock on wood) in good health and have good strength and flexibility. However, that can change in an instant.

3. Breathe

During the 3-ish hours from the time I fell, until the ambulance arrived at the restaurant, then arrived at the hospital, and then I was finally seen by the doctors, I used yoga breathing techniques (called pranayama in Sanskrit). I’ve always known pranayama is useful for decreasing stress and increasing focus, but was a bit surprised at how well it worked for me in this instance. By lengthening my breath, and keeping the exhale longer than the inhale, I felt my anxiety release. It also served to take the focus off of the pain and the entire distressing situation.

4. Drop your preconceived beliefs
I’ve always discounted my right arm being able to do anything much except to play a supporting role to my dominant left. But since my right arm has had to take over, and even as my left arm has been able to resume many of its normal tasks, my right arm has gotten quite strong and able (it can grasp my light but very large and unwieldy salad spinner by itself – the left was never able to do that!). This idea could extend to so many other things. What else do I unfairly assume to be insufficient or less than able? What else do I prejudge?

5. Maybe it’s time to move to France
Two months after the accident, I received a bill from the hospital in Sallanches for 177 euros (about $183). Can you imagine how much this would’ve cost here?