Justicia DeClue is an Anusara-Inspired Yoga Teacher in Philadelphia, PA. She is Bay Shakti’s first contributor from outside the San Francisco Bay Area.
I thought of myself as an indestructible, bionic woman in 2007. As a professional aerialist, I could bench press my body weight, do more pull-ups than most men I knew, and was getting booked by an agent for dramatic shows on my red silks at casinos, art museums and the like. I was a certified yoga teacher lauded in my Midwestern community as an archetype of strength and fitness. My wife and I had plans to move to Philadelphia that year to further our circus education and teaching careers when my shoulder started hurting.
What started as a nagging discomfort in my shoulder quickly became debilitating, searing pain. I thought I was simply overdoing it and took some time off from my training. I sought help from a kinesiologist, a chiropractor, and massage therapists. I tried Reiki and meditation, but got only minimal relief. I had heard about the therapeutic applications of Anusara Yoga, but there were no teachers near me. I practiced Anusara at home with blogs and podcasts, but knew I needed a teacher.
We moved to Philadelphia later that year, and enrolled in aerial classes, but the brutal pain came back immediately. I was devastated that I couldn’t finish the first session due to my shoulder. I left every class in tears, and felt like such a failure. I, the once-bionic woman, couldn’t do what I loved any more. The pain was limiting more and more activities. Aerials were out of the question, and yoga was becoming impossible as well. I couldn’t drive my stick shift car. Even lifting a glass of water made me grimace.
I started my first round of Anusara Immersions with Sue Elkind and Naime Jezzeny in early 2008. I was so hungry for the teachings, and I devoured the info as fast as i could consume it. I read the Immersion Manual and Teacher Training Manuals cover to cover the day they arrived in the mail. I learned I needed “Side Body Long” and “Shoulder Loop.” I applied the Principles powerfully. Side body LONG, head of the arm bone BACK. Some times it seemed to help, but more often it didn’t.
I was dismayed, and my faith in the efficacy of Anusara’s Universal Principles of Alignment was wavering. I had been in pain all day, every day for too long. I felt like I was losing my mind; it literally felt like my arm was going to fall off my body. As a teacher, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t clear it. The more Anusara I studied, the more my teaching career was really taking off, but my body seemed to be falling apart. I was becoming sought after for Anusara therapeutics, and it seemed like I was effectively able to share these teachings with everyone but myself.
In Sue’s class one day she came to help me with Urdhva Dhanurasana (full wheel pose), and she asked me to move my hands more under my shoulders. I said casually, oh sorry, I can’t, because I can’t bend my right elbow fully. Why not? she asked. Oh, 10 years ago I broke my upper arm bone, and after it was set, I never regained full range of motion. The doctors and physical therapists couldn’t figure it out. Why didn’t I tell her this when she asked about injuries at the beginning of the training? She seemed so concerned. I shrugged. It doesn’t seem like an injury to me. It’s just my weird elbow….I’m used to it…..I mean, my elbow doesn’t HURT or anything….and then it hit me all at once, before she even said anything. I heard Naime’s voice in my head: “When one part of the body is stuck, another part will move too much to compensate.”
Like when doing pull-ups as an aerialist: if you can’t bend your elbow fully your shoulder will come out of the socket to finish the movement. With every pull-up, every time I had placed my hands for wheel pose, every time I threw my backpack over my right shoulder, every pose that asked for deep elbow flexion, I was hurting myself. I was re-injuring my right shoulder every day with countless little actions.
The truth was (to borrow a phrase from Christina Sell) a blinding flash of the obvious. As I dug into the assymetries deeper, I learned that not only had my right shoulder adapted by becoming hypermobile, but my right ribs were shifting to accommodate. Zhenja LaRosa taught me that if I just first brought my body to neutral, square to the front, then I was setting myself up for First Principle. This had to come before the muscle engagement. Zhenja taught me how to fill out the collapsed side of my torso with breath, how to fill with the breath FIRST. I learned to switch gears from “side body LONG, head of the armbone BACK” to “Soften. Breathe.” I learned to go way back to the beginning again, to the invitation of the breath.
And so I did. As I got more subtle in my application of the Principles, I started to feel kinesthetically what Zhenja was always saying: the first principle holds all the others in an embrace. I see now I had been doing great, strong muscle action, skipping right over that whole “Open to Grace and receive the gift of the breath fully” thing. But of course Grace never stopped inviting me to open. And when I finally moved toward her, and learned to soften, and truly allowed myself to expand my breath towards my full potential, my healing progressed quickly.
Today, it’s hard to believe how much pain I was in. Not only is the daily shoulder pain gone, but I feel integrated and empowered, and in a way, even stronger than I was before. I am practicing poses and doing things I never would have even attempted two or three years ago. Through all my healing, through everything I’ve learned, the transition from daily pain was truly never farther away than a full, deep breath.