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Do Yoga or Break an Old Dog's Hip

Earlier this week, I was acutely reminded of the importance of being skillful. If not, one might run the risk of breaking an ankle, or an old dog’s hip. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.

Ziggy, my very stubborn 14 year old arthritic dog of nebulous parental origins, still insists upon climbing up a flight of stairs to go to bed every night. He is less inclined to go back down on his own so as a rule, he waits at the top every morning to be carried down by yours truly. Now, Ziggy is not a small dog, and I am, by comparison, not a large person. We have over the past year negotiated a solution whereby he climbs halfway onto my lap which allows me to wrap my arms around his chest and lumber down the stairs with 60 pounds of bones, muscles, and fluff. This had gone on without a hitch until suddenly it just didn’t.

A few mornings ago, we’d just made it halfway down the stairs when Ziggy started screeching and barking frantically, wild-eyed, turning his head towards his hind legs like they were apparitions out of his most tortuous nightmares. This in turn made me frantic and as I hurried downstairs to put him down, I turned an ankle and we both ended up on the floor like starfish, out of breath and crying. To my great astonishment, in short order that old dog got himself together and was able to scurry up and walk it off. Following suit, I removed myself from the floor and also walked it off, finding not a thing injured except my nerves, if you know what I mean.

Later that day, after practicing yoga and doing some reflection, I realized that 1) perhaps Ziggy should not be going upstairs anymore, 2) one should respect and be mindful of old arthritic joints, and 3) it’s supremely important to be skillful when dealing both with one’s own and someone’s else’s infirmities. If we lack mindfulness and skill, we could actually cause harm in our very intention to help. I believe this applies equally to both our physical practices, that is the way we move our bodies, and to the way we conduct ourselves in the world.

If I’d paid more attention to how my body was moving in the space I was in, I might have noticed where Ziggy’s hind legs were as I was carrying him downstairs. Our bodies are amazing things composed of complex moving mechanical parts and physiological processes all working together to achieve homeostasis and balance. All of this is done without us having to pay any attention to it which is great for our survival in the general sense, but not optimal to go beyond survival to fully thriving. This is where we can start to become skillful when moving around in our daily lives.

We gain awareness of our own bodies through mindful movement and exercise. We know everything is working well when we feel good. Consider the forms of exercise you regularly engage in - how does it make you feel? Just as consuming junk food can provide calories without nutrients, performing exercise improperly can build muscle and/or flexibility while throwing the body out of balance. In the long run, this can be unhelpful for our overall well-being. To achieve skill in this requires 2 things - knowledgeable instruction and attunement to our own bodies. Yoga and the BFF program here can help you develop more body awareness, and it is important to find what works for you in particular.

If we go a layer deeper and consider how we might conduct ourselves in our interactions with others in a more skillful way, having a physical movement practice can also help. When we are able to understand our bodies through movement, we can begin to tune in to how it feels at any moment. This is helpful because our bodies are the conduits for our emotions if we let them be. When we are stressed, we often tighten our shoulders and perhaps furrow our brows, often unconsciously. When we are nervous, we might experience palpitations in our chests or gnawing in our stomachs, and when we are sad we may feel heaviness in our chests, and so on and so forth.

Fine-tuning our awareness of the sensations in our bodies might help us to better understand and regulate our emotions. In doing so, we can respond thoughtfully as opposed to react instinctively during stressful situations. Because it is virtually impossible to move through this world without some challenges, all of us have sensitive points, sore spots if you will, of which we may or may not be aware, which is ok. However, every now and again, we may inadvertently press upon someone’s tender spot or they on ours, and the way we choose to respond will determine how we heal.

When I carried Ziggy down the stairs, trying to help, as he started barking ferociously and turning his head toward my arm, I might have interpreted it as him becoming aggressive and trying to bite me. It might have caused me to react in kind to protect myself, or conversely, to shrink away in fear of being hurt. But I had simply touched a wounded part of him, quite accidentally. On the other hand, anthropomorphizing my dog for a moment, if Ziggy, unaware of his arthritic hips, believed that I was in fact trying to hurt him, he might have lashed out and actually bit me or become terminally fearful of me. Luckily, he knew what was what, and we remained friends even after the dramatic episode. Moreover, his attention has now been directed to a part of himself that needs extra nurturing, and I in turn know better now where I need to approach with more tenderness.

While each person is responsible for their own healing, as friends, we do become the guardians of each other’s wounded parts. This is how our bodies thrive and heal. This is how our hearts thrive and heal. In doing so, we must also be a guardian for ourselves and ensure our own well-being. Twisting my own ankle in the process of trying to get Ziggy to the floor was helpful for neither of us.

In the end, experience often becomes our best teacher. If we are lucky, we get to learn from someone else’s experience. Take my word for it. Do some yoga. Move your body. Meditate. Do something that might help you become more skillful. In this way, you might avoid the possibility of breaking an ankle, or an old dog’s hip.

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