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Salvadoran Sanctuary

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Sometime in my early 30s, while I chased after stories as a reporter in New York City, exposed child labor in post-Katrina New Orleans, and probed injustices against Haitians in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic, the entire muscle mass between my spine and left shoulder hardened into a series of knots, like rosary beads. My boyfriend and I named it “the lump.”

The lump, said one doctor, stemmed from several problems, including sclerosis and bad posture. An MRI showed a frayed rotator cuff.

I found a nearby Lithuanian “body tuner.” His gadgets sent pulses of relief through my neck and shoulder, and he ordered an end to my yoga practice until the knots dissolved. But my practice kept me sane and relaxed; I wasn’t giving it up.

Next up, a Salvadoran acupuncturist who made house calls. Then a craniosacral therapist who plunged needles into the knots since they seemed to be impenetrable by the human hand.

“How did this happen?” I whimpered.

“From pushing the boulder with your shoulder,” he replied.

“The boulder?”

“Life,” he said.

He was right: I habitually pushed discomfort and exhaustion aside so I could push ahead. I’d become an adrenaline junkie.

Exhausted and disillusioned, I finally asked myself where I was going so fast. Suddenly I had no idea what all the pushing was for.

Breaking Away

So I up and left everything—my job with the Washington Post, my friends, my boyfriend. Seeking clarity and perhaps even tranquillity, I applied for a media-training fellowship, agreeing to share my skills with local journalists in whichever country the program chose to send me to.

I got El Salvador. A 12-year civil war that cost 75,000 lives had left the tiny nation scarred. I had traveled there in 2004 to produce a public radio documentary on the violence in the lives of women. They told of the death squads that once roamed the countryside, and teenage girls remembered life in refugee camps and the lingering smell of fear.

Dose of Reality

In November 2006, when I landed in the capital, San Salvador, for the fellowship, fear was no memory; it was present everywhere. Within 10 days, I saw my first dead body. A dozen or so cadavers turned up every day, casualties of organized crime and gangs. Extortion was rampant. The sound of a city bus or idling car, both common targets of thieves, triggered a tightening deep in my pelvis, the first chakra—all about self-preservation.

This time my mission in El Salvador was to provide training to local journalists. So I shuttled across the city, visiting newsrooms and university classrooms, expounding on the virtue of covering the day’s news with a touch of humanity.

For some reason I couldn’t apply this “wisdom” to myself. I was plagued by colds, which I blamed on San Salvador’s polluted air. My friend Cesar served me a tea remedy and a dose of reality. My habits of rampaging through the day, wolfing down my lunch, and griping about setbacks were the real culprits, he said. If I couldn’t learn to be kind to myself, I would always be sick.

Shamed, I sipped the tea and imagined obeying. But I kept thinking, “I have so much to do!”

In early December I visited a radio station in the northern province of Chalatenango to deliver my first workshop in the countryside. I savored the clean mountain air, feasted my eyes on the lush vegetation, and felt my shoulders relax a little bit.

I stayed at the home of Dona Francisca Orrellana, a tiny, wizened woman who exuded warmth and welcome. One day, while I was lounging in a hammock on her porch, she came out and began to weave a palm mat called a petate, typically placed on beds on warm nights.

“Three dollars for one,” she said, her weathered oval face crinkling into a grin. I asked her why she charged so little.

As she expertly wove the palms between crooked fingers, she told me a story from the war that began with a 500-pound bomb the military dropped in front of her house. The explosion killed three women and sprayed her pelvis with shrapnel. Dona Francisca’s words swept me along with her tale: into the jungle where she searched for help; to the moment when her baby died of hunger in her arms after her breast failed; to the day when she had to bury the tiny girl in the mountains. After that, she found solace at a guerrilla-run health camp.

“I saw our brothers sick on bamboo cots, and my heart broke,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘These poor ones, who have months being on those cots.’ And there was no other option but to share my work.”
She wove petates for the war wounded and offered them at a bare profit, mindful that her neighbors lived off the land, as she did. As she told me her story, she glowed with a deep joy that humbled me.

Through her own loss and wounds, she had demonstrated a basic principle of yoga: acceptance. She couldn’t end a war but she could soften, if only a little, the ache. Her eyes twinkled, and she smiled: “I’m going to make a petate for you.”
“But I’m not wounded,” I protested. She just laughed.

Magic Carpet

Back in the city I unfurled the petate in the living room so it faced the volcano outside the window. It became my yoga mat and magic carpet, where my days began and ended. Within weeks I took the first steps toward quieting my shoulder.

One morning, as I moved through my practice, I was struck with the realization that this was no passing injury. I settled on the mat, closed my eyes, and followed Dona Francisca’s example. I made a choice to coexist with my busted shoulder, to accept and nurture it.

Leah, my new yoga teacher, deduced my problem on sight and prescribed a return to basics. I was humbled to hear that there would be no vinyasas in our practice. I wasn’t ready.

She introduced a series of gentle poses. To begin, I rolled forward from a standing position, letting each vertebra move naturally over slightly bent knees, and breathed deeply, repeating five times. Cat and Cow followed, then a variation on hands and knees, in which I turned to each side to look at my hip. Then I did an abdominal twist (Jathara Parivartanasana) and a spinal twist. Breathing exercises began and ended each session. I eventually graduated to Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose).

Because it was too dangerous to go out alone, I had only my mat. When scenes of torture invaded my sleep, I found comfort in my breath. When a trip to the countryside fell through and I felt failure nearing, I went to the petate and offered up my ego. And when hearing some piece of breaking news made the reporter in me want to jump into action, I took Locust Pose and let the impulse fade.

And one day, without my noticing exactly when, the lump dissolved. What a battery of experts and high-priced retreats and classes had failed to deliver, I discovered on a thin palm mat.

Yoga, which was once a 90-minute workout, became part of a daily reminder that with each breath I bring about all the change I need—to my outlook and to my state of mind.

My shoulder is not completely healed. It creaks and aches at times. But I no longer resent it. Instead, I try to heed its message: to be still and accept.

Michelle Garcia is a journalist living in New York City.