StoryFlow: How Vulnerability Supports Healing, with Giulia Pline

StoryFlow is a series featuring original conversations with Kripalu presenter Lisa Weinert and visionary doctors, writers, yogis, and spiritual leaders about the role of storytelling in their healing and caregiving processes.

Giulia Pline is one of my favorite yoga teachers, not only because of her mastery, sense of play, and the creativity of her sequencing, but also because she reveals her own vulnerability. No matter where I’m starting from that day, her thoughtful classes are always leave me with a new self-awareness.

Giulia began her career as a dance major at the Boston Conservatory, but a devastating  injury led her to pursue extensive studies in anatomy and physiology—and eventually to teaching yoga full time. Last January, Giulia sustained major trauma to her body again, this time in a skiing accident in the Berkshires. Her rehabilitation included the healing of eight broken bones, a collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, and layers of damaged nerve and soft tissue.

Leaning into her practice as a way to self-heal, Giulia began sharing her story via Facebook, which garnered tremendous support from both acquaintances and people she knew intimately. She sat down with me to talk about how sharing her story impacted her healing process and her teaching practice.

Lisa I came into narrative medicine work driven by fear and anger relating to injury, and the more I’m in it, the more I’m inspired by sharing stories about illness and healing, because that’s what helped me heal. Growing up, the pervasive message I received was that we were meant to be healthy all the time—however, the truth is that we are all on a continuum of illness and wellness. We actually have a greater chance of healing the more honest and present we are able to be with our own illness, pain, and suffering. I wanted to sit down with you because you’ve been so generous and public with your healing process, before and after the accident, and your story offers so much hope.

Giulia I had been skiing maybe a couple of times, and this time we went to a smaller mountain than the ones I had been to before. It was my first time on the mountain after having only a couple of lessons, it wasn’t the best weather, and it was the first run of the day. I made a couple of turns and could tell I was losing control, so I decided to go straight down and avoid people. Unfortunately I got to the bottom going 60 to 65 miles per hour, and slid all the way off into the embankment, flipped into the air, and hit a tree. I broke my arm, my collarbone, and my ribs, the wind was knocked out of me. I thought I was dying. I felt myself freaking out, but there was a voice inside me that told me I was okay and that I needed to get off the mountain and to stay calm.

I want to pause and honor that moment, because it saved your life and prevented future injury. It’s not our instinct.

In every other injury I’ve had, I’ve panicked. This particular injury has been a turning point in my life and huge wake-up call. I finally got off the mountain and they had to cut all my clothes off. I felt embarrassed to a degree—I wasn’t on a Black Diamond, and they didn’t believe I was in a lot of pain. Everything hurt for three months. [But] my mother told me she had never seen me this calm. I’ve based a lot of my life on the physicality. Now I’m learning how to create my happiness outside of my movement.

Why did you decide to start posting on Facebook?

I was getting a lot of messages and I wasn’t feeling well enough to respond. It’s very vulnerable to say that you’re not well.

Especially as a yoga teacher, because that’s your whole identity!

For me to stray from my usual—posting a happy photo or me in a perfect yoga pose—felt like “Are you kidding me?” and it was the most amazing feeling to post a photo of me in this situation, because this is real life. There was something so healing in that first moment of putting that there. It felt good to have support. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

What did happen?

I started getting messages from people, like “I was in an accident” or “my husband just died”… Messages started pouring in because people connected with my experience. I’m not okay, I’m scared. In our culture we’re taught to get it together and everything has to be okay.  

At that moment, you became a leader and power of example. You let people become part of your community.

The plates in my ribs are a constant reminder that I am injured. How do I grieve my old sense of self? I have to grieve my old physical body. I can’t pretend that it’s not there. I can’t pretend I don’t feel things. I have to actually put my hand on that space and breathe into it, go in there and feel it and try to connect with it. I struggle with being uncomfortable. To close my eyes and drop in is not comfortable. So I tell myself I don’t need to do this right now.

For me to close my eyes and drop in is very uncomfortable.

One of your healing modalities seems to be that you push yourself a lot.

It is, and I’ve figured it out because I used to be in an unhealthy relationship with physical activity, until about four years ago, when I switched out of professional dancing. I had to work out. I needed to feel. I always had to push to the max. I had a moment when I thought I actually do have to go into this space of pushing because I need to feel again. The more access I have to the external, I know I will be able to go a little deeper. So I pace myself. I couldn’t weight-bear, so I started running, one mile three days a week. It turned into two and three, and now I can do four, sort of, without dying, and it’s the best feeling ever. I feel like I’m just letting everything go. I’m in a space where I’m only connecting to what I’m connecting with at the moment. That’s my spiritual path, that’s my emotional well-being. Right now, it’s running and being out in nature.

How has this experience affected your teaching?

When I was teaching a class that when someone wasn’t doing exactly what I had instructed, I used to find myself becoming frustrated or angry. I would go to the student and tell them what to do. Now, I think to myself, I have no idea what is going on. They could be working with a serious limitation that I don’t know about because I can’t totally see it. It might not be something I can see, there might not be a scar, maybe they’re guarding around their heart and so they can’t put their hands behind their back. As long as they are breathing and moving and they generally look calm and relaxed, then I know we’re in the right place.

Find out about upcoming programs with Lisa Weinert at Kripalu.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.