Healing, Whole. How yoga was hurting me and what I'm doing about it.
The first few years I was practicing yoga, I wanted to stretch farther, reach longer, and get stronger. I was super envious of my peers who could press into handstand, tie themselves up like pretzels, and shoot back into chatarunga (a skill that continues to elude me but does make me giggle every time I try it). I also, admittedly, didn’t put the same time into those skills that they did—but the point I’m trying to make is I wanted yoga to stretch the boundaries of my physicality. I wanted more strength, more flexibility, more stamina.
At almost the exact moment that I found yoga, while I was crafting the vision of my future six-packed, gumby-ed self, my body was insistently telling a different story. This was back in 2009, when I was practicing in a Bikram studio in Las Vegas five days a week. I was also a singer in Bally’s Jubilee, the late, great showgirl show created by Donn Arden. I had a long history as a dancer, I was loosening up my body like crazy in yoga, and then I would put on three-inch heels, a giant hat, and run up and down two flights of concrete stairs all night. I had unknowingly concocted the perfect recipe for a very specific kind of pain.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a dull ache in my back, on the right side, that never fully seemed to go away. It was more uncomfortable when I was sitting than standing, and I mostly shifted around in my seat a lot and tried to ignore it. I saw a chiropractor a couple of times, I went briefly to a PT. I was never particularly consistent with my methods, in part because I didn’t have a good grasp of what was going on.
The dull ache became my constant companion. It was “my back thing” or “my hip thing,” particularly annoying during movies and musicals. Sometimes the pain was sharp; other times I was brought to tears more out of frustration than over any specific physical sensation.
Here was the part that terrified me most: when life intervened, when I took a vacation or just took a break and practiced less, my back felt better. I felt completely at odds with myself. There are so many benefits my body gets from practicing yoga – not to mention my mind, which needs it most of all. And yet not practicing seemed to significantly reduce my pain. I’d get back to class and feel great for a couple of days…and then my companion would return, the sensation that clung to me closer than a shadow might.
Well, this went on for 7 years. The veil of my denial was shredded during my pre-natal yoga teacher training. I (and my fellow trainees) watched and listened with horror as I came to understand that the way I had been practicing yoga was likely a significant contributor to my “back thing.” The practice I loved was hurting me, or I was hurting myself, and I wasn’t sure if it was my fault, or yoga’s fault, but it certainly seemed bleakly ironic and really, really unfair.
After a breakdown or two (and you thought YOU cried a lot during yoga? Ask any of your teachers how often they get weepy in class!), and some incredible support and assistance, I came out on the other side of this realization. Meaning, basically, I accept that the way I practiced in the past caused me pain, and I am trying to focus now on what to do about it.
In a beautifully ironic way, the problem is also the solution. There are specific changes I can make in my alignment to protect my back (really it’s my pelvis and my sacroiliac joint). There are alignment cues I don’t take anymore because they aren’t right for me. There are other small adjustments that in fact counteract my natural tendencies, and there is a whole new level of awareness around what my left sitting bone is doing at all times.
What all this means is that I am no longer focused on the deepest expression of asana that is possible in my range of motion. That kind of expression is often unhealthy and unhelpful to me. So there are some flexibility goals I may never reach. But I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost. My personal yoga practice is now one of healing my body, through exploration, through moderation, through learning when to do less when my impulse is to do more, through a powerfully attuned sense of listening to my body and responding as gently as possible.
I still have pain and discomfort, plenty of days. But I am far better off than I once was, less steeped in disappointment and so much closer to understanding. When I use all the tools and knowledge at my disposal, the pain is often much, much better. I am healing my body, one downward dog at a time.