When I was 16, I slipped a disk in my back for the first time. The pain was horrible and it caused me to miss much of my last year of high school. I was fortunate that my teachers were sympathetic and gave me adequate grades to get into university when i eventually chose that route. This was in the mid-1990’s when bed rest and pain killers were still the prevailing therapies being recommended for sever lower back pain and sciatica. Over the years, I have done physiotherapy, chiropractor, acupuncture, muscle relaxants, and for a while, doctors even talked about surgery. I eventually filled a shoe box with recommended exercises. Many of these things worked, but once my back was feeling better they were put aside until the next “flare up” of pain. It was pretty much and annual thing that affected my work, my education, my relationships, and most certainly my happiness.
I eventually thought to try kung fu, which seemed to work miracles, but after a few years, a dislocated shoulder, a couple sprained ankles, and some broken ribs, I began to reconsider the overall health benefits of this art. The “flare ups” were also still occurring quite regularly, though not for as long nor not as sever as in the past, but it was not uncommon for me to twist, or be twisted in the wrong way only to find myself hobbling home hunched over and in pain while once again comforting myself with a T3s (pain killers) and a couple Robaxacet (muscle relaxants). Eventually I decided that even though I was “taking it easy” and avoiding any full contact classes, there was still enough of an aggressive aspect to Kung fu that it was not quite what I was looking for; this was when I first began to consider yoga.
My fear of yoga (yes, looking back it was a fear) was that it was very much an activity for women and I didn’t want to be perceived as some pervert taking yoga classes just to check out the hot yoga girls doing their sexy poses. Yes, I think many men avoid yoga for this very reason. It’s not uncommon for people to have irrational fears about the way the opposite sex will perceive their actions; think about how many women will order something light on a first date even though they may be dying to order the pork tenderloin with baked potato and sour cream. So for the next five years I maintained this fear and did nothing but see, and certainly feel, my back pain and my sciatica getting worse. Weeks went by when I was barely able to get out of bed. I was living alone and I can remember the fear, rational or not, that I might not ever walk again. Days would go by when I wouldn’t eat and my home eventually became filthy from neglect; it was all I could do to get myself to the toilet when I had to go. Taking a shit caused excruciating pain. I had no money to spare at this time and if it wasn’t for the help of a benevolent chiropractor/acupuncturist I’m not sure what would have became of me. He got me thru the worst of it but once again when I began to feel better I stopped seeing him and stopped doing the necessary exercises at home.
It’s wasn’t until 3 years after this last major “flare up,” five years after quitting Kung fu, that I bought a ticket to India to learn yoga and see something of this strange and poverty stricken country that had fascinated me for many years. It was only a few days before my 30th birthday when I got on the plane, and though I wasn’t in crisis, I was certainly in a lot of pain. I was most certainly afraid of the possibility of having another major “flare up” while being so far from home.
It didn’t take long for me to stumble into my first yoga class. Someone said come’on, lets go, and as I was following I asked where we were going. Before I knew it I was breathing through alternate nostrils and contorting myself into shoulder stands and even sitting cross-legged on the floor in comfort. After a few months of yoga and meditation and meeting hugely inspiring people my back pain was gone. It took me about a year of intermittent classes before I started my own routine practice at home. And other than some minor back aches I haven’t had any problems in almost five years.
Some of the advantages of yoga over all the other treatments is that it asks the practitioner to know their body better; too feel and focus on the activity and inactivity of every part of the body. Body awareness is central to yoga. For years I allowed “professionals” tell me what was causing the back pain. The doctor would say stretch this way but not that, the chiropractor would say don’t stretch that way, stretch this way. Through yoga I have learned when to stretch one way and when to stretch the other. The diagnosis arises from within. But it’s not just body awareness that I have learned, mind awareness has taught me to deal with physical pain without the use of drugs. “Witnessing” the pain, “witnessing” my thoughts has allowed me to focus and concentrate on what is important: like doing the stretches that will keep my body healthy, like doing the the work that will keep my life on track, and on the very simple fact that my happiness is not dependent on anything apart from myself.
I cannot overstate the benefits of yoga. Whether your pain is physical or mental, yoga can help; it really is a complete system with such host of techniques that there is something there for everyone. Don’t be frightened of yoga if you’re injured or lazy or out of shape. Even if you’re a macho man or shy or scared you can do yoga. It’s a lifestyle choice that anyone can make.
I wish you all peace and harmony and love.