Even a yoga therapist is not immune to back pain. Whether you’re a new student, yoga teacher, professional athlete or weekend warrior, 70–85% of us will experience at least one episode of back pain in our lives. After giving birth to my son, I had a firsthand opportunity to work through what I specialize in, “lower back pain, specifically L5 and S1 with pelvic floor involvement.” My postpartum recovery wasn’t easy and I knew that bouncing back would require me to overcome some barriers along the way.
The most crucial aspect of my experience was a reminder that the first stage of rehabilitation is not strengthening or alignment, but awareness of the patterns that create the pain. It was a ‘stop and smell the roses’ epiphany that many of us often overlook. This process begins by taking things slow, holding poses longer, backing off and really examining the issues that present themselves. In other words, the opposite of the fast-paced, quick result, drive-thru practice we as Americans imagine achieving, which in reality allows for neglectful habits and injuries.
My yoga practice began in my teens to address physical discomfort from scoliosis. With a daily practice and patience, yoga managed to straighten my back. In 1999, I began teaching after completing a teacher-training program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. From my experience, I obtained a compassionate approach to teaching others and helping all students with their personal physical challenges, but I also learned that students cannot rush themselves and the way we practice rather than what we practice is key.
In Sanskrit, the term “āsana” literally translates to “sitting down.” Ironically, it is sitting that cause much of our pain in our society. For the majority of us, whether at a desk, in the car or simply relaxing at home on the couch, sitting is how we spend a large majority of our time. The simple act of sitting can play havoc on our bodies, tightening the hamstrings, piriformis and disturbing the curve of our lower back, which can eventually lead to back pain or other issues. This is why I recommend starting with three foundational poses as part of a daily routine: Supine Foot to Hand Pose, Supine Pigeon Pose, and Downward Facing Hero’s Pose. These yoga positions help to stretch out the muscles that get tight in sitting as well as lengthen the back to create space.
Yet, yoga therapy for back care is much more than three poses and not every issue is due to stiff or tight muscles. With my experience in giving birth, I was left with a twisted sacrum and a whole lot of flexibility but not much stability. It took a while to peel apart what the underlying culprits were and in the end I sought out the assistance of a women’s health physical therapist that specializes in pelvic floor issues. In one session, I was able to identify a pattern in the pelvic floor that was pulling the tailbone out of alignment. But, the pain I was feeling was not directly from this pattern. Instead, it originated from other muscles trying to counter the pull of the pelvic floor. The solution was a type of reverse Kegel to release the pelvic floor and change the underlying pattern that was causing the pain. Once the pattern was resolved I was able to then challenge my body with yoga positions to strengthen the hamstrings and glute medius while continuing to monitor the pelvic floor tension.
Again, the awareness of my body would not be possible without the consistency in my practice and the patience it takes identify my own weaknesses. Further, self-awareness is crucial in identifying issues that occur with my students.
As a yoga therapist, my work is to maintain the health and happiness of my students. Much of this is illuminated with my firsthand experience. And despite my constant travelling, their health and happiness are still the main priority, but my relationship with them has transformed into something more innovative and exciting. Travelling has forced me to engage with my students through different means such as online yoga sessions, Youtube videos, and on-site trainings. No matter where I am in the world, my students continue to report being much calmer and more relaxed, their pain diminished, they no longer lose sleep, and have more energy to do what they love. In fact, one of them put it this way, “Before long, I was standing taller, walking longer, and even breathing became easier.”
My intention for students attending a YIMHI training is to realize their potential as well as reduce their stress, and transform their mind-body. Because you the student is a part of a movement sweeping the nation. By taking charge of your health, you increase your physical and mental fitness that will lead you to personal transformation. And when we transform ourselves we transform those around us and inevitably transform the world.