Healing Back Pain Through Yoga Part 1

In my second portion of the healing back pain through yoga articles I’d like to discuss how our mental state plays a role in healing back pain.  If you haven’t read the first blog and need to catch up click HERE.  It may seem along way from our back but there are many deep connections between the brain, mind, our consciousness, and the physically sensations we feel.

Our Mind:

            Our lives and our identity are made up of stories we have been taught or stories we have about ourselves. How often do we attach to stories of past injury, or bodily dysfunctions that may have come up in our lives?  By attaching to these stories are we inhibiting ourselves from healing and writing a new more positive narrative on the direction of our life?  These can be hard questions to ask but our metal outlook on physical wellbeing does have an impact on what we do and how we do it! I don’t want to advocate some new age mantra that you can materialize perfect health just by belief (I’ll leave that to Mr. Chopra) but attachment can leave one foot stuck in the mud of our once injured self.  For example, doctors told me I would never play hockey, go skiing, lift heavy things, or do any of the activities so dear to my heart ever again.  And, devastatingly, I was attached to this advice.  My mind held on to the idea I couldn’t do the things I love and this was a death sentence, my life was over, as I knew it. 

I had a high regard to medical professionals so why wouldn’t I listen to them! But once I started moving, breathing, stretching, and living my life again I quickly realized they were wrong. One night I braved the idea of skiing again (for the fear of god had been put into me that skiing would cripple my hopes of healing). Skiing actually loosened my muscles up and filled my lungs with crisp mountain air.  My whole body pulsed with life and it relieved my backache. I was alive again!   The list of don’t do’s that is offered to those suffering back pain rolls of the tongue so nicely. Don’t sleep on your stomach, don’t forward fold, don’t lift heavy things, don’t engage in vigorous activity, don’t don’t don’t.  This advice leaves us very limited in what we can do and might create phobia each time we have to tie our shoelaces (yup that was me!). Of course a sudden change in my mindset didn’t instantly fix my spinal health and back pain but it gave me confidence to progress daily to become healthy again in order to live the fullest life.  In my mind I become open to the idea of healing.

An injury is an event, it happens, then it is over and the body begins to heal.  Attaching to the idea that we are permanently broken and injured can drown any positive goals of healing ourselves, or alleviating a condition.  Through yoga practice we focus our mind on our body (through postures, breathing, and meditations) and bridge a connection that harmonizes the two into one (the yoking of yoga).  When the body moves, stretches, engages and relaxes, the mind is focused on these happenings and becomes still, aware and present.  When the mind quiets down we have a finer lens with which to consider our thoughts, habits, and the stories we tell about ourselves with less reaction.  A yoga practitioner truly wakes up to the choices and decisions they make that affect their wellbeing.  The heart of Yoga is not to harm ourselves (see Ahimsa), or others, so by being mentally present and awake we can decide for ourselves what choices, lifestyle, yoga postures, and mental outlook best supports our path to healing back pain.  The mind plays an important role in helping us develop a personal yoga practice!

 

That is part 1 of my blog on Healing Back Pain through Yoga and you may be surprised that I didn’t talk much about the physical yoga or tell you what to do.  I’m hoping to intrigue each of you, the reader, to look deep into yourselves and question the inner teacher that has a great wisdom around healing the body.  It’s You!

Healing Back Pain Through Yoga (Introduction)

            Everyone will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Whether it be chronic or debilitating pain, or simply some stiffness and soreness, back pain and discomfort is part of being human!  I’m sure we can all agree that back pain isn’t fun and drains us of energy and lowers our quality of life.  In this series of articles, I will articulate a few thoughts about how practicing yoga can alleviate and prevent current and future back pain.

 

            To start, we must understand what “yoga” is.  The word “yoga” can be defined as to yoke, union, integration or intimacy and it is a practice that entails becoming more conscious of reality.  Meaning we strive to yoke our mind, body, consciousness, relationships, and our environment.  Yoga is being awake and aware of all the wonderful connections that are present in our lives and in the world around us.  To practice yoga one must treat the body as a whole, and this frame of mind gives a different lens from which to approach healing ourselves and maintaining health.

 

            The current model of healing found in contemporary western society can be thought of as mechanical and scientific.  We all want to know why our back hurts and exactly what to do to fix it.  How can I take apart the parts of my body and reassemble them to work properly? The answers aren’t so simple when we consider the totality of our existence.  Many modalities and modern medicine relate to the body as mechanical and compartmentalize our symptoms to specific areas leading often to overly specific diagnoses.  I’m not saying that modern medicine, science, anatomy, and bio-mechanics aren’t miraculously amazing, it’s just usually the language and the need to pinpoint the exact location and factor for pain tends to be insanely specific and gives us a feeling of dysfunction and alienation. For instance, can you receive a “diagnosis” (stenosis between out 4th and 5th lumbar vertebra with a slight fusion of the sacroiliac joint) and still feel like a whole and integrated person?  I’m being facetious but honestly trying to dissect and understand ourselves with this level of detail takes us away from the big picture, the whole picture: the deeply integrated nature of our body, mind and spirit. The viewpoint of what a healthy body is has been reduced to the concept that our physical body was built, has parts that can be broken, and someone else can show us how to repair, reassemble, and fix things back to a mechanically perfect body.  There are some missing links in this outlook.

 

            I would like to share my back pain story to situate how I turned my pain story into a new narrative of change and healing.  When I was a 26 year old active, fit and strong young man I started experiencing debilitating back pain and sciatica.  I paid to have an MRI after numerous therapies garnered no results and found I had severe osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis near the sciatic nerve, and an extreme case of degeneration of the spinal disks (the cushions between the vertebrae).  Needless to say this was devastating news for me.  All of the top back pain specialists I saw suggested surgery after manipulations, steroids, nerve numbing concoctions, and cortisol injections repeatedly failed. None of these specialists spent more than 15 minute with me.  WAIT.  FIFTEEN MINUTES.  In our current system, it was a rarity to find someone with compassion, an open ear, or someone who will sit down and help me for more than 15 minutes.  Of course this is my experience but it is hard to get know someone in 15 minutes.  Every doctor, specialist and therapist I saw took a look at my MRI, but not the person in front of them: me.  There wasn’t any consideration of my quality of life, postural habits, diet, love life, family affairs, or what I do for fun.  They missed all of the contributing factors to back pain in my life like dissatisfaction with my workplace, anxiety, loneliness, heartbreak, depression, and extreme stress.  Every single specialist failed to see the entirety of me and who I am as a person, but rather focused on the symptom, the physical, the mechanical and how my broken pieces might be individually fixed. I came to an important realization: healing my back would be a process of healing myself. I decided to look at my whole life and being and was able to create a new story, and new narrative around my pain. Through a practice of yoga, I found a union within myself and connected to my inner capacity to heal body, mind and spirit.   Luckily the union I found through yoga helped me connect with myself before I was under the surgeon’s knife.

 

There are too many words and too many emotions to tell my whole story and thoughts about back pain in one blog post! Check back tomorrow for the next part where I discuss the role of the mind and the emotions in healing back pain.

 

6 Tips to truly enjoy the holiday season

The holiday season is such a wonderful time of year to enjoy family gatherings, visits with friends, giving and receiving gifts, and a generally cheerful state of mind. Much joy is spread around with so much generosity. But beware, all of this gayness can be veiled by the frantic and hectic pace of commuting between gatherings, the consumer culture of large malls and stores, and an overall exhaustion of our own energy. Our days may include sugar and caffeine fueled shopping sprees or a couple more alcoholic beverages than normal. Striking a balance is key to remaining healthy and content. This blog won't preach about not indulging this holiday, but just having a mindful attitude while enjoying the treats as well as the busyness and possible hangovers (sugar hangovers also). Don’t fret, there are ways to ensure you keep calm without falling into the habits of the scrooge. Try these tips this holiday season:

 

  1. Take your time – Rushing around is very stimulating for the nervous system. Rather than treating the holidays as a never ending marathon, give yourself time to arrive at your destination or slow down when feeling frantic. A few moments to enjoy Christmas lights, watch the smiles on others faces, or taking a few moments to enjoy breathing can slow down the pace of your day.

  2. Be Present – This may sound cliché in the yoga world but extrapolating from tip #1, slowing down to smell the roses, pausing to enjoy another's company, and being there to receive others will keep you present to enjoy the holidays. It works in tandem with tip #1! You have to slow down to be present. This is living mindfully. When truly in the moment friends, family, eggnog, chocolate, or a glass of wine are the most wonderful treats!!

  3. Smile – The physical act of engaging all your facial muscles in a way which raises the outer edges of you lips and even shows you teeth is merry, joyful and contagious! Often it even encourages the spine to lift improving your posture as your happiness radiates throughout (think of the Grinch when his heart expands). Smiling will make you feel good and also other people will notice how happy you are! This is an easy way to spread the holiday cheer!

  4. Get Outside – Exercise is the best way to blow of some steam. The days are short, and it is truly tempting to live beside the fireplace in our pyjamas with hot chocolate but the body needs to move to burn off excess energy (or create it). A quick walk outside in the sunshine may be all you need to relax- or get some energy by motivating the physical body.

  5. Don’t be a stranger – People are very receptive during the holiday! You can make someones day better simply by saying hello and asking how they are. You might even make a new friend! As our culture and communities continue to segregate ourselves from each other it warms the heart to connect frequently. This is something we all crave! To have companions and share love with others.

  6. Be the GIFT!- Give yourself! Its not all about presents in the holidays (although we mistakenly might think it is). You yourself are an amazing gift. Showing up to visit, converse, help out, or share meals while mindful and present is the greatest gift anyone could ask for.

 

Satya – The Yama of Truthfulness

Sean O'Leary

Satya is the practice being truthful and honest in our thought, speech and action.  On the surface this yama may seem straightforward but in reality it requires a constant observance and understanding of the changing nature of our relationships and the world.

The definition of truth is “the true or actual state of a matter” or “conformity with fact or reality”.  Interestingly if matter and reality are in constant state of fluctuation and change truth will be relative to each circumstance and situation.  So to grasp at the idea of truth or honesty our yoga must be a spiritual practice that is rooted in a constant exploration of the present. 

I love the idea of a practice that doesn’t state right or wrong or a single path but gives an idea that is relative to the individual, community, culture and causation of our surroundings.  Every person has an opinion and values developed throughout life.  Satya challenges us to investigate our motives. In his book Yoga for a World out of Balance Michael Stone points out the connection between person and society

“From the time of our birth, we each respond not only in a personal sense to the precariousness of our human condition, but we are also the inheritors of delusive social institutions and shared meanings about the world.  The same basic patterns we find in our minds and bodies are also found in the structure and function of our institutions.”

I like how Michael Stone challenges the reader to consider how contemporary society can warp our worldviews and potentially corrupt us into living untruthful lives.   The social and economic pressures of modern life make us think that success, financial gain and consumerism is equivalent to life satisfaction but this is ultimately a lie.  At our deepest core we yearn for love, community and compassion.   Yoga practice, meditation, pranayama, and asana all bring us closer to our true needs rather than our conditioned desires.  The yama satya prompts us to investigate our desires and how we can live aligned with our highest truth.

What does living honestly mean to you?