Sean O'Leary shares some thought on yoga practice with a sprained ankle.Read More
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.