Monday, August 8, 2011

Yoga Mistake #1

copyright, Julie Cade, 2011


"Paschimottoasana, Forward Bend", the teacher intoned. "Inhale as you lift your arms overhead, lengthening the spine. As you exhale, bend forward. Take a breath now, and on the exhale, can you release the tension, taking it a little bit deeper? Breathe and play “your edge” .

Eager for the teacher's approval, for the relaxed feeling I got after a good session, for that lean yoga body I saw on the magazine covers, I could, indeed, take it deeper. My “edge” a moving target, I bent forward through Iyengar, Kundalini, and Ashtanga classes. I hit my stride and found my juice in the Vinyasa flow of Down Dogs sliding deliciously into Up Dogs, over and over, the rhythm and repetitions moving my edge, extending to, and beyond my limit, ignoring the dull ache in my lower back, which had become a constant companion.

An hour of flow practice each morning, led by the TV yoga star and demonstrated by the Hollywood bodies grooving to hip tunes, and then it was off to the daily yoga classes I was now certified to teach. And like my favorite teachers, I was teaching my students about using the breath to release into that "soft Buddha belly", to release tension while in the poses, and to "play their edge".

One day when standing up from filling my dog's food bowl, something that felt like a hand grenade exploded in my lower back. Excruciating waves of pain coursed through my spine and down my legs. Frozen in a pose not illustrated in any of the yoga books I'd studied, I struggled in body and mind to comprehend what was happening to me. Helped into a semi-standing position by my husband, I eventually shuffled into bed with a heat pad and a bottle of ibuprofen on the nightstand. Limited relief over the next few days sent me to the first of many MD's, physical therapists, massage therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors.

My teaching practice aborted, my income at a standstill, my world view narrowed into the tunnel vision of chronic pain and the search for its relief. No longer could I relax and release into the soft Buddha belly, as that only seemed to put more pain and strain into my spine. I was now living the life I'd tried to take my students away from---that of shallow breathing, stress and tension. Intellectually I knew those things were making my injury worse, but physically, any move I made hurt. I tried to do gentle Yoga for pain relief and could not. My anger towards my body's----and Yoga's--- failure turned to depression, weight gain, and the inability to walk up a hill without gripping pain in my leg.

Treatment after spinal manipulation, MRI's after X-rays, NSAID's after salves. Ah, where was that fun flow of Forward Bend into Downward Dog into Upward Dog? In the fourth year, the anti-inflammatories finally ate the lining of my gut. In the fifth year, the antacids prescribed upset my stomach's flora and weakened my bones.

In despair and despite the pain, I started walking. A friend gave me a Pilates private mat session as a gift and, having been grounded in Yoga and its loftier, spiritual values, I was skeptical. The teacher sized up my numerous limitations and absolutely refused to let me go anywhere near my edge. She assessed how my shoulders strained to compensate for my lower back pain. She stopped the session after 30 minutes. We didn't do any breath work or chanting, nor utter one “Namaste”. Instead, she said, "That's enough for now". I left, miffed that my friend didn't get her money's worth, yet I didn't leave in any more pain than I'd entered with. Intrigued, I bought myself a few more sessions.

The teacher showed me how weak my abdominal muscles were---or rather, she pointed out their absence of activity in any moves I was making. We went to work on the core, those muscles that, in all my years of yoga, were never really addressed effectively. The Pilates teacher never urged me to play my edge nor relax all the tension in my body; instead, I was taught to breathe while contracting my abdominals and closing my ribcage, so very antithetical to yoga. But after three months of twice-weekly sessions and daily two-mile walks over mildly hilly terrain, I was in less pain than I'd been in in six years. Yes, six years.

I've been a Pilates student for three years now, having moved off the floor and onto the equipment. Joseph Pilates was a wounded healer, a dancer whose injuries and years in physical therapy changed his understanding of the body. Short on spiritual philosophy, the practice, guided by competent trainers, has enabled me to reclaim my strength and stamina. My Buddha belly is now a toned support structure for my degenerating discs. When I feel uptight or stressed, I still return to Yoga's breath of relaxation---- I just don't do it when I am in a forward bend. I steer clear of my edge while understanding that I am extending it, intelligently.

Feeling stronger in body and spirit, but with some trepidation, I took a Yoga class, the first one in over six years. It was an Iyengar class with a skilled, experienced and highly regarded instructor. And even so, he asked us to consider holding poses for upwards of three minutes, pushing our edge, and most in the class dutifully followed instruction. While leading us in a forward bend, we were told to "relax the stomach". I winced then, understanding that this simple, well-meaning instruction was misguided. Instead, I tightened my abs and closed my ribcage, knowing as I did that my back was being preserved, strengthened and supported.

Now, once again teaching Yoga, I know that my years of Yoga training and teaching have been vastly improved by my work with Pilates. Pilates made it possible for me to come back home to Yoga as a wiser yogi and teacher. Take it from me----the best place to experience the soft, relaxed Buddha belly is in Savasana, reclining on the mat.

And that "edge"? When you hit it, that place of muscle resistance, where the body speaks up and says, “Hey, wait!”, take heed, take a breath, and pull back a bit. Respect the feedback from the body, and enjoy the pose right where you are. Instead of relaxing your belly, relax your mind from the need to go anywhere, and just be.     

To quote my original Yoga teacher, “no matter where you are, you'll get what you need,” and she was right.---and the edge will take care of itself....and you'll take better care of yourself, which, after all, is one of the best lessons you can learn from the practice of Yoga. 

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