Monday, October 6, 2014

Yoga: How Far Can I Go?

Does anyone get through life without back pain? 50% of Americans experience back pain each year! My back problems are probably relatively small. Sometime in my twenties I strained it pretty badly. Since I was living in poverty at the time, it took me awhile to see a doctor, and when I did, I took the meds he prescribed, stayed off my feet as much as I could for thirty days, did some of the exercises and got over it…more or less. Apparently what I actually did was to start favoring one side of my body that didn’t hurt as much, and over the next fifteen years I had a couple recurrences, for which I sought help from a chiropractor.

That provided relief, but finally, at the age of forty-two I went down. Literally. On the floor of my classroom. During the pledge of allegiance. I’d been taking increasingly higher doses of ibuprofen for a few weeks, going to a chiropractor for the past week, and had been squatting to try to stretch out the spasmed muscles of my lower back, and on that morning they said, “No more.” I curled up in fetal position, motioned for one of the fifth graders to bring me pencil and paper, and wrote a note to the school secretary to call an ambulance. Another teacher came, took the students to the playground, and I was carried out on a stretcher. With a month of sick days, the help of codeine, valium, and a fantastic physical therapist, I learned how to start strengthening the muscles of my lower back and abdomen, especially on the side that had become weak from my efforts to protect myself from pain. Luckily, my problems were with muscles, not discs.

Fast forward to age 62 and retirement. I have had no relapses since then. I’ve maintained my physical condition through bike riding and using the Nautilus machines at the YWCA a couple times a week.

But I would never claim to be limber. I am flexible…to a point. Which, I guess is true of everyone. Over the last five years or so, I’ve dabbled a bit with Yoga. I participated in a couple sessions at a resort and found out what it was – basically stretching and breathing mindfully, and I bought a DVD by Lilia of PBS fame and have used that off and on for the past couple years. But Lilia was a bit too easy on me – she didn’t push me to go farther than what I was already able to do, and consequently, I made little progress.

I recently attended a Yoga class while in New York City from a young man who showed me a bit more about what a true practitioner of yoga does. Of course, I knew that people who “practice Yoga” do amazing things, turning themselves into human pretzels, but I have never pictured myself attempting that.

Now I’m not so sure. Or, at any rate, now I’m open to stretching my body…pushing my body to stretch to new limits.

When I returned home I started with another PBS yoga program, this one called Priscilla’s Yoga Stretches, which airs on our secondary PBS channel (Suddenlink channel 5 from 6:30-7:00 am….I use the DVR). Priscilla does things that are far beyond my capability, but she says that if you keep trying, you will make progress.

When I say I’m not limber, I mean I can’t even squat comfortably. I can barely sit cross-legged, let alone do a half lotus (one foot on the other thigh) where the knees rest on the floor as Priscilla does. I can’t hang one hand behind my head and bring the other one up from below to clasp hands…not even close. So if I’m going to make real progress with Hatha Yoga, I realize I’m going to have to stretch some muscles and ligaments to “open my hips” and “open my shoulders”.  

Many people reject Yoga without trying it because of its exotic name or because they believe it is a religion. Many practitioners report benefits that have some of the earmarks of religious claims: connecting the mind and body, opening up of energy centers (chakras), and such. While I’m not seeking benefits greater than a more limber and presumably longer lasting body, I am open to the possibility that restoring my body, and most importantly, my spine, to a healthier, straighter, more limber and resilient condition while breathing in ways that lull my mind into a hypnotic or meditative state might over time improve my mood or even result in what are sometimes called transcendental experiences.

As I did with my weight as I changed my diet and dropped thirty pounds (of which I have now gained back several) over the past year, I may report my progress in this space from time to time. If I open any chakras (or learn what they are), I’ll let you know, too.

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