The mystery of back pain

First, a little background:

I’ve been in chronic back pain since 1994. The cause of the pain is a prematurely degenerating spinal column: The whole thing, from cervical to lumbar, and including the sacrum and hip joints. Falling apart. “You have the spine of a 60-year-old,” I was told when I 30.

For the past 12 years of that pain, I’ve been practicing Ashtanga. For all of those 12 years, the degeneration has slowed, but continued (my doctor sends me in for MRI updates every now and then). Ashtanga did not made the pain go away, but it has 1) made me feel more in control of it, in a sort of defiant “I refuse to surrender” 2) given me enough strength to lead a normal life. As far as that second item goes, while there are things I can’t do, I don’t spend time prostrated on my sofa, unable to walk from excruciating pain, like I was doing before I began practicing.

Then, last summer, I started to get the idea in my head that I’d like to do Tim Miller’s Second Series Teacher Training, even though I’d been stopped at kaptasana for nearly five years. So I asked him if it would be okay if I came anyway. “I think you need someone to kick your ass,” he said, giving a little kick of his foot to illustrate, “You should come.” So Maria Zavala took me under her wing to get me ready, and taught me second series. From the day my “training for the training” started, to the day Tim’s training ended, the back pain…Well, the back pain virtually disappeared.

 What I'm trying to avoid. Via
What I’m trying to avoid. Via

I’ve been practicing second (start to finish) for some months now, and always I ask myself, not to be ungrateful but out of curiosity: Why?

It makes no sense, does it? There’s the mudpuddle that is my kapo, often called “the deepest backbend in yoga.” There are extreme twists. My feet go behind my head. Heck, they cross behind my head. Then, there’s the ridiculous moment when I go for a stroll totally folded in half. Some arm balancing. Some mysterious wrapping of legs and arms. Headstands that look like you’re directing an airplane in for a landing, only upside down. Why would these moves make my back pain disappear?

Here is the theory my doctor came up with: For someone with degeneration in the spine, what I’m doing is the total package for spinal range of motion–extremes of back bending, extremes of forward folding (you can’t get much more forward than your knees behind your shoulders). Because these things come quickly after each other, it’s forcing space in my spine, even where the disc is gone (L4/L5–a pivot point).

Also, a number of the poses in second create strength in the muscles that offer support for the spine. And others demand strength in the muscles in the front of the torso. When Maria was adjusting me yesterday in dwipada sirsasana, I could feel the muscles across my mid back and all around my lumbar vertebra broaden–an odd feeling. And bonus: The action of holding my feet behind my head is creating neck strength, supporting my degenerating cervical vertebra.

Now, as I grow older, friends and family are catching up to me–their backs are aging, and naturally I get asked for advice. I never know quite what to say. “Change your life” is never welcome advice, but it’s exactly what the surgeon said to me when I was considering spinal fusion 12 years ago. It was the advice that sent me to Ashtanga. Most chose surgery or injections–it seems easier than years of practice.

I don’t know if this blessed relief will continue. But while it lasts, I practice. And while I practice, I’m usually laughing.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

19 thoughts on “The mystery of back pain”

  1. The truth is no one really fully understands back pain. I see mris with significant spinal stenosis at every lumbar level on patients who have minimal or no symptoms. I also see essentially normal mris on patients that have chronic intractable back pain. They teach us in medical school that structure is related to function, and to a point that is certainly true. However, 18 years of practicing medicine has taught me that what a spine looks like on MRI and X-rays is only a part of the story, and often a very small part of the story. No one can tell you for sure how long you will remain pain free, but I suspect you will have minimal or no pain as long as you maintain you practice. I had a non yoga related hip injury in 2010 that my doctors and colleagues told me I would never recover from. With the help of David Garrigues, I was able to resume practice. It took some time, but I’m entirely pain free now for 2+ years.

    Crazy that you were held at kapo so long!!

    1. I was very lucky in that young surgeon who saw my first MRI and told me the same things you’re saying, Michael. I’ve had many friends since who had injections or went under the knife and their pain is the same…or worse.

      To be clear: It wasn’t Timji who held me at kapo–I’ve had a couple reluctant teachers over the years. Most troubling to me was the year and a half I spent at the very end with a “certified” teacher who held me there. It was Tim who moved me forward, and I’m eternally grateful to him for it, and to Maria for helping me learn it.

  2. Good for you! I faced a similar situation several years ago; surgery or severe pain & lack of mobility. I chose to increase my Yoga practice & enjoy chiropractic adjustments & massage when I can afford them. To my delight & the amazement of the orthopedic specialist, I enjoy a mostly pain-free, active life. Sometimes I feel so good that I over do the running or surfing & have some after pain, but I would have to say that Yoga is my fountain of youth.

  3. Wow, I can definitely relate. My x-rays and MRIs (10 years ago) showed a lot of cervical and thoracic degeneration, loss of cervical curve, and herniated disk (L4/L5). I used to have soooo much back pain and it was debilitating. I kept it somewhat in check with vinyasa for years (I’m a long time vinyasa teacher) but last year I started practicing Ashtanga and it is totally transforming. It was a bit achy around the SI joint at first but as my back body opened up more and more it got much, much better. Recently I started working on 2nd and I can already tell that it’s going to balance me out. Kapotasana seems practically impossible to me because my shoulders are super tight—the back bend part is not so bad but getting my arms back there…. I don’t know if that will ever happen. But at least I’ve found a practice with plenty of room to grow that seems to be really, really beneficial. One other note: I also have RA and I find that my practice helps it a lot too. I am trying to avoid going on meds for it and I’m not sure why ashtanga helps more than any other type of practice I’ve tried over the years, but it really does. I also notice that all it takes is a little time off to send me running for the advil. Ladies’ holiday, saturdays, moon days (and God forbid they come in succession) are not fun. When I have to take a rest day I still try and do a gentle, well rounded flow practice.

    Hope you continue to experience healing and relief through your practice!

    1. It is a mystery, but my doctor, who is also an ortho, says it’s the way it forces extreme ranges of motion. For me, the more extreme the better. First series is now very limiting to me, with all the forward folds, and I only do it once a week–and sometimes finish it with a few of the second series backbends just to counter the folds.

      Meh, kaop. I’m over ever thinking it’ll be fun. My shoulders are also very tight, but they’ve actually opened doing the last poses of second. Also, Kate O’Donnell advised that I reach for the OUTSIDE EDGE of my feet. Changed my kapo. I can now actually move my shoulders. Although it should be said I can’t always touch my feet. I just act like I do!

  4. Most people search a quick fix: surgery. I agree with you, to practice is much better. It strengthens the back muscles and with this it helps to degrade the pain.

    Let’s keep practicing.

  5. Thanks for a great post, I have also struggled with back pain for some years now. I have trained Ashtanga yoga since 2005 but couldn’t cope with the second series. After a few years of struggling with backbends i took a MRI, but found out that I have spondylolites.
    Which means that one of my vertebrae has moved its position.There is only two solutions and one is surgery and the other one is training. Surgery is out of the question. Maybe I will try to see if can manage the second series again. Otherwise I will have to settle with first series (which is good enough).
    Hope that you will manage your back pain.

    1. The disc at L4/L5 is totally degenerated for me, and in the cervical and sacrum advanced enough to give me bone spurs. I know what you mean about “coping.” I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t have pain. The practice itself is very painful, and always has been. But I focus on the aspects of the practice that grant strength and stability. The more the better. Which means the poses that are the hardest for me are the ones I spend the most energy on.

      Even before I was at all adept at first, Diana Christinson gave me the first few backbends of second to do at the end of my practice–even when I was not doing urdvadanurasana at the end! There are so many forward folds in first, if you’re not getting extension in all the up dogs, you’re in trouble. You might consider trying a few.

      Just a thought. Good luck to you.

  6. Thank you for this! Somedays, ustrasana is my “mud puddle” due to compression at L5-S1 disc and it can easily get discouraging. Consistent practice does make a difference.

  7. Thanks for this post! I know many people who just accept the pain they get from inactivity and aging. I like how you share that Ashtanga doesn’t “cure” your symptoms but it makes it more manageable. I think being able to do something to help manage one’s back problems (or any problems) is psychologically healthy for the individual. If drugs and surgery could cure diseases completely then all the power to them! But I think very often they are not the only options nor the optimal solutions.

  8. Bobby! It was so nice to meet you and practice with you this summer. This is so inspiring! I to came to yoga with constant back and neck pain, and chronic fatigue. And it has done wonders for me. I’m so glad you put the the time and energy, and focus into this practice and came out with such amazing results.
    Be well see you next time,
    Johnny Haag

  9. thank you so much for sharing your story. I totally relate and am so grateful i found a teacher who understands all this stuff and is helping me through intermediate series. Blessed xxx

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