Surgery vs. practice

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.


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

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.

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