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

Second Series and the Subtle Body: Tim Miller’s Teacher Training

I’m looking through my notes from the first day of our training, trying to catch all of you loyal readers up. Now that Steve’s back at the ranch, holding down the fort, winning the bread, etc., I’ll retrace some of our steps.

Tim began by addressing the koshas. These are the “sheaths” (the meaning of the word kosha) covering the atman. That’s right: You’ve got more than one body.

These koshas have become of particular interest to me. Since Tim gave me his approval to come to his training, I’ve been practicing all of Second Series, start to finish. Maria Zavala has taken me though the practice pose by pose, patiently and generously helping me learn the sequence. She took me all the way through the first day I practiced with her, and since then—about two months now—I’ve been pain free.

I’ll repeat this for emphasis: Pain free, after eighteen years of virtually constant back pain.

Needless to say, I’ve been looking for an explanation for this sudden and unexpected absence of pain, as well as for other unusual side effects that have gone along with practicing second in its entirety–things like increased energy, a sense of lightness, and increasing physical awareness. There are other, more mysterious things. I seem to heal faster, recover faster, and my breath has improved. I’m running hotter, but don’t feel hot. That sort of freaky stuff.

The first day of our training offered some insights as to the value of a second series practice. “In first series,” Tim said, “you get into the body. In second series you blast off.”

So, to relate this to the koshas, the sheaths: The first kosha is anandamayakosha—the material body, the thing that eats. The second is pranamayakosha—as the name implies, the first layer of the subtle body, it’s the energy body.

Tim told us that our practice is, to some extent, an elaborate teaching tool to get us to the subtle body, and beyond, to atman. We are, shall we say, “challenged” when it comes to understanding ourselves this way. We over identify with the physical body. Second Series, he says, is designed to allow ourselves to experience our selves as more than this. Instead of identifying with what amounts to “thought forms” and patterns, we can learn, through Second Series, to identify with the essential self.

This resonates strongly with me, with the poet in me, with the lover of William Blake, who believed in the power of the imaginative body, in its literal existence, and the ways the imagination can make reality.

I had been hearing for most of my adult life—dating back to long before I practiced yoga, to when I read its philosophy—that asana was designed to prepare you to sit for long periods of time in meditation. This never quite made sense to me, until now. I was thinking it meant “prepare the body.” While that’s certainly true, it also means, “prepare the mind.” My sudden and unexpected liberation from chronic pain has also freed a lot of energy—subtle energy—and prepared me for the journey to come.

And left me with a deep and abiding gratitude toward my teachers, Tim and Maria, who have freed me from pain.

Posted by Bobbie

Intermediate as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Intermediate has been much on my mind lately, so I’ve been tooling around the interweb for information. I came across this recently (April) posted video of the entire 1993 Yoga Works video of Guruji peacefully teaching some amazing students.

And by “amazing” we mean: Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, Maty Ezraty and Karen Haberman. A few things to note: Not a lot of sweating the small stuff (although there is a lot of sweating), but Guruji does make some small verbal corrections here and there (oh the shame!). I also watched with headphones–I recommend that. Guruji makes these small little, “hrm” and “humm” and “humrph” noises that are pretty funny to hear. Stay for the last word–it’s worth it. Also: there is a complete absence of drama. Don’t blink or you’ll miss kapotasana–it’s only five breaths long, like all poses. And each practitioner seems to handle poses in very different ways, mentally. You can sense it, really, more than see it. An excellent thing. Hard to believe it has so few views, so I figured it was a must-share.

Posted by Bobbie

The Myth of Advancing

I’ve got my lantern lit. From Blake: Los Entering the Grave

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks for me, so shout out to Steve for not making me feel bad about not posting. I’ve been revising the writing class I supervise, preparing new materials, and, of course, doing that teaching thing itself. My writing students have been coming in for conferences; they’ve been deep in mid-terms, and they’re tired.

So am I.

The seeds planted by the Confluence have started to sprout this Spring. Nancy Gilgoff has changed the way I practice. Rolfer Russ Pfeiffer (a former student of Richard Freeman and Tim Miller) has changed the way I breathe. Richard Freeman has changed the way I backbend. My asana practice has. . .evolved.

Asana. The Confluence Countdown household has found itself wrestling with the value of asana. Steve has turned to reading the Upanishads. I’ve been reading the Rig Veda, and Richard Freeman’s book, The Mirror of Yoga. where, very early on, he says this:

Typically when we look at the body we see it through those same filters and theories [of experience]. We may see it as a bag of skin filled with bones and blood, or as a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration used to validate all of the miserable opinions we have of others and ourselves. […] Through our consistent yoga practice, all of the different notions we may concoct about what the body is and who we are eventually arise as objects for our meditation.

And what is his conclusion about what the body is? “An open matrix of awareness through which theories, thoughts, and sensations come and go.” “Through the body,” he says, “we learn to understand the universe.”

Today, I’ll be going down to Tim’s to take his Intro to Second class. The truth of the matter is I often see my body as “a continuum of suffocating, painful frustration,” so the question arises, Why am I trying to “advance” when the real practice, clearly, is not in the asana?

Nancy Gilgoff said at one point in her adjustment workshop that she thought the epidemic of knee and back pain in Ashtanga was caused by people being kept in the Primary Series too long. I’ve been practicing First for over a decade now. (To be fair, I was three years into the practice before I tried a real backbend–that is to say, something more than bridge–and another year before I could actually push all the way up.) In light of what Richard is saying, and all that I’ve learned, what does it mean to “advance”?

Last summer, in Mt. Shasta, I was expressing something like these concerns to my friend Suzi, who said to me, “Well, then. That is your practice.”

So, this post is partly to remind me why I’m going down today to see Tim, to see through my body. Once again, I find myself thinking of William Blake.

To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

Wish me luck.

Posted by Bobbie

Breathless Ashtanga or, you’re probably doing it wrong

This is one of those posts done from atop my high horse.

Of course, my high horse in this area is pretty darn short — but in this rare instance, that’s precisely what (I think) gives me the authority to wax all high and mighty.

I see a lot of Ashtangis (and there’s another problem, I realize, I shouldn’t see anybody during practice) who motor their way through many of the standing poses in First. There’s a casualness to these poses or, even, a seeming rush to get on to … something. Later poses, I guess. Yes, I’m probably looking at you, Second Series practitioners.

What I figure they’re missing is all the benefits from First.

Kapotasana, via

Now, I’ll take a quick step back and openly admit that my practice is far from perfect — it may be farther from perfect than any of the people I’m critiquing. But the result of that is this: I get something out of every pose in the First Series and the Finishing Poses. It might be the stretch (and strain) to reach my toes; it might be that extra bit of twist; it might be a little more openness in my shoulders from Urdva Dhanurasana. It’s certainly — these days — the strength of trying to pull back without brushing the floor.

I can imagine if you’re really flexible, Utthita Trikonasana maybe just seems like a bother. After all, down the road a piece is Kapotasana and more.  I understand the desire to get there.

The reason I react is pretty simple: I doubt I’m ever going to get there. And I see people who can really reach the full expression of some of these “simpler” poses — but they don’t. They move into it, take a few breaths and move on.

I’d kill to be able to do that. (Kill in the sense of Arjuna’s doing his duty, you understand.)

But, believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be just about me and my Ashtanga frustrations. (That could be a whole other blog.) It’s a reminder that all of the poses have value. And that value isn’t just the burning of bad fat that seems to be the benefit from most of First Series.

There’s that breath thing. If you’re zipping through poses or not being — I hate to use the word — mindful, you’re missing what’s the real point of the practice. Don’t take my word for it.

Take David Swenson’s:

Somehow we each have a deep inherent knowledge that if we control our breath we may control our mind. There is a yogic saying that states: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind but if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.” Yoga is built upon this simple concept. When controlling the breath the yoga practitioner feels a deep state of calm and an evenness of the mind. This is due to the regulated focus upon the breath during practice. This information that I have provided may not be scientific but I believe it to be true and I also believe that if you were to approach other practitioners of yoga they would also agree.

Or Richard Freeman’s:

Linking movements done on the breath set up a distinct sensation pattern in the nervous system which allows the following movement and breath to go to their full extension.

We’ve all heard an admonition to “breathe deep” in the Mysore room, right? We all know that the fundamental purpose of Ashtanga is that pesky Ujjayi breath (with even peskier mula bandha a close second).

It’s an easy thing to forget, though. So think of this as just a long-winded way to say, “Ujjayi!”

(I am curious if my sense that people are trying to get to the poses that “matter” is right. Is it?)

Posted by Steve

Should Ashtanga keep changing and adapting?

During Sunday’s Moon Day, I did something unusual.

I practiced.

Normally, I’m more than happy to veg on a Moon Day and to thank my lucky stars/Gurus that I get the day off. But I’d missed a few days the previous week, and there was an Intro to Ashtanga class I could make. So I thought, “Why not?”

Urdhva Dhanurasana. Photo via Yoga Journal

It was the right decision, for a number of reasons. A central one was the opportunity to practice a few Second Series back bends before my Urdhva Dhanurasana. You know the ones: Salabhasana and Dhanurasana. (Forget that crazy Urdva part!)

Both felt terrific, and in Dhanurasana especially, I could feel some too-neglected muscles in my lower back at work. And my Urdhva Dhanurasanas after were better; even my sadly tight shoulders felt relatively, for me, open.

It made for a wonderful practice, but it also served as a reminder of one of the main “knocks” on Ashtanga — that its sequence of poses can be unbalanced.

This “charge” against Ashtanga is really only true for people, like me, who are slow to progress. If  you were one of the initial Westerners to practice with Guruji, changes are you were bendy and strong and that Guruji moved you through the first two or three series relatively quickly. In that case, the practice was plenty balanced — not to mention plenty hard.

But we’re not all David Williams.

But, even if you are, in recent years — and, I think, certainly now — there has been far less quick progression through the series if you are working with a teacher who keeps to the Ashtanga tradition.

OK, so here’s the moment where I, still a fairly new practitioner and not very advanced in the asanas, meekly raise my hand and ask: “Is this a problem? Do changes need to be made so the practice best serves its students?”

I only can judge by my own body — and I’d be open to hearing counter arguments — but additional preparations for back bends always seem like a blessing. Would I love to jump through to my stomach after Setu Bandasana and do Salabhasana during my Mysore practice? Yeah, I would. (And no, this is not an end-around on getting a “Second Series practice.” I know that’s well off in the distance.) I think it would help, much as doing Ubhaya Padanustasana has helped open my hamstrings and thus helped much of my practice.

But I respect the practice, and so it isn’t something I’m going to do except on those rare occasions when I’m essentially in an improv class. I can’t help but wonder, though, if adding in “research” poses as a part of each individual’s practice wouldn’t improve the practice. Certainly, the Mysore environment seems designed just for such individualized sequences.

Now, this probably is already happening in some places and with some teachers more than others. And I’ll be interested to see how the five Confluence teachers approach the issue.

But we all know that the tradition that broadly guides the practice makes little, if any, room for such alterations. It may even be getting more stringent and systematized, not less — just how much that follows Guruji’s thinking, I am far from expert enough to answer. It is plain that Ashtanga did evolve from the early and mid-70s through at least the 1980s, if not later. One only need look at Guruji’s Yoga Mala to find a practice different from the one now being taught.

Perhaps a little more change wouldn’t be a bad thing if it served the students more.

The question I’m asking, I guess, is whether that change should be something along the lines of: Without fundamentally changing the essential sequence of poses, shouldn’t teachers be able to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students and adapt accordingly?

And I know the first argument to that point: Don’t those adaptations risk changing the practice so it isn’t Ashtanga any longer?

To which, I wonder: Is Ashtanga really meant to be that regimented?

Posted by Steve

Rethinking not taking the Intro to Second class?

I just got an email from the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence confirming my registration (again, thankfully). More interestingly, it also added this:

Backbending on the Current of Breath taught by Richard Freeman on Saturday, March 3 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm is a few over capacity. If you are interested in switching to Intro to the Second Series taught by Nancy and assisted by Tim Miller, please let us know.

You probably received this as well. Any thought on what it means?

My first thought is that it suggests those coming are overwhelmingly First Series practitioners and are a bit leery of diving into the advanced asanas. (I’ve done some intro to Second Series classes with Tim, and it isn’t too terrifying. Just sort of.) It may also be that Freeman arguably is the biggest name at the Confluence, thanks to his books. (I’m sure plenty of you would argue with that; I might even do so.)

Or, perhaps, it is simply that a lot of us are focused on improving our backbends.

Would you be willing to switch that class?

Posted by Steve