There are few scarier moments than that short 10hr period when I lost use of my legs. I had thrown my back out mopping very filthy bar floors. What started as a twinge grew increasingly unbearable on the drive home until I was crawling from the street over the lawn to the front door on my elbows. My lil' bitty niece, barely 100lbs sopping wet, got under my weight and helped drag me to my bed in the basement. It wasn't until the following afternoon that the lightning-like pain down the back of my legs subsided enough to support my weight and allow me to stand on my own.
This moment stands out as the peak of pain, the peak of fear, in my life, but was merely the punctuation on a decade of suffering. A decade of specialized choreography to get out of bed. A decade of adjusting the way I sneezed so I had time to brace my hands against my knees to support the force. A decade of being told by every doctor, yoga teacher, specialist, that I was in pain because I was too weak. A decade of death by a thousand cuts losing my confidence, my capability, my hope in being "normal," my belief in myself.
It was yoga that broke me and yoga that fixed me. I mention this because yoga is often touted as a cure-all but it is a tool like any other. Its usefulness lay in its use.
Things to Keep in Mind
2. YES, YOU CAN.
We're all broken.
That's how the light gets in
Everything new is scary. Think of how babies react to trying carrots for the first time. Delicious or not, diving into the unfamiliar requires bravery. Now every time my back gets twingy, I've been through it; I know what to do- but it didn't start that way. My current level of confidence and comfort facing down the pain was a decade in the making. Be open, be willing, be brave. You can do it.
2. Be Willing.
Rehab is hard fucking work. Nobody can FIX you. It doesn't matter the methodology- surgery*, chiropractic work, therapeutic massage, pills, a tens machine- these make rehab more comfortable/accessible, but ultimately, it's up to you to put in the work.
*This is not to say don't have surgery. But go into that with open eyes and prepare yourself. Familiarize yourself with the violence of the procedure. Think through the impact on other parts of the body. Bed rest after my ACL reconstruct wreaked havoc on my back. Recognize that surgery isn't chapter 1 on the road to recovery- it's the preface.
Therapy is often associated with soft. The truth is- repair requires an active effort- it won't happen to you but because of you. And it's harder than just working out- you're starting from a diminished capacity. Think about running with a cold. Running will help break up the congestion, but it's going to feel like shit while you're doing it. Following my knee surgery, I had lost 2cms of my thigh muscle to atrophy in just a week of hospital stay and using crutches. When I started to train, I needed to gain back that 2cms before beginning to strengthen to support my back. If thinking about this becomes overwhelming- go back to #1.
3. So You're Ready to Rebuild, But...
RUN in the opposite direction of anyone throwing the word "core" at you.
Sometime in the mid-80s, the word "core" became the catch- all for explaining back pain/problems. All the way through the 2000s, this was the catch-all for "why," despite being "healthy" by all other measures- weight, activity, mental disposition- I was in chronic pain.
"Your core is weak."
"Your core is weak."
"Your core is weak."
What the hell does this even mean? Truth be told, most of the doctors, teachers, specialists couldn't explain. A six-pack wasn't going to be my salvation. What sense is it that stronger abs supercede the roles of all the other structures in the body? No sense at all. The body is a beautifully synergistic organism. Every part must be on board in carrying us- all the toes involved, the head carrying itself, etc. Pain is some part of the body complaining about mandatory overtime when another part is skipping work.
4. More Than Core : Exploring Symptoms v. Cause.
Rarely low back pain is the problem in and of itself. Rather it is a manifestation of issues elsewhere in the body. These can include: tight hamstrings, hip flexors, upper back, chest (where backpack straps lay on the front.) Work with a knowledgeable movement specialist- to investigate your compensation patterns throughout the body resulting in back pain.
5. Move- Mindfully.
So you're ready to backbend- great! This movement pattern is only beneficial so long as it doesn't transfer stress into other, more vulnerable parts of the body. Unlocking stuck places in the body can be uncomfortable at times. Pain is neither good nor bad but a conversation your body is trying to have with you. Listen to what it is saying. Take a look at this example here. There's worlds of difference between look and feel. This is an absolutely stunning shape but upon closer examination, you can see all of the compensations to create such a big shape.
General guidelines: work with the upper back. Compensations (=pain) in more vulnerable joints: wrists, shoulders, neck, low back, knees, ankles.
Backbending 101 | Let's Begin.
1. Keep it Simple- the Benefits Are There.
Everyone* can do backbending/extension. (*Late term pregnancy should avoid sustaining poses on the back but can perform movements kneeling, standing, etc.) It's finding the appropriate shape and depth to give your body what it needs. Start with cat/cow. Focus at first on maximizing movement through the upper back and ribs.
How to modify for knee pain: perform movements sitting cross legged, in a chair or standing.
2. Work Every Direction of Movement.*
There are 6 ways the spine can move | 1. flexion (touching your toes), 2. extension (stretching up and backwards over a chair), 3.lateral flexion <4.+extension- these movements can't really be isolated> (side bending), 5. rotation (twisting your ribs around), 6.traction (lengthening the spine, creating space in the vertebrae- hanging upside down on an inversion table).
As mentioned above, try to do as much extension throughout the day as possible. It can be as simple as stretching the arms overhead and arching your back sitting in a chair. Actually, all movements can be performed seated except traction. Twist in a chair. Side bend in a chair. One basic way to encourage traction is getting out of the chair and lying flat on your back for a few moments. Rather then bending forward in the chair trying to touch your toes, round your upper back and relax your head. (See 2nd image below.)
*BE CAREFUL FLEXING THE LOW BACK. THIS IS HOW DISCS GET HERNIATED.*
Backbending is a vulnerable position. Arms are open and you're leaning into a space you can't fully visually confirm. That's scary.
Backbending is one of those rare instances where our instinct lead us in entirely the wrong direction. As a teacher, more of then not, students with back problems are extremely nervous about backbending. Contrary to popular belief, forward folding (flexion) is one of the most precarious movements for low back. When the low back feels uncomfortable, people's typical response is to hang forward. The opposite is true in both of these circumstances: we create space for the discs through backbending.
Take a look at this image.
3. The Next Steps
These are the movements that healed me. Some of these are more "extreme" than others. There's no benefit in skipping steps- work to your capacity and integrate more pieces as they become available to you.
I can't say this enough: YES, YOU CAN. The above printout is available in PDF form by clicking the image. If you would like more information, or are interested in working with me directly to start putting the pieces back together, I am available for 1-1 lessons online via skype, etc. Send an email to email@example.com to get started.
I wish you so much luck on your road to recover. Do good, be well. And don't be afraid of breaking your heart wide open.