Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Yoga really works

I have proof: Yoga works. It really works.

Remember how I put my back out in Tokyo last month? I was crawling around like a ninety-something, unable to even put my socks on, and having to get out of bed on all fours.

As you will read, it is likely I suffered sacro-iliac joint pain, that is, the spot that joins the sacrum to the pelvis got locked up from walking by favoring my right side, and the muscles on the left lower back started spasming, trying to yank my pelvis back into alignment.

Here's a very good article about the sacro iliac joint pain.

After some chiropractic treatment then three weeks of making excuses so I didn't have to do anything, I gingerly took myself off to a yoga class.

To cut a long story short: 90 percent of the stiffness and pain miraculously vanished after that class.

In my Yelp Review of the studio where I did my Yoga teacher training, Joschi Body Bodega, I reported that true to Joschi's claims, Downward Dogs do wonders to one's chest. My cleavage is still non-existent, but I don't look quite like I'm wearing a sandwich board these days.

But how about a tweaked back?

The best thing about putting my back out, and my journey to recovery, is that it is giving me a first-hand perspective on how to deal with students who have injuries, or older students with limited range of motion.

One of the first thing you ask when giving a class, is if there are any injuries in the room. If so, you must offer modifications or tips to cater to this.

These are the things I noticed as I did the class. Remember, I had regained enough mobility to attempt a class with care. It is necessary to allow at least a couple of weeks of hot baths, compresses, gentle movements and lying flat on your stomach on teh floor prior, to let the back muscles stop spasming.



1. Problem: Can't touch toes easily. In fact, can't even bend over for the weight of the upper body straining the lower back.
Solution: When folding forward from Urdvha Hastasana (arms overhead) to Uttanasana (standing forward bend), press hands onto thighs and slowly slide them down towards the knees, supporting your weight all the way. Keep Uddyana Bandha engaged (abdomen sucked in, tailbone tucked under) which also helps to support the spine. Softening the knees also helps distribute the weight. Go down only as far as is comfortable. Stop at the thighs if you have to. If you can make it to your feet, you can still hold your ankles.

2. Problem: From Downward Dog, can't step rear foot forward between hands to move to Warrior positions.
Solution: This is not that easy for many people on the best of days - tight hips and backs mean you can only step the foot forward halfway to your hands. With a tweaked lower back, this is almost impossible. The foot just doesn't want to step forward at all.
Solution: Don't be shy - use one of your hands to grab the ankle and manually shift the foot forward. Then, place hands on the floor, then on the bent knee and hoist yourself up like an old person would, before you open the arms out into Warrior I or II. Again, engage the abdomen to support the spine. It feels good!


3. Problem: Child's Pose is difficult. You really know you've done something bad this, the pose you 'return to when tings get tough' is difficult. With this injury, stretching it out was painful and difficult.
Solution: Don't stretch so far - place the underside of the forearms on the mat, bring the elbows close to the knees. Also, you can leave the toes curled, or prop partially flattened out, propping yourself up, to limit the curve of the lower back.

4. Uttitha-anything is hard. Uttitha means 'extended', for example, usually referring to an upper arm reaching past your ear in Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose), or towards the ceiling in Utthita Trikonasana (extended triangle pose).
Solution:  I found that simply placing that hand on the hip, massaging the lower back, was a comforting thing to do rather than try and do any heavy reaching.

5. Problem: Seated forward bends of any description are difficult.
These poses, like Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee forward bend) and Paschimottasana (Seated Forward Bend) will really make you feel old and decrepit. I found I could barely move my body 1" in that direction.
Solution: These moves are actually like horizontal Uttanasanas (forward bend), without gravity to help you go down. So you just sit there all stiff. Don't push it! It helps to sit on a folded blanket to raise the tailbone slightly, soften the knees but engage the quads, engage the abdominal lock, inhale and lift the ribcage to create a little space for the imaginary bend, and just look past your feet. Eventually, your body will follow. Think of tilting from the pelvis, not rounding the upper body, even if nothing follows.

These are the main modifications I found myself doing because I couldn't do much else. The same ideas apply for any pose that resembles the above moves, for example Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide legged forward bend) felt a lot better when hands on the knees supporting the upper body weigh. A set of blocks were almost mandatory when I tried to place my hands on the floor.

And of course, there's the move my cousin the chiropractor calls the "million dollar roll"  - lying on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and slowly and gently dropping the knees over to the left side, while your shoulders stay flat on the ground and your head looks to the right. Then reversing it. Gently! It's called that because he says they "make a million bucks out of it every year."

I've since been to a couple more classes and each time, I feel better. Conversely, when I skip for a couple of days, or spend too much time in front of this laptop, that nagging tightness on my left lower back wants to return. Our bodies aren't machines and need time to heal. Yoga is definitely helping to ease my way along the path of recovery.

Pictured: Some fun stuff to leave til your back gets better!  

I recommend you read this excellent Yoga Journal article on Yoga and sacro-iliac joint pain

Gal on yoga