Healing a bad back on the mat (ENG)

Guruji in Samasthitih

Some of you already know that with a past as a gymnast and a dancer, I have been suffering from two slipped discs in my lower back since I was in my twenties. I started practicing in my thirties and after two years the two slipped discs (L4 and L5-S1) came back with a vengeance. One day I was through all primary series, and the following day I could not even walk out of bed. It took me one year to get back to my usual me, yet despite all doctors’ recommendations (“you shouldn’t do any sport nor yoga!”) I continued practicing almost every day. If you have suffered from a bad back, you know what I am talking about. I had always been very flexible, and all of a sudden I could not even touch my feet. Anyway, day after day I recovered although my back keep knocking at my door from time to time. Usually when I am particularly stressed or come out of a very tiring working week. I am a fashion sales executive and despite the glamour you might think is involved in this role, I travel almost 4 days a week (driving) and carry very heavy luggage (samples). You cannot park in front of your client’s doorstep (fashion stores are often in limited access areas) so you have to carry these bags for, literally, hundreds of meters. I practice regularly and this keep my back in check, however there are days (like today) when I walk out of bed limping. Not a very nice feeling! So what do I do? First of all, please note that I am not a doctor or a chiropractor. This is simply what has been working for me in years, and most probably can work for, in general, a rather fit and trained individual suffering from similar issues. However, you might want to give it a try, after consulting your GP and, most of all, a certified yoga teacher. I generally find that if you don’t move, the pain gets worse!

My “bad back routine” is mainly based on deep breathing. I stand in Samastithi holding my bandhas and practicing Ujjayi breathing for at least ten breaths. Then I step into downward facing dog, always holding bandhas and breathing very deeply into my back. I walk my feet towards my hands very slowly, then move into Malasana (yogic squat). Again, strong bandhas and deep breathing. Come back into Samastithi and perform Sun Salute A and B VERY SLOWLY. The key is always deep breathing into the back, and strong bandhas. I don’t care about form but mainly about working through a comfortable range of motion and through the pain. I find upward facing dog extremely beneficial and I spend a couple of breath into each move. I follow sun salutes with lounging for at least five breath each leg, stretching the psoas (a key muscle if you suffer from a bad back! The stiffer it is, the curvier you will find yourself). I then sit on my knees and perform extended puppy pose (see pic), stretching my arms in front of me, keeping my hips on the same line of my knees, and resting my chin or my forehead on the floor. Follow with cow face pose (see pic) and child’s pose. Finally, I rest in Savasana with Anurag’s Boyfriend, a wonderful wooden tool that press all the right places if you suffer from a bad back. I perform at least ten deep breath, then I continue resting in Savasana removing the tool. If you have never tried it, please refer to Anurag Vassallo of Asthanga Yoga Ibiza to find out what this wonderful, simple tool can do for you. This great Ashtanga Yoga teacher, authorized by Guruji and a long time student of Graeme Northfield, with the help of a Lama, has developed this tool that does wonders to a bad back, wherever your pain is located.

So, this was my practice this morning and I struggled with it. Yesterday I was floating on the mat and performing primary series as if I was strolling in the park. Today, I struggle through each single move. But you know what? It helped. I am walking fine and I feel I will be able to practice much better tomorrow. And if not, I’ll practice the remaining seven limbs, and keep it up with my modified practice, adding one posture at the time.


Extended Puppy pose


Cow face pose

Ashtanga Yoga, the healing journey (ENG)

There are plenty of blogs out there describing why people take on their healing journey into Ashtanga Yoga. What pops out from all of them is how healing the practice reveals to be – on both a physical and a psychological level. It looks as if this practice attracts those who come from a very dark path – addictions, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders. Personally, however, I think almost all of us have experienced what it means being in a dark spot for a while, looking for a way out that doesn’t show up.
Ashtanga Yoga is a very demanding practice. It requires that you wake up every morning and challenge yourself on the mat. Postures don’t come easy: some of them might even never be achieved. Yet life is not easy: it requires that you wake up every morning and face everyman’s challenges. You might even not be able to realize your dreams. In this, Ashtanga Yoga is a mirror of life. It makes you come to term with yourself, accept your flaws and make the best of them, and yourself. It is not always and not only about progressing towards the next, more challenging posture or series. Sometimes, it’s just about staying or perfecting what you can do, no judgement involved.
This healing process can be very slow at times. Sometimes, you feel like you are skyrocketing towards the next series. Other times, you are back to square one. The same happens every day. Some days you get your dream job or find your soulmate, the next you are fired and your spouse leaves you alone. What you are always left with is yourself, and the way you handle each situation. Showing up on the mat is like saying to yourself hey, what the hell, I am still here. I can go through all this – and in good days it’s like hey, I can fly again!
You stop living the day you give up. It is not about being in control, but about being present to yourself. I believe this is the main reason why Ashtanga Yoga can really be healing – it is not about the postures or the sequence, although these are powerful and miraculously designed to heal almost any physical issue. It is more about showing up every day, no matter what you can or cannot do. In a way, it’s like feeling your presence on this earth, each muscle, each bone, each cell. It’s like awakening at the deepest level, and to get there, all you have to do is showing up on that little mat. It is a ritual, and I think that we, westerners, needed to have one that reconnected us to the body. Not from an aesthetic perspective, although the practice also does that if you are a regular; rather, I’d say from a spiritual perspective, because while you move through the asanas filling yourself with breath, the body kind of melt into the energy that surrounds all of us, and through the breath this energy gets back into our bodies.
Personally, and having explored more than one yoga style, I find there still is a sort of magic in the traditional Ashtanga Yoga practice. I also find that altering the practice, unless instructed by a certified teacher for specific needs of the student, does not work. I trust the method, and after many years of practice I find that when you feel like quitting it’s usually because you get into a competitive space with yourself. Exactly as it happens in life. When the going gets tough, keep going IS TOUGH. Yes, sometimes you are stuck. Both on the mat and in life.
Ashtanga Yoga is a hard practice. But hey, life isn’t easy. I recently took some distance from the “blissful” image of yoga of the internet era. Yes, you can find bliss. Yes, you can find peace. But the path is not easy: it requires that you commit, that you put energy into it every single day of your life. The rewards are as great as the effort you put into your practice.
I am not saying that other practices are of no value. I believe the Yoga path is extremely personal – we get into it for different reasons, at different times during our lives, with different goals or expectations. To me, however, Ashtanga Yoga always feels like coming home – with all the contrasting feelings coming home implies. Yet, it’s home.