Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Got My Back

I've been managing a headache for a while. Last week, it was most definitely a migraine (including the nausea, extreme pain, inability to taste food - standard symptoms). However, it hasn't really gone away. More, it's morphed into some strange new thing. And I think I've come to understand that new thing is actually a tension headache.

I know they say that tension headaches don't last a week. They don't come on the heels of migraines (as a general practice). But, I'd hazard to say, that the majority of people who might "inaccurately assess" their similar-to-my-particular headaches (not that it's for me to judge anyone else's experience) are not engaged in my current lifestyle "transformation" (yeah, I hate that term too).

All this is to say, I suspect that my headache is being caused by my yoga practice right now. And that's probably how it should be.

What?!?!? (I'm imagining this is your response to my previous sentence.) How can it be that yoga could cause pain and that Kristin could think that might be good? 

Let me clarify: I do not mean that people, new to the practice of yoga, those who are not working with a teacher (or a teacher they trust implicitly), should be doing yoga, having pain and simply muddling though. I think that's a terrible idea, for what it's worth. I don't even mean that intermediate students should be managing pain, caused by yoga, and chalking it up to the "experience".

For the purposes of this post, I am talking about yoga and me. Yoga has been the underpinning of my physical experience for more than half of my life - through numerous phases and stages. I have practiced with a variety of terrific teachers, a couple of whom are truly gifted in the art and science of yoga. (I've also practiced with a bunch of scary-bad teachers, but that's another story.) The point is, I have confidence in my practice and in my body.

Let's start with the "me" part: Pretty well, since I had my kid - nearly 14 years ago, my mid-thoracic flexibility has declined. Partly, that comes from having spent 3 years carrying around a (large-for-her-age) child. But I certainly haven't helped matters with all of my sewing and knitting and blogging and desk-working. And then there's the fact that I all but stopped trying at a certain point, sometime over the past 3 years.

Of course, things could be way worse, but if I consider how open, strong and flexible my upper spine and associated musculature was throughout my 20s, by contrast I've receded into a shape defined by a mid-back that is more like a block of ice than a vibrant tree. Note: This is primarily an internal experience, not a visible one, fyi, in case you're thinking: Wait, I know that woman IRL and her back doesn't seem immobile.

What any good yogi will tell you is that as you age, if you don't gain physical awareness, you lose it. Don't misunderstand. This block of ice didn't happen over a few bad months. I spent years, incrementally reducing the work I need to do to keep my upper back supple and strong. I observed the loss, even as I ignored it - which is precisely what more-or-less everyone does (well everyone who starts off as a young, flexible thing and ends up, circa 50, being unable to move in many, formerly easy (and natural) directions). And I freakin' know better!

Hello, since I was 18 I've practiced with women of all ages - some in their 80s - who truly glow with the proxy of youth because their spines are strong and healthy. You know your youth is in your spine.

Let's not dwell on the yogic perspective of a tight upper back - how it refers to closure of the self and implications for the spiritual heart. Many, many people struggle with mid-thoracic-caused physical challenges: RSI, heaviness and pain in the shoulders and upper arms, nerve compression (in a variety of places), kyphosis, limited movement, breathing difficulties (hey there, asthmatics) and yeah, tension headaches.

This still doesn't explain, I suppose, why I'm speaking of a days-long tension headache actually caused by yoga - and not the by-product of avoidance of the practice.

Well, here's where experience kicks in.

You know I recently bought that yoga chair. I use it for supported back bends (fairly intense -and fun - ones), supported shoulder stand, twist variations - pretty well everything, once I start getting creative. But the fact is, for years (since I got rid of my former batch of yoga chairs which were taking up too much space) - I have craved and missed a certain chair-based pose, a pose that challenged but opened the mid back, for me, like no other. I can't find a pic of it but, effectively, you sit on the floor facing forward, legs straight or bent, with your back against the hard chair back. Then you lift your arms up and back to grip the top of the chair back. (If this seems impossible, you can prop it in a variety of ways - use a belt around the upper arms for stability, prop the head for reduced neck tension, etc.) Effectively, it provides all of the openness of full wheel (urdhva dhanurasana) without demanding arm-strength (definitely front and centre in the full pose) as you work on the structural elements of chest-openness in the pose.

In the last few weeks I have done that pose often. I've done tons of chest openers (with chairs and without). I am moving into that block of ice with as much awareness and grace as I can find but people, my body is reacting. It doesn't know what to make of things. On the one hand, it has lived this process in the past (I mean, even at 18 I needed to learn how to do these things, to build strength and consciousness). On the other hand, I am older than ever I have been. Until a couple of months ago, I cruised on work I did, practically preformatively, for a long time. And I never did things in the old days that could produce the kinds of mid-thoracic tightness that I currently experience based on lifestyle choice. Seriously, knitting?! It's part meditation, part body-torture.

Any good yogi will also tell you, when you effect change in the body - when you bring movement (even the tiniest, original amount - which btw, is generally the most altering) - pain is often the result. I don't mean sharp pain. I don't mean warning-pain. But said pain can be pretty pervasive (often in places you wouldn't expect - as they're energetically connected to the part that's actively being changed). It can be intense.

When I was young(er) - when I was more physically able than I could possibly grasp - I was short-sighted in many ways. My perfectionism attached itself to my physical ability (yoga no-no, number 1) and no breakthrough, no new awareness was ever enough. Sure, I was a stereotype but, seriously, I was the fit model for the stereotype of the young woman who does intense yoga and feels under functional, no matter the crazy poses she attains. (Back in my day, the regime was populated by the (generally more sanguine) ladies of a certain age.)

Sure, I can say I wish it hadn't been so and that I wish I could go back and right that stupidity, but really, I don't care. What's done is done. I have no time to regret. There's too much crafting to do. :-)

What I can tell you, gratefully, is that the yogi I am today is one who can witness the smallest change and see it for the grand transformation that it is. Pain is a symptom of change, sometimes. Which is why I assert that all is as it should be.


  1. I ~love~ this post, Kristin! Thanks. I don't do Iyengar yoga, but I have done and still do various yoga/pilates/meditative practices, and your language really makes sense to me. Thanks for being so thorough. I'm a consummate lurker, mainly because I use an RSS reader and commenting requires so many more clicks, but I do enjoy and read all your posts.

    1. Thank you! It's always helpful when you can relate to the language of a particular art - I know what you mean. And please do comment when it suits you. I love feedback and to engage in discussion with readers!

  2. Wow, what great insights you have about your physical self. I've been practicing yoga half-heartedly for the past several years and your post is a reminder that I may want to get more disciplined about it, particularly since I am also in the circa-50's and would like to live healthfully into my 80's.

    1. Thanks so much Jeanne Marie. There's nothing like the passage of time (and its impacts) to keep the resolve strong :-)