After suffering for 3 weeks with a sharp pain in my right lower back and for over a month from a pinched nerve in my upper back due to a fall, causing classic symptoms of pins and needles down my right arm into my little and middle finger, I felt possessed by pain. I am not one to take patiently or kindly to pain, particularly when I try everything that I have in my arsenal to avoid and to cure it. My tolerance for pain is low. It isn’t something that I’ve ever had to live with and it feels like an un-welcomed hitchiker traveling on my body. Seeking outside assistance via chiropractor, massage, deep tissue massage and of course, yoga all helped for a time but the pain was relentless. Advil was a disappointment since the pain returned after I was fooled to believe that it was gone for that brief period of time while under the influence.
Skidding into the 60 year mark, pain seems to last longer, is more stubborn and less forgiving.
I decided to investigate on my own by perusing the internet to find out what foreign bodies are eating me up around the area of my pain. I discovered many foreboding possibilities. In my studies of shiatsu and other Chinese healing theories, pain in the back is regarded as a symptom often relating to a specific corresponding organ and my instincts told me that this back pain was either intestinal or organ related. The last 3 back episodes all happened after eating. Either food indulgences for days or eating too fast or too unhealthy. All this pain had confused me. My confidence was tested. I wasn’t sure what to do, or what not to do, would this or that make it worse would it make it better?
One of my greatest revelations throughout my life as a yoga teacher, is the inspiration I get through my students. This life changing inspiration came through one student who needed some help with some issues she was having.
After a week in New York City, where I sought out sources that may help rid me of my back ache with little luck and lots of cash, my pain persisted in my back and I had a pinched nerve in my shoulder. On my return, I had a private class with a student. She asked me to show her some breathing practices since she too had a series of illnesses and wanted to look at it from a different angle. She was interested in Kundalini yoga. We talked about pranayama and I guided her through a simple 5 minute experience of deep breathing.
After our class, I was inspired to go home and do a session of pranayama myself. As I began my practice, I felt the pain in my shoulder and the tingling down my arm but I continued for an hour session. I took a short rest and got up. To my delight there was no pain and my lower back was also relieved of pain.
Wow! Another yoga surprise. True liberation, is to be pain free.
The Next morning I had a 7:30 private, so I set my alarm for 5AM so I could have an early morning pranayama session. I could still feel pain in my arm and my back but after the session it was gone. I wondered about the pinched nerve. Could this practice of erect spine and more penetrating breathing also heal that? I persevered each morning. By the 5th morning, the tingling down my arm was completely gone as was the pain in my back.
Some of the magic of Yoga is in the breath. The early Yogic writings are very impressive;
“Hiccough, asthma, cough, pain in the head, the ears, and the eyes; these and other various kinds of diseases are generated by the disturbance of the breath.” (Hatha Yoga Pradikpa)
And more poetically:
“Pranayama develops the lungs and those who practise it will have a powerful, sweet, melodious voice. The body becomes lean, strong and healthy. Excretions become scanty and the appetite becomes keen. The digestive fire is augmented. There is lustre on the face and the eyes sparkle like diamonds.”
Along with the great list of benifits listed In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are also warnings about the practice of pranayama.
“Improper practice, however, may cause asthma, cough, hyper-tension, pain in the heart, ears and eyes, dryness of the tongue and hardness of the bronchials”
I will continue with this practice which has given me greater mental focus, stability and a calm state of mind. I know that this isn’t something (although tempting) to do till I feel better, because I see that the depth will continue to be revealed to me over time with continued dedication to practice. More subtle than asana practice, more subtle than body work, it is the essence and sustainer of life itself. What could be more awesome?
While I continue to read about pranayama I stumbled upon my favorite tidbit of confirmation. BKS Iyengar, In an interview, was asked about two of his most memoriable experiences. Summing up what he said, when he tweaked his back helping to set up for a major yoga demonstration to a 2000+ auditorium in England in the early 1970’s he felt his back tweak and it went into spasm. Frustrated with himself he returned to his room. He rested until it was time to go. He slowly went into the hall. He began with a Pranayama demonstration. When he was finished, he stood up and to his surprise his back pain was gone, so he continued for another two hours of yoga demonstration with no problem.
Finally, I can say that I am not alone in my discovery. And what a great confirmation. As much as I was surprised and delighted at my results, so was Iyengar!
The continuing benefits are phenomenal. Beside the lack of pain in my body, my mind is different. I am calmer, happier, more focused and less tired. My posture has changed. I always have had good posture from 40 years of yoga practice, but there is something much more definitive in my body’s expression of the increased life-force.
Figuring out how to get to bed early enough so I don’t have to take a nap every afternoon from lack of sleep is my great challange. Oops, it is 10pm and time for me to hit the sack
That’s the next hurdle.