The Painful Side of Bending Back

Just because you can bend back, does that mean that you should?

One of my regular yoga students has a gorgeous asana practice (referring to the physical postures) – she flows from posture to posture seamlessly, floating with grace and ease. Some of her most beautiful and deepest expressions of postures are her backbends…she seems almost limitless in how fully she can enter each bend. I remember one of the first times she came to my class I felt somewhat jealous that my body is not as lithe, lean, bendy as hers. I felt nervous to approach her to give adjustments or tips – what could I teach someone with such a beautiful practice?

At the end of class, she approached me. She said that she had been dealing with intense back pain and wondered what she should do about it. We talked about her practice and quickly came to realize that while she was so flexible, she was missing strength and stability. Pushing her backbends to the limit, working to achieve a deeper expression of each posture, she was left with the pain of too much. Too much flexibility, too much bending back, not enough limit setting, not enough strength.

You know how to stay safe when bending back? You know when to STOP. You get STRONGER. You think about how bending back isn’t just about your back – all pieces of you are connected and will impact one another in ways both helpful and harmful.

It might look incredible right now to get your foot to your head in pigeon, you might not want to be the only person in class choosing bridge over wheel, you might get a thrill or a congratulations by finding a fuller expression in dancer. It’s fun, I’ve been there! And there is nothing wrong with that. Yoga helps people gain flexibility, and it is cool to see progress.

But…sometimes we don’t need to be more flexible, we are flexible enough. What we need is strength, boundaries, a limit to say “sure, I can, but I’m not going to.” It’s not about the thrill of right now or bending a little further, it’s about taking care of myself and staying balanced…the impact of bending too far builds up over time.

Insert obvious parallel to life.

Find your limit to bending back or you will eventually find yourself in pain.

…And don’t think that just because you say yes out of interest or because you LIKE doing things for others and not because of guilt that I’m not talking to you. It doesn’t matter WHY we are always bending back, there is always a limit. It can be very tempting to bend back a little further. The short term ramifications are often positive, even enviable. In the short-term, what can seem like incredible drive, incredible kindness, incredible support for others can leave us in pain, weak, and having a hard time coming back to upright if we aren’t careful about observing our own limits. No matter if it’s at work, in your relationship with your yourself, your partner, or your kids, find a limit. Build strength to complement that flexibility.

At 27, I already learned this the hard way. A couple of years ago, I had an older, wiser friend of mine sit in on an interview I was in (strange circumstance, yes). The interview went well, I got the job, and afterwards my friend congratulated me on how well I had interviewed…although suggested that when they were discussing my afterwards, the con they came up with was that I may have “trouble saying no.” I smiled and agreed outwardly but on the inside was scoffing. Please, I thought, I’m motivated and have a lot of interests, nothing wrong with that. I’m not weak or afraid to say no, I thought. She’s mistaken.

Two years later, I’m plotting big life changes, running away from stress, sick more often than I want, procrastinating (a very new thing for me), and feeling tired. I found my limit. I sprinted past it a long time ago. I’m trying to find my way back.

I’m not saying that your balance is mine. You might not even need to work on setting a limit. Some people need to take the risk of bending a little further, opening up, realizing that muscling your way through everything in life will leave you rigid and inflexible. Conversely, some people are truly content saying yes a little more, giving to others, finding true satisfaction through flexibility and openness. Don’t let me set your limit; practice listening to your own intuition. Fine-tune your own gauge.

The beauty is that when we find the balance of strength and flexibility, bending back just enough while still respecting the intricate balance of many moving parts, that is when our heart opens, we find bliss, and we are able to, over time, bend a little deeper when we really need to.

And maybe one day, after enough careful practice, your foot will touch your head.

And maybe not. The nice thing is, it doesn’t matter. ūüôā

(for tips on safe backbends, check out this article).

listen to your heart

With all the change in my life lately and dreams for my future swirling in my head, it can be easy to feel a little overwhelmed or unsure…doubt creeping in, urges to just settle become strong. It can be hard not to be afraid. That’s why I need courage.¬†Courage, it’s Latin root “cur” meaning not brave, but meaning whole¬†heart.

What would I do if I listened to my heart?

What would you do if you listened to yours?

IMG_0301May you, too, find some courage today to just give it a try…whatever that means for you.

misadventures in meditation

Even as I’ve become a yoga-loving, smoothie-drinking gal over the past few years, I always secretly kept judging meditation. Picturing a bald, smiling male in loose cotton clothing sitting a mat for hours on end, I always thought to myself “Please, who has time for that? Sitting around for hours?¬†How uncomfortable, unproductive…un….realistic.” It felt like far from what could ever be a reality for me. Moreover, it seemed far from what could ever be beneficial. I’m all about mindfulness (focus your¬†full attention on texting or Facebook – but not both at once!), body scans, a 5-minute catnap, etc. but never imagined that there could actually be any benefit to “sitting around” for that long.

Enter yoga teacher training and our assignment for 20 minutes daily of silent (vipassana) meditation. No mantra, no lovingkindness, no counting your breaths, just a silent mind.

Silence that really goes something like this in my mind:

“Godddddammmmmit my feet are asleep again. Ow. Am I sitting up straight enough? Do I look really calm? I’m getting centered, I’m getting centered. F–k I’m not supposed to be thinking of anything. Good-bye thoughts… I wonder if it’s been 20 minutes yet? Why does my elbow itch? I suck at this. NO! NO JUDGING! How is that one hair tickling my nose? God I want to move it. I can’t. Just do it! No one will see! NO NO NO! Ignore! Calm…. Silence…. Balance… It has to have been like 17 minutes, right? Did the leader forget their timer? This has to be done… I’m hungry. I wonder if George is making dinner…I’m thirsty. THAT DANG HAIR!”

And so on.

It goes like that. And doesn’t end when the timer beeps. Then I have moments of waking up my feet, feeling like 1,000,000 needles are stabbing me from within and sending streams of acid burning up my leg muscles as they slowly wake up. And in these moments we are practicing metta, or the meditation of sending love and kindness out through the world. IT HURTS, PEOPLE, IT HURTS! Lovingkindness to you all.

But because I am a type-A person who wants to be a “good student,” I meditate. I drag out my blanket and block when I first wake up in the morning and faithfully set my timer for 20 minutes. I spend my 20 minutes vacillating from thinking about grocery lists or work emails and my breath, noticing the sensations. I tolerate the pain of my feet falling asleep and then waking up again. I do it, I journal about it, and I do it again. I don’t feel high on life or magically changed after those 20 minutes are up, I don’t wake up with an excitement to do my 20 minutes, but I do it.

…and something is happening.

If I go one morning without meditating,¬†I’m crankier, more agitated, and less calm by 4 pm – almost like a caffeine crash.

If I go one full day without meditating, I don’t sleep as well and wake up the next morning more stressed.

If I go two days without meditating, look out self – you’re in for some self-criticism.

If I go three days, look out George – you’re in for some b*tchy moments (YOU BOUGHT WHITE BREAD? – A story for another day…).

 

So I do it. I return to my blanket and sit and try to be okay with not being “good” at something. It’s a journey. ¬†It’s hard. REALLY HARD. But it’s¬†changing my brain¬†for the better (seriously, click that link – the benefits to meditation are astounding).

Give it a try.

You won’t turn into a bald, middle-aged, cotton-wearing, smiling man, I promise. But you may just find yourself calmer, or happier, or getting much better at practicing kindness and non-judgment towards yourself.

And you will definitely find yourself some amount amused and appalled at what comes into your mind while you’re trying to have nothing come into your mind. Don’t judge.

 

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Meditation is actually extremely beneficial, and I would love to share the small bit I’ve learned with you all. Coming soon: How to Begin Meditating – from a novice, to a novice.

 

I don’t floss every day

The dentist is like that movie Groundhog’s Day, only more shaming.

“How often are you flossing, dear?”

“Er, um, ha ha, you know, like almost every day….. Well….maybe more like a couple times a week…month…well, occasionally. I¬†mean, I’ll start.”

Caught in my lie. I’m not flossing.

Is it really so easy to floss daily that my dental hygienist should just assume I’m doing it? Are other people doing this every day (I can’t ask my friends lest they find out the shameful secret that this habit has never really caught on for me)? When did everyone¬†start?¬†Isn’t everyone too tired to add one more thing onto their bedtime routine (no way in hell I can stay up 20 seconds longer)?¬†Don’t they find it awkward to reach both their hands into their mouth (do I have a small mouth?)? Isn’t it hard to do something with such delayed gratification? Is everyone a better person than me?

Sigh.

Flossing has always seemed¬†like¬†one of those things I will do when I’m “finally” an adult. Along with make my bed every day, never drink too much, be calm and composed at all times, and have plenty of money in my savings account.

Yet, the truth is I still have more mornings than I want where I wake up anxious and dehydrated from one-too-many cocktails the night before. There are full weeks…or two…that go by without my toilet getting cleaned (sorry, mom). There are days when I get really overwhelmed¬†or sad about seemingly nothing and cry.

And I find these things to be problems. Things I want to get rid of.

Yet, these things in and of themselves are not necessarily the problem. The problem is my judgment and self-criticism of my behaviors and myself.

This all relates to a bigger struggle that I, and lots of people, have about tying my value as a person to what I do instead of who I am. (Sometimes, it seems like my dental hygienist does too – I’m a kind person, I swear! My plaque means nothing! – [also, my dental hygienist really is a lovely person, and I would highly recommend her]). This is a dangerous trap – to have some mostly-arbitrary external goal to judge myself by. It’s a dangerous trap to judge myself at all, really. So if I have friends over with clothes all over my floor, if I can’t do a handstand, if my ass never gets smaller (and it probably won’t no matter how much kale I eat), if I have a zit on my face or cry sometimes, or say no to a friend, or spend money on expensive bubble bath¬†I “shouldn’t,” then I’m never good enough?

Eeek.

So this is why I’m practicing self-acceptance. I can love myself with an unmade bed or when I am embarrassed after making a really un-funny joke or when I snap at a loved one in a moment of frustration.¬†I’m on a journey. I’m¬†practicing. I want to shush that ever-present “not good enough” part of my brain and start teaching that little voice that dang it – I am good enough! And that’s not because of anything I have done or will do. It is because I am me.

And in the mean-time, I got those cute little floss-pick things.

But they are kind of pokey on the end, and I don’t appreciate that,¬†so maybe it’s just not meant to be.

 

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