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. 🙂

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

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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.

 

My Highest Aim

Our first writing assignment in yoga teacher training was to write an essay on “my highest aim.”
Mine is below:

My highest aim is to live my life in such a way that I won’t have to explain my values, priorities, or principles to any person that I come in contact with….that instead, my actions, presence, and deeds themselves will radiate the love, compassion, kindness, and strength that I believe in.

From a very young age, we learn to organize our worlds and experiences through words. For the infant, a mother verbalizes that they are sad or hungry. Toddlers open up a new world of independence and interrelatedness when they begin to talk. Children are told to use “nice words” to communicate and often encouraged to “use their words” to build friendships. Teenagers get asked to capture and describe themselves in college application essays, to justify ideas and actions through debate, to form opinions that stand on reason and fact, not just felt. Adults exchange verbal vows to solidify their commitment to one another. Our society values verbal arguments that decide justice and is nearly obsessed with the communicated word, even when defaming.

In our culture, we emphasize and give much importance to the justification, the apology, the promise, the explanation, the details, the words. People tweet and text all day long, putting all of their feelings and actions into words to be communicated. We seem to want the safety of that which is measurable and concrete. “He promised he would never cheat.” “She said she had stopped drinking for good this time.” “You’re guilty.” “I did well!” “I screwed up.” “I feel happy.” “I love you.” We try our best to communicate to others effectively, capture our ideas accurately with words…and we yearn, oh so much, for the relief and comfort in hearing the words from others that make things okay.

And yet, when we research communication between two people, what we really see is that a mere 7% of communication is accomplished by words. I could tell someone that I am sorry, but 93% of what I tell them isn’t what I say but how I say it and what I communicate with my body and actions. And I will bet he first one to admit that it is often easier for me to say what I feel (hell – I’ve entered a career based on talking about feelings!) or what I hope to do than to just do it.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re scared to stop talking and start doing. And by we, maybe I mean me. If we couldn’t justify our actions or opinions to others, couldn’t apologize, couldn’t tell them how much they mean to us, we would be left relying on the 93% that we are often neglecting – that which we feel and do.

Yoga has helped me to understand that we create the illusion of divisions between our words, our thoughts, our actions, our hearts, and the outcomes. In BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, he states: “By profound meditation, the knower, the knowledge, and the known become one. The seer, the sight, and the seen have no separate existence from each other. It is like a great musician becoming one with his instrument and the music that comes from it. Then, the yogi stands in his own nature and realized his self, the part of the Supreme Soul within himself.”

I love the idea that, as a yogi, I can strive to no longer tell people “Look, truthfulness and steadfastness are really important to me.” Sure, I could communicate that verbally, but perhaps because I am embodying that idea, giving it to others, and creating it within me all at the same time I can communicate that nonverbally. Indeed, I want to be my beliefs and ideas and principles. I don’t want to just tell my partner that I am going to try harder to be nonreactive and compassionate; I want to be nonreactive and compassionate. I don’t want to have to emphasize to someone that human connection is important to me; I want them to feel the genuineness of human connection in my presence. I want to be kind, to show strength and discipline, to have my eyes, face, and posture show that I care.

And that is my highest aim. To not have to tell people that I am a yogi, but to just be a yogi. I will strive to share these qualities that we all have deep inside of us with those I come into contact using all 100% of my communication, knowing that the words I say could be a pretty empty 7% without my whole being behind them.