If you’ve ever experienced a nasty injury, you’ll know how frustrating, debilitating and isolating it can be. I’m sharing my experience in the hope that it brings some comfort and reassurance that the situation (or at least your response to it!) can and will improve.
Three months ago, I taught my worst ever yoga class. It wasn’t that anything went wrong with the class itself (except a last minute room change and a power cut). The issue was that when I demonstrated cat-cow, something in the right side of my lower back “went” sending searing pain through my back.
I’ve had lower back issues before, so I knew this wasn’t good, but I carried on teaching. I hoped that moving would help. It didn’t. By the end of the class, I was in agony.
I remained in acute, debilitating pain for the next three weeks. The only position that was comfortable was lying down. Sitting, walking and standing all sent my muscles into excruciating spasms. Safe to say, it was the end of my yoga teaching, and indeed my yoga practice for quite some time.
As I said, I’ve hurt my back before, and quite badly, but this was worse.
What made it emotionally harder was knowing that I’d hurt it doing yoga. Whereas previous injuries (through doing HIIT training, lifting kettlebells and most embarrassingly, tripping over the wire while straightening my hair) I could attribute to a specific, avoidable incident, what triggered this seemed so innocuous. It wasn’t even as if I was attempting a challenging posture.
The Bumpy Road to Recovery
I had some good advice and some terrible advice. Friends plied me with hot water bottles, ibuprofen and gin (which worryingly helped more than painkillers!).
I scoured the internet obsessively in the hope of a cure. In my desperation I forked out for three different eBooks on healing back pain, which I read from cover to cover. These convinced me that the pain was psychological and that all I needed to do was return to my normal activities.
Full of hope, I walked the 5km to the local town, determined to “act normal”. By the time I got there, I was in so much pain that I passed out on the street. I came to surrounded by a group of lovely, and deeply concerned Spanish locals. Not cool.
So for the next six weeks, life revolved around trying not to aggravate my back.
I wanted to keep up some kind of self-practice, but how I felt about yoga had changed. Rather than being my therapy, my healing and my safe refuge, yoga felt risky. I considered meditation but this was hard as I couldn’t sit still for more than 20 seconds. Meditation lying down for me is just falling asleep.
Instead I started to read books on Buddhist philosophy and practice, which helped more than the back pain books did. They encouraged me to develop a less combative relationship with the pain. I also began very gentle and cautious mobilisation and breathing exercises.
Trekking to Annapurna Base Camp
Slowly, slowly I started to build up the distance I could walk. This was going well, but I feared not well enough. I had booked to do the Annapurna Base Camp trek at the start of December – 9 days of arduous trekking in the Himalayas.
This trek was something I had dreamed about for years, so although I was nervous, I felt I had to try.
I won’t bore you with every detail of the trek, but I’m happy to say that it an incredible experience. It wasn’t painless, far from it, but the more I walked the more my pain eased. I was so grateful for what my body could do.
Not only that but the walking was an exercise in mindfulness. Because you have to place your feet carefully for each step (to avoid falling off the mountain) it is impossible to think about anything else. We also did a digital detox, spending the whole trek without connecting to WiFi. I finished the trek feeling calmer, happier and more present than I have in a long time.
But still no yoga. I played with a few postures after walking some days, but they didn’t feel great, and I didn’t want to risk it.
New Year, New Focus
Then came new year. We attended a yoga and meditation retreat in Cambodia. My first yoga class there was nerve-wracking. Although the practice was gentle, I felt flashes of panic and sometimes anger when a posture affected my back. I didn’t love the classes, but they did help me to overcome the fear I had of practising yoga.
But the meditation made a more tangible difference. By then I was able to sit on a meditation bench for around 30 minutes without pain. This meditation time gave me chance to put into practice all the theory from my reading on Buddhism.
There was also a strong emphasis on the importance of self-practice throughout the retreat, which I took to heart.
Since coming back from the retreat, I’ve developed the most consistent self-practice I’ve had for years. I practice daily, around 30 minutes of postures, followed by pranayama and meditation later in the day. My practice doesn’t look the way it used to – currently my most “advanced” posture is tree pose (which I love!) – but it feels better. More honest, more connected and more grounding.
Finding Yoga Again
In coming back to yoga I have become reacquainted with my body. I enjoy feeling into where the edges are now, and where I can use my breath to open up spaces. I’m building up confidence and trust in my body once more, and I know that’s going to take time. For once, I’m content to give it that time.