My Yoga Journey began in 2005 when I started to introduce some stretching into my daily work outs of weight training and aerobics. I noticed the stretching really seemed to help with a back condition that I have been dealing with since I was a senior in high school in 1979. My back issue, spondylolisthesis, was at its worst after the birth of my two daughters when I was in my mid-thirties.
I have visited many chiropractors over the years, and ultimately, with each practitioner, felt that I was on their crack-the-neck assembly line because they would not touch the region of my spondylolisthesis, but would only work on other areas that were experiencing pain as a complementary result of the vertebral slippage in my low back. No long term solution there; just an expensive dependency on the routine crack for temporary relief. Oh, and forget about the complementary massage. I could not lie on my stomach without great pain and tension. So much for stress relief and relaxation; not an option for me, either.
I also consulted with a surgeon on a couple different occasions when my back pain was really flaring up. He was kind enough to share with me that he had never seen someone with spondylolisthesis (Grade 3 at L4-L5) as advanced as mine, who was not in a wheelchair for life. That stopped me in my tracks. He wanted to do surgery and put a plate in my back, but admitted that with my condition, the spondylolisthesis could not be corrected or put back into correct position, and that with a plate screwed into my back, an additional area of slippage in my vertebral column could start to occur above the metal plate over time. What? Since none of that seemed like a solution to me, I chose the physical therapy route only to discover that their regiment of suggested exercises was a dull, repetitive sequence which amounted to much less of a workout than my daily exercise routine at that time.
About this time, I began to observe that the more I was doing stretching which had morphed into a yoga DVD played 2 or 3 times a week, my back was pretty manageable, although there would be a frequent tweak during the day if I was not mindful of every move I made or the position in which I sat. There would be even a spasm that would take me out from time to time. I remember one particular spasm quite clearly. Since I had seen the advantages of doing yoga, I thought I would try a class in a studio in lieu of my daily home practice one afternoon. In my typical Type A, competitive ways at that time, I had to be the stretchiest person in the room and compete with every other person on a mat, as well as with the teacher. As a consequence, near the end of class, my back had the worst spasm ever in my experience, and I could not get up off the floor to leave the room. The yoga teachers had to cancel their next class while three of them helped me kind-of get my hands up to a chair and kind-of crawl and slide with the chair’s support out of the room and very slowly over the next half hour or so, they were able to help me into an elevator to get up to ground level. Finally, with a cold water bottle against my lower back, sitting on a bench in the lobby for some time, I was able to make it out to my car and drove home. I did not return to another yoga studio until 2018 when my back was so great, I was able, with moderate confidence, to begin my first yoga teacher training.
With my back spasms, it's interesting to note that no prescribed medications worked either. Muscle relaxants didn't work. Ibuprofen/Tylenol didn't work. So, I resorted to rest and more rest for the next three days during that worst-of-all-time spasm. Over time, with the rest, I was able to get up and around and was pushed in a little wheelchair when we went to do our grocery shopping.
Grocery shopping, in fact, routinely proved to be one of the more challenging daily chores as strolling slowly around the store and standing to choose an item felt like such a compression on my lower back, that by the time I hauled the groceries out and got into the car, I had to just sit and breathe and relax to release the spasm and the dull ache before starting up the car to head home.
My back issue was a daily concern, but as long as I decompressed my spine every morning with my yoga practice, I was able to function fairly well during the days. Where I struggled the most was with sleeping at night. At its worst, I needed seven pillows for support under my waist, between my knees, under my neck, behind my back, and under an arm to try to find some comfort at night, which was regularly a grueling experience. Sleeping on my back and on my tummy were not an option, and rolling over a few times during the night from one side to the other side would have me groaning in pain and clutching the edge of the mattress to accomplish the feat. And, if sleeping wasn’t bad enough, trying to get out of bed in the morning meant crawling on my hands and knees to a wall, walking myself up the wall with my hands, pausing, resting, before I could take my next step, and the next--to get to a chair with a cup of coffee to put my feet up and rest….phew. Exhausting. And, that’s how I began every day for years and years.
There is a silver lining to the morning routine I developed. While I would sit to allow my aching back to release and relax, I would enjoy a cup of coffee with my feet up on the ottoman. With my body in this L-shaped position and quite a bit of spinal flexion; curving and rounding in my lower back, it would finally pop a few times, and I got the decompression that I was seeking. Meanwhile, I acquired that habit of reading and journaling while I sat so this became a creative, educational, and self-reflective time for me. After at least a half an hour or an hour, allowing my back release, I was ready to enjoy a daily walk - rain or shine, sleet or hail - and this has been an important part of my success in managing, not only back pain, but gaining a kind of joie de vie and an appreciation of all types of weather that Nature so grandly offers in each season. As I would walk with the dogs, I would be mindfully appreciative for all the beauty in my life and think about the next part of my workout for the day.
At that time, I was doing yoga two or three times a week and lifting weights or doing aerobics the other four or five days. This was a pretty good program, but I started to note that the weightlifting would often crank or tweak something in my body and that the pounding of my dancy aerobic workout, although fun, would often feel to me as if I had created more compression in my spine. Over time, I found myself looking forward to the yoga days and decided to switch things up to just doing yoga every day. I was at such a beginner level, however, that I wasn't getting enough strengthening out of the program and my core was too weak to be a benefit to my spine. I kept up with my morning routine, nonetheless, and my dedication to my yoga practice continued. Eventually, I began to progress and improve and was able to do the more challenging yoga sequences with proper alignment, so that now my yoga practice was intense and challenging enough to increase my strength and even my aerobic capability. If I would go on a vacation or give up my daily regimen for 2-4 days, my back would ache again. So, my primary motivation to continue a daily practice of yoga was based at first on the fear of pain returning.
Then, over time, with continued daily dedication to my yoga practice, I began to realize that my mental state in response to certain circumstances in my daily life was beginning to change, as well. I noticed that I did not become angry over small matters as much as I had in my past. I was not as easily triggered when someone pushed my particular set of buttons. I noticed that I generally had a more balanced spirit and could easily turn a negative thought into a positive, supportive one for myself or others. I noticed that I would just feel full of love or happiness in a given moment for no particular reason at all. I noticed that my boundaries were stronger and protected me from disrespectful situations or scenarios that I knew from history could cause pain. Herein, I discovered my mantra for this lifetime: Love deeply, Hold Loosely. It was a lesson that took me years to learn, but I was given the right parents and the right experiences in my relationships to learn this lesson very well.
With this mantra fully in place in my mind and spirit, I have found a place of compassion and self-love like never before. I still work on my courage to take steps in the direction of my fears rather than shrinking away from them, but my spondylolisthesis is totally manageable now. I sleep on my back, my tummy, and my side - however I want - without the need of any supportive pillows and with absolutely no pain throughout the night nor upon rising! I haven’t had an x-ray or visited a care provider of any kind in years. And, yet I know the positioning of the vertebrae in my spine has not changed; I still have the same “bump” in my lower back that proves it. But, I've changed. I’ve learned my body enough to know when a spasm is coming on, and through yoga lessons have learned to breathe in to that sensation, to exhale, and let it release, to pause, to not push, to feel it melt away, and then to slowly move with care and respect for my body and what it is capable of doing for me, and to get on with my day.
Yoga has been life changing for me, and I owe a lot of credit to Adriene Mishler whose program on YouTube, Find What Feels Good, and her 30-day programs were a major inspiration that kept me on the path of a daily yoga practice. I feel that she and her programs have literally saved my life. Someday, I will travel to Austin and thank her in person for her offering of free programs with their short, sweet, uplifting messages and sequences.
Now, my goal is to take the life-changing lessons that I've learned from Adriene and my 200-hour (Melissa at Seva Yoga in East Grand Rapids) and 300-hour (Brett Larkin Yoga) Yoga Teacher Training teachers and offer my experience and program to others that might be dealing with spondylolisthesis or some other general back pain issues. [Note: Scoliosis is a back condition that's different from mine, and several of the poses I do regularly for relief for my “spondy” would be contraindicated for scoliosis and would therefore need to be modified. A conversation about this or other conditions would occur best in a Private Session with me where I would design sequences appropriate for my client’s specific condition(s).]
Based upon my personal experiences, I can highly recommend my program for conditions similar to mine, for common back pain, and even for slipped discs (i.e., bulging or herniated discs) with which I also have experience. With my program, I believe you can make a huge difference in the quality of your life in regard to, not only back pain relief, but relief from mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering, as well.
Here, I share all of my story because now, I am more than fine; I enjoy, on most days, a kind of balanced bliss. And, I’m ready to give back. Unless I tell my “spondy” story, no one would believe I have ever had any kind of back issue. I have completed a second round of yoga teacher training, and consider myself an advanced student. No, my poses are not all beautiful and bendy like the young kids’ are. But, there is no reason they need to be. Yoga gives me vitality, strength, flexibility, a tall spine and good posture, and a body at the age of about 60 that can painlessly go and do what I ask of it without whining and complaining. I can sleep. That’s enough.
Because of my story, I am a compassionate yoga teacher. I understand the underlying stress and exhaustion, physically and mentally, that pain causes. I understand the value of progressing slowly, letting all need for competition fall away, allowing bodily sensation and intuition to be the guide on one’s journey, building change patiently over time, and the absolute importance of commitment to a daily practice. This is the game-changer.
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