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When Yogis Have Back Problems

Despite his regular yoga practice, Neal Pollack, like many of us, experiences occasional back issues. Yoga helps, and also keeps him aware that his body, though functional, isn't perfect.

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I had a long business trip a couple of weeks ago, which mostly involved sitting–in conference rooms, in cars, in vans, and, especially, on airplanes. In the mornings and evenings, I walked, mostly uphill. I did some brief, uncommitted hotel room asanaand I also tried a little airport jogging. But it wasn’t enough. Every moment I sat, I could feel the lactic acid gathering in my hips and the health draining from my body. My back was going to blow.

I returned home, knowing that I had a yoga class in 24 hours that would get that synovial fluid moving again and calm my jet-lagged mind. Yoga would heal me, as it always does, and then I’d get back on a regular program. The next night, as I got ready to head out to class, I felt a tug in the base of my spine, and gave a little grunt.

“What is it now?” my wife asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said.

Five minutes into class, it proved to be something, the same damn thing it always ends up being. We did a deep forward bend, grabbing opposite elbows and breathing out the pressures of the day. I rose up halfway and felt something grab on the right side of my sacrum. It was pain, sharp and twitchy and dysfunctional. At that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be going back down again.

I finished the class after spending most of my time on my back with legs up the wall, though Downward Dog felt surprisingly OK. There was a long Savasanawhere I put my legs on a chair. When I got up, very slowly, I was walking funny, a bearded Quasimodo in stretchy shorts. When I got home, my wife said,

“You’re crooked.”

The upper and lower halves of my body appeared to be on different planes, as though my torso was about ready to slide off my sacrum. Yet this didn’t alarm me in any real way. I simply go crooked once or twice a year, a consequence of my lifestyle, which alternates mindless sitting with deep, intense forward bends. Sometimes, the muscles around my sacrum just say basta. 

“Looks painful,” she added.

Oh, it was, though it had been worse. Once in Los Angeles my back muscles seized up and I fell melodramatically in the middle of the street, certain that I’d never walk again. Somehow I got to my physical therapist, where I immediately collapsed again to the floor. It took me three hours to wrench myself up. Yet there was nothing really wrong with me–no slipped disks, no fractures, not even a hint of scoliosis. I just have some sensitive and twitchy muscles around my sacrum.

“I’ll do some yoga,” I said, “and I’ll feel better soon.”

“Dude, lay off the yoga,” said my wife. “That’s how you got hurt.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but she did have a point. When you’re walking crooked, you don’t want to head to the shala for aggressive jumpbacks out of Crow Pose. But you do want to be aware of your body, what it does, and why. That’s the special gift of injuries. Of course they hurt, and no one likes pain, but the whole point of yoga is to bring you into awareness of the present moment, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable.

My body is deeply imperfect. My belly’s a little too large, my back bothers me sometimes, my left hamstring is always threatening revolt, I have other little aches and pains and twinges and mileage markers. Sometimes, at night, I can feel the whole machine pulsating with a mild soreness, a warning signal of the arthritis that’s sure to come. In other words, I’m a man in his 40s. The asana, pranayama, and meditation are good for me. They make every day brighter and more tolerable. But they’re not going to totally prevent decay, in me or in anyone. Ask not for whom the ghanti bell tolls. It tolls for thee. 

A week after I went crooked, I straightened out again. The pain is still there, a little nagging, but I’m used to a little nagging. Slowly, I’ve started to ease back into my physical practice. I’ll do it with as much vigor as my body allows, until the next time I go crooked.