“That shouldn’t happen to you, with all that yoga you do.”
Many times over the course of healing from a crippling bout of sciatica, I heard this comment. It exemplifies a misconception I find to be fairly common. People seem to have the idea that there are things we can do, like yoga, that will keep bad things from happening.
I wish this was true, but it isn’t. Bad things still happen no matter what we do. Wear and tear on the body still happens. Aging still happens.
What’s different for me because of yoga, is that I have tools to deal with “bad” things when they happen. I have a lot of body awareness so I can work very easily with my physical therapist. And, more importantly, I have tools to get my mind in the present moment. Without these tools, my mind would constantly be racing directly from the immediate pain to panicked thoughts about how I’m going to live my life if I can’t ever walk again without pain: maybe I’ll have to close the studio, or get rid of my goats, or stop gardening, or quit choir. I have tools to get my mind back in the present when it travels back through time and starts nit-picking things I “should” have done differently: maybe I should have done more yoga, or less gardening, or not painted the house.
The reason it’s so important to get my mind in the present moment is that, when I’m thinking scary thoughts about the future or beating myself up about the past, my brain is telling my body that there are some even worse problems than the pain. So now I have my body and brain working fruitlessly to deal all this other stuff that isn’t even real – my brain just made it all up – instead of putting my energy into dealing with the actual situation.
Whether I’m doing the yoga postures, breathing, or meditating, I’ve been training myself to notice when my mind goes out of the present moment. This is the first tool that yoga has given me: simply to notice when my mind starts time traveling.
Doing yoga postures is, for many people, the first place they ever (as an adult) experience having their attention fully focused on the moment. Sometimes this will happen the first time someone ever goes to a yoga class. Sometimes it takes a few times. But, usually, new students are quickly so absorbed in trying to figure out when to inhale and exhale and where to put their feet and hands, that they soon discover how freeing it is to really be in the moment.
As it gradually becomes a little easier to find their way into the postures, students begin to deliberately work with some basic tools for getting the attention in the moment in a very intentional way: Breathe, Steady Gaze, Locks, and Gratitude.
Breath and gratitude were the two that really kept me present and able to move through the discomfort of the sciatica. A lot of the time for about a month, the pain really was horrible. But that didn’t mean I needed to add to the problem by creating scary scenarios about a future where I’d never feel OK again.
Bringing my attention back to the breath anchored my awareness on what was really going on. Once I did this, I could use my energy to choose what the best course of action was right then: more heat, more ice, more pain killers, sleep on the floor, whatever. Freeing myself from thinking about what was going to happen next week, allowed me to figure out these very basic things – which was what I really needed to do to start to heal.
Continually bringing my awareness to what there was to be grateful for in each moment also helped keep me from thinking that the pain was the only thing that existed. Yes, it was bad, but there were SO many things to be thankful for: the students, teachers and staff at Yoga in ME keeping things going without me there, my husband taking most of a month off work to care for me (and even teach two classes!), well wishes from friends, good food to eat, the resources to get a more comfortable mattress, my 7 year old grand-daughter coming over to clean the house, and more.
So, no, doing all that yoga did not keep me from having sciatica. And it won’t keep me from aging or, eventually, from dying. What it’s done is given me a set of tools to deal with life as it really is. The tools to let go of my attachment to how my body “should” work or how my life “should” be and be able to find moments of joy, love, community, and healing in the face of incredible pain.