How yoga and pilates eased my chronic back pain

Last updated: 05-24-2020

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How yoga and pilates eased my chronic back pain

In January of 2017, I woke up one morning, started doing yoga and discovered that I could no longer do downward-facing dog, a pose that I always took pride in being able to do “perfectly.” There was a sharp, hot pain that shot from my lower back all the way to the back of my left knee, and I couldn’t straighten my leg. My downward dog was lopsided and ugly. For months, I couldn’t get through a day, let alone a ride home, without wincing in pain. It was a frustrating and discouraging time. A few weeks prior, I had slipped on a manhole (on, not into — that would have been funny) and landed on my butt. It was when I did yoga for the first time since the slip that I realized exactly how bad that fall was.

Like any self-respecting modern woman, I took to WebMD and researched on all of my symptoms, until finally, a Buzzfeed quiz told me I had sciatica. I dreaded going to the doctor, so I went to a chiropractor first. He was a middle-aged Caucasian man who made no promises, and was a little too eager to get me to sign a 12-session plan. He told me I had severe scoliosis — to be exact, a 45-degree S curve that could one day crush my organs! In a panic, I allowed him to crunch my bones and pull my leg (literally). At the waiting area after the session, as I was about to seal the deal, a man who was waiting for his appointment made some small talk: “He’s really good. I’ve been coming here for five years.” Really? Five years? I left as fast as I could.

I went to a doctor the next day and he didn’t seem too alarmed. He looked a little bit like Stephen King, a little bit like Santa Claus, which made me doubt everything he said — and didn’t say. He didn’t tell me what was wrong with me. He just gave me two weeks’ worth of painkillers and two weeks’ worth of appointments at the hospital’s therapy area (where all the semi-pro ballers go, which made me feel badass: “How did you get injured?” “Oh, I slipped on a manhole.” Hardcore stuff.) I finished my therapy, but still no improvement. So, I decided I was just going to get on with my life and live with the pain. As one does.

I went back to antigravity yoga, against my mother’s wishes, and explained my condition to the instructors. Surprisingly, they all had similar stories — severe back problems eased by yoga. Almost all of them have scoliosis or sciatica. They were all very understanding and careful. Antigravity yoga, as scary as it looks, is actually easier for those with back problems because of the extra support that you get from the hammock. Whatever your weight, the hammock can hold you, as it can carry up to 2,000 lbs. (the weight of about two cars). Whenever I couldn’t handle the pose, I would just rest on the hammock.

Back bends were the hardest. There was always a sharp pinching at the beginning of a back bend that made me want to stop. Samantha Co, my favorite instructor at Beyond Yoga Rockwell, always reminded us, “It’s not about perfection. Listen to your body.” And then she would approach me, her injured, weakling student, and adjust my hammock so I’d be able to do it. It’s a very nurturing practice that makes you feel good and capable. And it’s fun. No one laughs during hot yoga (I know because I watch them on the monitor at the studio’s waiting area), but at anti-gravity yoga, you can laugh through the entire class and no one will mind. It’s where the clumsy yogis go, I’d like to think, and find their place in practice that is often falsely presented as perfectionist and serious and exclusive. 

Simultaneously, I did Pilates at Onelife Studio in San Juan. Through a common friend and fellow journalist Jane Kingsu-Cheng, I met the studio’s Tanya Aguila and Therry Dizon, my one-on-one instructor who gave me exercises specifically for my back problem. Pilates — the Reformer, in particular — is super intimidating. I am very intimidated by equipment. The antigravity hammock is a silky cloth that hugs you. The reformer is a bulky, steel-and-springs machine that can snap at any time. Therry eased me into it by teaching me mat Pilates first. The routine was low-impact and easy to memorize, so that I could do it at home, and I did, every day. Eventually, I graduated to the Reformer, got to know it, and grew to love it. Resistance is not futile — it is, in fact, delicious.

Both Pilates and yoga seemed counterintuitive at first. Why subject yourself to exercises that focus on your legs and could potentially hurt your back when your back is already painful to begin with? That’s the irony as well as the myth. While you do stretch your legs and back during both yoga and Pilates, with proper form andguidance (Important!), you’re actually exercising your core. That’s the real focus. I remember all the instructors telling me that when your core is strong, you lessen the burden that you put on your back when doing just about anything.

Once, while I was doing stability exercises, Therry tried to distract me from the reps that lay ahead with a fun fact: “We’re now working on your inner core,” she said. “The abs underneath your abs.” Say what? The inner core is comprised of a group of muscles that affect and control movement, the human body’s internal foundation. I look at my squishy stomach and ask, “I have abs?”

Often, we enter into an exercise regimen, especially at the start of the year, focusing on the superficial. Lose weight. Get a thigh gap. Flatten the stomach. Look good in a bikini. When I started doing yoga a couple of years ago, those were my goals, too. I did it to win a bet (and I did). But the manhole incident came with a blessing: it allowed me to deepen my practice and really commit to every pose, every backbend, and every stretch. Discovering what our bodies can do — how it can heal — is an amazing and far more satisfying outcome. It didn’t hurt that, in the process, my back pain slowly disappeared. Now the words “engage your core” are always at the back of my mind. Isn’t it a perfect mantra both in exercise and life?

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