For as long as I can remember, there has been a tightness in my shoulders, chest and back that have been my constant challenge during my daily Ashtanga practice. After decades of hunching up my shoulders and protecting myself from the world, I had the beginings of Kyphosis (think little old lady, with a hunchback) in my mid-20s! Fortunately, my yoga practice has been changing that, albeit slowly.
When I first started Urdvha Danurasana (aka Wheel pose) over four years ago, I couldn't even get my hands on the floor behind my head. No matter how wide I tried to place my hands or how bent my elbows were or how far behind me I tried to put my hands, the best I could do was to brush my fingertips on the floor. About a year ago, I started being able to press up and completely straighten my arms for the first time! At first it was only for a breath or two, but now, it's consistently, for 5 long, even breaths for all 3 repetitions, everyday! While it's an accomplishment I am certainly proud of, there is still a lot of work to go to open up my shoulders and chest as I walk my hands closer and closer inwards.
Despite my progress in this pose, the last three years, I have had a constant, dull pain in my back, just below my shoulder blades. Something feels stuck. Occasionally during my practice, often on very warm flexible days, I can get a nice crack or two in that area and it feels GREAT. But after practice, the pain always comes back. Nothing really helps. No amount of massage or bodywork has brought about any long term relief. And by log term, I mean anything more than a few hours!
That was until my arrival here. On my second day in the Shala, Sharath (my guru) saw me picking up my mat to move to the back for finishing poses and said, “Did you do back bending?” When I replied, “Yes.” He asked me, “Like this?” (Implying the drop backs he was currently assisting someone with). “No,” came my reply. “Then you stay.” So, I put my mat back down and sat down. “No, stand,” came his voice. And so I stood and waited or him to come over and help me. Instruct me on how to start dropping back and standing up from the floor.
It's a strange feeling, doing drop backs. You have absolutely no idea where you are in space or what you look like. But often, you feel like you can't breath or your back might just snap in half. Some days feel better than others, and I am pretty sure I am making progress, but really I don't know that for sure. The one thing I do know is that for the first time, my chronic back pain is gone. Sure there are a few days here and there where it comes back and becomes an acute pain (mostly on the right side) but otherwise, it's gone and I usually feel great after my back bending. And usually I want to spend the rest of the day back bending (but of course I don't).
Recently I had red an article about healing emotionally through yoga. That's what I feel this experience in Mysore has been; it's my “yoga rehab.” Aside from the essentials (eating and sleeping), my days consist of an hour and a half yoga practice and then a whole lot of time to think about my life – past, present and future. So while I am not necessarily fighting the demons of drug or alcohol addiction, I am fighting to change old emotional habits and patterns that are not healthy or are no longer serving me.
One day, just over a week after starting drop backs, Sharath indicated to me from across the room that I was the “next” person he would assist. He then followed up with, “Catching?” Asking me if I am catching my ankles with my hands during the back bends. My initial response was one of shock and then a prompt and vigorous head shake, “NO!” He just smiled, a big warmth emanating from his eyes. Immediately, I started thinking, why would he say this? Does he not know who I am? Doubtful, since he seems to know everyone and everything in that shala. And I do mean EVERYTHING! Besides, he had helped me every single day with this pose, so the chances he was thinking of someone else, were low. Maybe he was joking? He does have quite the sense of humor, but then again, I always believe, “even in jest, is truth.”
And then it hit me, he really thinks I can catch. Maybe not that day (since we didn't even attempt it) but maybe one day. Maybe on my trip here or maybe 10 years from now. It was something I really truly NEVER thought about. Not that I thought I could never do it, but it just wasn't even something on my radar screen. And it all stemmed from a lack of self-esteem and faith.
In my first week at the shala, I found myself questioning why I was allowed to do full primary when other students with more beautiful practices, more perfect asanas were stopped earlier. If Sharath had told me to stop anywhere along the sequence, I would have believed his decision implicitly, yet I couldn't seem to trust his judgement when it came to letting me do the whole series. I knew then and there that I needed to learn some self-confidence and realize we were all on different journeys but that I WAS capable of more than I could possibly imagine.
A point that Sharath reminded me of when he mentioned “catching.” Just by mentioning it, he opened my mind to something I hadn't even imagined for myself. So the next day, I decided to “measure” the distance between my fingertips and my heels using my yoga rug as a landmark. Turns out, despite feeling like my hands are MILES from my feet, they are much closer than I could have imagined. And thus, the IDEA of catching my heels one days has been planted inside my head, growing until one day, it blossoms.
In the meantime, I met with Sharath during his office hours to ask him about my back pain and what I should do when I get home if I don't have a teacher who can do drop backs with me. “Use the wall, or some cushions and just go back.” He also said, “Yes, your back is flat in a spot. It needs to open. You need to have patience. This takes time.” Simple words and instructions all said with a smile. And yet somehow, there were things unspoken.
As I walked back from his office, I felt raw and suddenly, I started to cry. I was reminded of being a child and cuddling close to my mother. I craved that kind of closeness again and realized I was lonely. Isolating myself inside. Letting my ego go through the motions and put up walls to get through life. But really what I needed was unconditional love… for myself. I also started to make connections about my childhood and realized there are learned behaviors that I have been using in adulthood which are unhealthy and coming from a place of self-doubt. Things I want to change but just the thought of making these changes is frightening. Sure the old habits are bad, but like any habit, a life without them seems strange and unfathomable. Though often times the way forward is through the unknown. So here I sit, vulnerable and afriad, but hopeful because at some point, much like drop backs, you need to have faith that when you “just go back,” the floor (and yourself) will be there to prevent you from falling on your head.