What I Felt
In My Spine/Back/Nerves
I’ve had issues with sciatica since my last two years of gymnastics training, in fact my back and leg pain was the main reason I gave gymnastics away. Years of strategically strengthening some muscle groups while over-stretching others, plus multiple crash landings in every possible position (including a nasty fall right on the top of my head…can you say crunch?) had left my back tight and twisted. There were days at the beginning of my practice that simply lying flat on my back in savasana was a painful achievement and the first day that I lay down before class and felt the back of my legs and the small of my back touch the ground at the same time was one of great excitement.
I was determined to soothe, and not encourage, my sciatica during the challenge. I was going to lift from my lower and mid spine, especially in each standing posture, and each backbend was concentrated on stretching upwards and not just falling backwards. I also thought constantly about relaxing my tailbone down and long – I have a wonderful habit of standing with “gymnast posture” or what I like to call “duck butt”, again from years of sticking out my booty and standing with a slouch during gym training. (You’ve seen duck-butt during the Olympics, particularly exaggerated when a gymnast stands and presents to signal the completion of a routine or skill. But duck-butt now equals cripple later and is definitely not an advised posture).
Happily, my back felt better and better during the challenge. I could visualise my lower vertebrae separating and stretching back into a straight line and in rabbit I could even hear the popping of that happening (don’t worry, it felt great). I could see my matt and towel, then sometimes even my heels in back bends. Camel was, at last, my friend.
And after the challenge? Well, I took a well-earned two days off and went home to visit my family. Then I came back to the studio for my first 6pm class and I couldn’t lie down. Pain radiated from my lower back, around my hips and down my legs. It was like I had jumped right back to the beginning again. But that sciatica pain was pain I was used to. It was the feeling in my upper middle back, like my vertebrae were bruised, and badly, that had me concerned. I looked after class but nope, there was no visible bruising. The area was painful to touch, and while it didn’t necessarily hurt during postures, savasana became unbearable. I was concerned.
So, I consulted Dr. Google – a bad, bad idea. If it wasn’t a herniated disc, it was a nerve attacking virus or cancer. I hastily left Dr. Google behind.
I asked my teacher – a much better idea! The answer? Congratulations, you’re opening something new in your body. And, dude, you just did a month in a row – take a break!
So, I decided to trust that everything was ok, and then I went on holidays to Sydney and got busy doing cool stuff and took nearly a fortnight off. When I came back to yoga I felt great. Three months on and my back feels awesomer than awesome. Sciatica is a distant memory, or at least a distant memory that only very rarely, on cold days or days when I’ve slept on someone else’s couch (always a mistake), comes to visit.
Flexibility was my improvement marker for the challenge, the thing, apart from getting through the thirty days, which I really wanted to work on. Well, there’s nothing like a hot room and ninety minutes of concentrated stretching to improve flexibility, and as expected I became gradually more bendy as the month wore on.
I’m not always good at using my strength to help me stretch; during class I’m constantly realising that I’m using the wrong muscles to pull or twist. It’s comical, really, the number of times I’ll hear a teacher say to pull with my biceps only to realise I have to concentrate hard on relaxing my bunched up shoulders and telling my pesky arms to do the job instead. Coming to class every day allowed me to remember the little things more easily, reminding myself each consecutive class what I had learnt in the class before and becoming more aware of what I was supposed to do versus what I had a habit of doing. This awareness has been a far bigger benefit to my practice than the overall improvement in my flexibility, and was probably the leading contributor to my gains in stretchiness as well.
Despite spending far more time at the yoga studio, I was super productive during June. The time spent focusing in the studio helped me focus at work and at home and all that back bending gave me a huge boost in creative energy. I also saved a lot of time that I previously devoted to deciding if I would go to class by knowing that I had no choice but to go to class.
Normally, not during the Challenge, I would wake up in the morning reconsidering my decision to go or not to go to yoga. I would think about whether my clothes were dry, what I’d eaten, what else I needed to do during the day, whether or not I wanted to wash my hair, what the weather was like…I’d let almost any factor sway my decision to practice. Usually I’d still end up going, but not after wasting fifteen minutes at the start of the day thinking about it. During the Challenge, I didn’t do any of this thinking because I had to go to yoga, regardless of the state of my hair or the weather. You guys, I saved so much time.
This change, while small and seemingly insignificant, had a great effect on my day and my approach to class. Yoga wasn’t something I was trying to get out of anymore. Sure, class was and will always be hard, but that’s the point. And I still had to go. I began to enjoy class a lot more during the Challenge; not just the good classes but the really hard ones as well; the ones when my legs felt like lead and my stomach churned and I saw stars. Every day I moved closer to the achievement of completing the challenge which meant that every class, no matter how it felt, was good.
Heading into class with this new attitude has been the biggest change to my practice since the Challenge, and each week I now plan which classes I will attend in advance and then don’t give them a second thought until I’m there. Bikram yoga is much more enjoyable when you’ve decided to enjoy it and you’re not looking for loopholes.
And that’s it. Thirty classes, thirty days. Forty-five hours of yoga in a month. Simple, difficult, sweaty and, in the end, enjoyable. Would I do it again? Yes. Would I recommend trying a challenge? Absolutely.
If you have any questions about the Challenge, do feel free to ask. If you’re at all interested in Bikram yoga I highly suggest you try it. And if you want to do a challenge, I hope I’ve encouraged you and not put you off! Do it, do it with a friend, or with a whole studio, or by yourself.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I entered our Queensland Regional Asana Championship this year. For me, getting up in front of my friends and family to show them the yoga that I’d been working so hard at for the past year and a half was super rewarding, and definitely something I was inspired to do after completing the Challenge. Below is a video of my routine from the Championship in October, you might not be able to tell because I’m wearing my concentration face, but I had so much fun!