Lessons from lower back pain, again

Last week, my old friend lower back pain payed me a visit. It was an unexpected visit since we haven’t met each other for a while. The first time was shortly after my younger daughter was born. Since then, we met every once in a while, until I started practicing yoga ‘for real’.

What do I mean by that? Well, to begin with, when I finally took the time to practice regularly. During the last seven years, I practice almost daily, at least ten to twenty minutes a day, sometimes, if I have more time, up to an hour.

Consistency is not enough in itself though. It is good only when it allows for me to get to know my body better and do what I know is good for it. Practicing yoga asana daily could be harmful if I don’t practice mindfully.

So when I say that I started practicing yoga ‘for real’, I mean yoga in the extended sense of the word. Not just yoga as a physical practice, but as a way of living. I have had to accept my body as it is and not want to push it to what I want it to be or do. I know that lower back pain has been an issue for me during the last twelve years, so I take this into consideration during my daily practice. I focus on strengthening exercises and poses several times a week, I try to be mindful of not over doing certain poses like forward bends, and vary the poses I practice in a period of time to avoid injuries.

I believe in the power of simplicity, so I keep my practice to the basic poses, and have let go of the need to do poses that I feel unsure about. If I had the guidance of my yoga teacher on a regular basis, and he would consider it beneficial for my practice to introduce such poses, I would, but to push my body into them just because they look cool, or because that’s what is ‘expected’ from a yoga teacher, is not good enough reason for me.

But back to the lower back pain. Why did it come back? Well, because I ‘forgot’ to listen to my body. Some weeks ago, Isigned up for a series of yoga classes with a teacher that I enjoy, and got carried away by the ‘fun’ of doing poses I usually don’t do. And why do I write about it? Well, there are two main reasons:

  1. I know quite a few people that have gotten injured while practicing yoga asana, and then we tend to believe that yoga is not for everyone, or that yoga can be harmful. What is harmful is the need we have to push our body to do things it is not ready for, or that it doesn’t really need. Yoga asana is a very nice way to keep the body healthy, work with the breath and calm the mind, but it needs to be done mindfully and with respect for our body and its limitations. I honestly believe that one can practice yoga asana every day without getting injured as long as one doesn’t get carried away by ego.
  2. It is so important to learn to know our own body and work with it instead of against it. There is a very fine line between pushing it a bit to get stronger or gain better stamina and pushing it to the point of injury. I believe the practice of yoga is at its best when we create our own practice because we can then listen to our body at all times and create a practice that is suitable for that specific moment. It is of course, important to have a good teacher that can guide us from time to time, someone who we can trust, but most of the work needs to be done by us.

Luckily, I know more or less what I need to do when this good old lower back pain pays me a visit, and I’m already starting to feel better – with a little help from my chiropractor. My reflections about this experience can also be applied everyday life. It is so important to find our own way! Learn to know who we are, accept our shortcomings and know our strengths, identify our values and priorities and live accordingly. There is nothing wrong in observing what other people do, listen to opinions and even learn from others, but avoid doubting ourselves every time someone says or does something differently.

On the screening power of screens

Last week, I met a boy from fourth grade when I was on my way to get my bike to ride home after work. He sat outside on a bench in the Norwegian Winter weather. I asked why we was sitting there alone, and he replied he was waiting for his dad to pick him up. I asked if he was ok, yes, he said, I have my mobile. He was playing some game on his telephone.

On my ride home, I felt sorry for him, sitting in the cold weather, waiting for his dad, and I remembered how, when I was in primary school, also had sometimes to wait to be picked me up. I went to a private school that was far away from our place, so there was no option to walk. I remember feeling a mixture between boredom and sometimes fright of never being picked up. As an adult, I know this is unreasonable, but as a kid, it did seem plausible. The only difference is that I grew up in the Caribbean, so at least, I wasn’t freezing…

…wait a minute, is it the only difference? What else do you think was quite different? I didn’t have an electric device to distract me from my emotions.

Lately, I am reflecting a lot about the impact all these screens must have in kids and adults, and I must confess that it worries me. I wonder how, the fact that we can be constantly entertained by these devices affects our emotional health.

It is well known that humans don’t like to experience what we see as negative emotions, and as parents we want to protect our children from feeling emotionally distressed, so we do whatever we can to change their moods. Access to an electric device often seems like a good tool. If a child is bored in the car, he can play games on the telephone. Or if she doesn’t like to sit still at a restaurant, she can watch videos on YouTube while the food is served. I must confess that I enjoy the peace and quiet TV brings on weekend mornings too. My kids watch TV while I can enjoy my coffee in the other room without being disturbed.

What I wonder about is if not the constant access to screens gradually puts a veil in people’s ability to see their own emotions. We hide our discomfort, our distress by keeping our minds busy, and we loose contact with ourselves. I also wonder if this loss of inner contact can result in loss of empathy and the ability to see other people’s emotions.

One could argue that electric devices are not alone on having the role of distractors, some read to flee from reality or to relax, others play an instrument, or go for a run, but I would argue that all these activities and other that we use to distract ourselves, require more from us than pure entertainment coming out from a screen.

I know that there are many different factors that influence the mental and emotional health of a person, and I guess that if a child that has free access to electric devices grows up in an otherwise open family where any emotion is welcomed and communication is positive, what I write about must probably won’t happen.

Maybe that is the key, maybe that is what concerns me more than the screens, the fact that well-meant adults want to ‘protect’ children from challenging emotions instead of allowing them to feel and help them develop tools to cope, to learn from them. I think one of the biggest gifts we can give our children is to know that they can overcome any difficult situation by learning to go through the distress and pain. To find strength inside them and to ask for support when they need it. Sometimes we experience pain and distress because of our own perceptions, sometimes it is caused by our interactions with others, sometimes it is the result of unforeseen and uncontrollable life-situations. Maybe we can also teach our children to see the difference between them and encourage them to see how they can deal with them.

What is Yoga? – my own understanding.

I asked this question to a group of fourteen year old students this week assuming that their definition would be in the lines of ‘stretching exercises’. Some of them didn’t know, some of them defined yoga as stretching, relaxation, and breathing exercises. None of these definitions is wrong, but they are incomplete. But then, one girl said ‘It is a way to relax the mind so we can deal with life better’. This is very close to what I understand as yoga after studying and practicing for some years, and it really surprised me how matter-of-factly she said it. She has never practiced yoga before nor does any of her family members.

If you have been study and practicing, you might know that there are many different definitions of yoga “Yoga is union”, “Yoga is skilfulness in action”, “Yoga is the cessation of the waves of the mind”, just to mention some. These definitions stem from different traditions in which the means to yoga vary but the goal is the same: self-knowledge for self-transformation.

The supreme goal of Yoga is to realise that we are more than what we perceive and think, but in my view, there are sub-goals that can bring immense benefits to our life and the lives of others if the goal of self-realisation feels too lofty or far to reach.

Traditionally, Yoga is seen as a science and the object of study is the self. Each path has its own definition and set of theories and techniques to lead the practitioner towards better self-understanding, thus guiding her gradually towards a state of lasting inner peace and clarity. One could simply say that Yoga is not the goal, it is the means, and more than a specific technique or practice, it is a mindset.

Stretching can be part of the yoga practice if one chooses to start the inner journey through the physical body by practicing asana (yoga postures). However, the physical practice is not limited to stretching. It is an invitation to self-exploration and self-understanding to make appropriate choices for our mental and physical health. Ideally, we practice yoga asana to keep the body healthy, agile and strong. A healthy body allows us to cultivate a calm mind. So, the asana practice does not need to be complicated or strenuous. In order for it to be Yoga, it needs to be practiced with clarity of intention. If the intention is self-knowledge, you are practicing yoga. If your practice leaves you invigorated but with a calm state of mind, you are practicing yoga. If your practice brings you injury, stress and the pursuit of the perfect pose, you are not practicing yoga. You are practicing physical activity. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as you are clear about it.

What many don’t know, is that Yoga can be practiced without the physical practice. There is Dhyana Yoga, or Yoga Meditation where one works systematically towards slowing down the mind in order to let go of misperceptions and misconceptions of who we are and the what world around us is. The main goal is to achieve a state of stable concentration that will lead to what is called samadhi. Samadhi for me is still too difficult to grasp, so my meditation practice is still focused on slowing down the mind for a more peaceful and centered attitude towards life.

There is also Karma Yoga where we live our practical life with full awareness and an attitude of sacrifice. Through action, we also get to know ourselves better, and we gradually change our attitude acting with clarity, pure intentions and for the benefit of the whole. Karma Yoga is a prefect path in our times since we all have to live a practical life, and through the change of attitude in our actions, we cultivate a calmer state of mind, allowing us to live a more meaningful life.

The list of different Yoga paths continues, and most of the time, these paths intertwine. This means that one can practice both yoga asana and meditation and be active in the world following the principles of Karma Yoga. What is required from us is to be clear about the main goal of Yoga and to be willing to do the internal work of self-study and reflection with the guidance of scriptures and a teacher.

Whatever your goal of practicing yoga is, and whatever path you choose, be clear about what your intentions are. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to get a workout, that is good. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to relax, that is good too. If you however want to make deeper changes in your life through the practice of Yoga, you need to know that it requires perseverance, self-responsibility, study, and lots of practice. Preferably through the guidance of a teacher who will be able to point you towards the right direction.

In all humbleness, as a yoga teacher, I aim to help my students explore the different aspects of Yoga. Hopefully this will lead them towards the wish to find a way to self-understanding so they can choose the right practice for them. However, the search and the responsibility lies in the student. I have my own teacher that guides me but I am encouraged to practice, observe and reflect and never take anything as dogma.

Space is magic

Create space for yourself. In all your states. Don’t panic, no thought or emotion will stay forever. Enjoy the good ones and observe the bad ones. What are they trying to say? The more space you create inside yourself, the easier it is to deal with your changing emotions and moods without looking for external answers, they tend to disappoint.

Create the space to see all sides of yourself. Accept and love yourself for who you are. Only by looking directly into your innermost thoughts and attitudes, you will be able to make small adjustments here and there that will bring you to a better place. Only by exercising the art of setting yourself free, you will be able to see other people with eyes of compassion and understanding.

Create space for those around you to thrive and grow. Give love and see it flow. Love is always the answer no matter what. Don’t measure the love you give. Don’t be afraid, the more you give, the more you have. Lead with the example, lead with the heart, and you’ll see magic moments arise. Keep your eyes open though, and don’t stare at one spot. Love will flow from sometimes the most unexpected places.

Create space for those around you to struggle, to be challenging, to show their moods. It is never about you, it is all about their inner life too. Just like you, they have their own internal battles, and just like you, all they need is the space to experience, to learn and to move forward. If you don’t push back, if you are curious, if you are present, you will be able to either help or step back. When we give space to others, magic happens, the other gets time to react, to reflect and then come back in a calmer state.

Space is really magic.