Yoga’s Dharma is to Heal

Name: Elizabeth McGlinchey
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation: Graduate Student

Photo by Flickr User st_gleam.

Photo by Flickr User st_gleam.

When I was a teenager, a drunk driver drove into me as I crossed the street, leaving me severely injured. Weeks passed, jam-­packed with surgery, radiology tests, laboratory tests, and diagnoses. I changed into someone with whom I could no longer identify.

Once my health became stable, I was admitted to a rehabilitation hospital, and was soon able to move around independently… in a wheel chair. I remember the first time I stood up and the excruciating pain that surged through my body. Reminiscent pain still comes and goes in my legs, but it is something I have tolerated well in the years since and it has never stopped me from wanting to become stronger and athletic. Twelve years later I am still healing physically and emotionally. Continue reading

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Mind Over Back Pain

Name: Sara Curry
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Studio Owner

Image by Flickr user neckandback.

In 2001, after a history of throwing my back out, I was diagnosed with 2 herniated discs. I had endured long periods where I couldn’t move or perform the tasks of daily life for a few days or even weeks. But in 2001, it became worse than ever. The pain was constant and I couldn’t find relief with any activity. Moving hurt, but so did resting. I couldn’t lie on the table long enough to get a massage. I thought chiropractic care would help, but after some sessions, I was in too much pain to even get into my car. My husband had to tie my shoes for me, he had to bring in the groceries and change the cat litter, shovel the walk, weed the garden, and anything else that required lifting, carrying or bending.

I had just started practicing yoga at Bikram Yoga Burlington, Vermont, when the pain became really acute. I called the studio and asked what I should do. My teacher, Aimee, told me I could take a couple of days off if I really felt I needed it, but to get back in the studio before a week had gone by. I visited a spine doctor that week and got my diagnosis. “Cortizone shots, pain killers and surgery,” he explained, were my only options for pain management. Notice that I didn’t say “rehabilitation.” He had nothing to offer long term; no way to heal or rehabilitate the area. Instead he offered a way to just cut out the bulge and take drugs so that I couldn’t feel it.

I knew there had to be another option, a better option. The yoga had been making me feel great in so many other ways, that I decided to trust the process. I listened to my teachers. I practiced almost every day for over a year. In my poses, I worked on creating traction for my spine to take the pressure off the compromised discs. I limited or skipped forward bends all together. I worked to deepen my backbends in order to improve my spinal alignment and to develop soft tissue strength to support the weakness in my inter-vertebral discs.

I shed a lot of tears on my mat in that hot room. Tears from the pain. Tears because I felt sorry for myself. Tears because it was hard and sometimes I felt hopeless. When you are in the depths of that kind of pain, it is hard to see that there might be a relief someday. When everything hurts, from brushing your teeth to sleeping, it is hard to imagine that your life won’t always be focused on your pain, even in your sleep.

There were many days that I pulled into the parking lot, drove around the back of the building and right out the other entrance. Sometimes I did that circle three or four times before I would park my car and drag my aching back through the doors of my yoga studio. Many of my classes were very painful, but I always felt worse if I didn’t go to class.

My biggest breakthrough came when I took a class with Rajashree Choudhury in Los Angeles at Bikram Yoga International Headquarters. I wanted to speak with her before class to give her a disclaimer about my back and to ask her for any help or modifications. There was a long line of students waiting to speak with her, so I never got my chance. Before she started the class she told us that many students had asked her about modifications for back pain, “Just do your yoga,” she told us.

And I did. Within 11 days, I was pain-free and terrified. I was terrified that it wouldn’t stick, that the pain would come back, or that I would do something to hurt myself again.

I still face that fear some days.Thankfully the days are now few and far between, but it does come up from time to time. Each time it does, I get better at dealing with it. I tell myself that moving my body is not going to damage it. I remind myself that I have learned to heal myself with yoga before and that I have the tools to do it again.

Owner and Director of Bikram Yoga Portsmouth, Sara Curry is a 500-hour Certified Bikram Yoga Instructor. Sara found her way to Bikram Yoga after years of rugby, weightlifting and running left her with two herniated discs and debilitating back pain. Faced with a choice from her doctors between surgery and a lifetime of cortisone shots, Sara chose Bikram Yoga instead. With just the 26 postures, she was able to return to a pain-free life. She has been inspired by her own recovery to share this healing series with others. Sara has given birth to two children naturally, with no back pain during either pregnancy. She has returned to snowboarding and hiking and can carry her 5-year old up Mount Agamenticus, on her shoulders, without any pain. And all of this knowing there was a time when she couldn’t roll over in bed at night without searing pain. In the words of Bikram Choudhury, it truly is, “Never to late. Never too bad. Never too old. Never too sick to start all over from scratch.”

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Open to Grace?? Are you Serious?

Name: Bridget Lyons
Location: Victor, ID, USA…or on the road teaching in the inter-mountain west!
Occupation: Yoga Teacher, Studio Owner, Blogger, Connector and Seeker

I was just 30 years old when the pain in my back started keeping me up at night. I could “deal” as long as I was doing my thing – which, at that time, was carrying an 80-pound backpack, rowing an 18-foot whitewater raft, and shoveling snow for hours on end to build an igloo to sleep in. I was working full-time leading 30-day wilderness expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and hard physical labor was the name of the game. So was grinning and stoically bearing pain and discomfort…which I was starting to feel a lot of as soon as I stopped working and lay down at the end of the day.

So I took an office job. I bought a $1,000 mattress. And I showed up at a beginners’ yoga class in this little, concrete-floored converted office in a small town in Wyoming. I had tried yoga a couple of times in college, and to be frank, I had been bored. I left feeling frustrated about having wasted an hour that could have been better spent doing “real training.” Nevertheless, ten years later I figured I’d better give it another try since it seemed like everyone and his brother had a story about yoga alleviating mysterious back pain.

I went to class weekly, and I actually liked it. Being athletically gifted, I was able to follow directions well and get my body into a variety of different positions. And being stubborn and goal-oriented, I liked class even more when I couldn’t do something. At the end of that year, I moved from that small town in Wyoming to an even smaller town in Idaho. Ironically, this podunk mountain community had a regionally-famous Anusara Yoga studio with a Certified Anusara Instructor and a staff of other highly trained and passionate teachers. I was new in town and wanted to meet folks, and I sure wasn’t over the back pain yet, so I started hanging out there. I liked the consistency of the teachings, the specificity of the directions, and the seemingly endless challenge of new pose after new pose: Backbends! Arm balances! Handstands! And transitioning between them all – yeehaa!

Except…..these folks chanted – In Sanskrit, no less! And they kept talking about this whole “grace” thing. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. But, whatever, my back was getting better and I was having fun, so I just kept showing up. One class a week turned into two, two became three, and before long I was attending the invitation-only teachers’ practice – not so much because I “got it,” but because I was lucky enough to have a strong body that did as I told it to and I worked darn hard.

Somewhere in there something happened. I really wish I could pinpoint the day that transformation occurred so that I could mark it on the calendar as “my yoga anniversary.” But I can’t. Like so many shifts in life, it happened gradually, and only looking back can I identify a distinct and radical change in myself.

What happened? It’s actually hard to describe…but I think the best phrase I can provide is “I softened.” My mountain-toughened edges melted. My bitterness dissolved and left spaciousness in its wake. My New Jersey born-and-bred, type-A drive mellowed into a vision of a co-creative life purpose. I became a strong-boundaried and open-hearted friend. Checkers at the grocery store started smiling at me, and I genuinely enjoyed engaging with them. For the first time in my life, people sitting next to me on airplanes wanted to chat, and men in bars wanted to buy me drinks. Maybe it was the chanting – which of course I started to love (I should have known something was happening when I started listening to kirtan CD’s in my pick-up truck). Maybe it was the poses themselves tenderizing my physical body with their steady tough love. Maybe it was the fact that I simply stuck it out. But in all likelihood, all that “Open to Grace” hoo-ha had a lot to do with it. Once my raised-Catholic-and-ran-away-screaming self got over the occasional use of the word “God,” the little girl in me who was insatiably curious about everything spiritual resurfaced and drank up everything yoga philosophy had to offer.

Included in that offering was the idea that embodiment is amazing: That we are divine essence that has chosen to become human in order to experience the wonder that is this world; That our bodies are amazing and do amazing things; That we are “purna” – perfect, not lacking – just as we are; That life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be celebrated; That grace is our birthright and is always there when we stop to notice it, and breathe it in; And that the practice of showing up on your mat each day is your opportunity to remember all of this and so much more – as long as you open yourself to it.

So I delved deeply into these teachings, which are just the tip of the iceberg of the exquisite and profound school of philosophy that we call Tantra. I became a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor – a process substantially more challenging than getting my undergrad degree from Harvard. I learned to do some crazy hard poses. I bought a yoga studio – the one in the podunk Idaho town I waltzed into ten years ago. I started making decisions from my gut – and they were right. I took risks with strangers. I laughed more. I definitely cried more. Really, I just out-and-out FELT more.

Most of all, I gave myself the freedom to be nothing other than me, and the knowledge that I am simultaneously a beautiful, smart, sarcastic, bike-riding, art-making, rock-n-roll loving, 5’8” green-eyed yoga goddess AND a spark of divinity, just like everyone else. And that feels oh-so-good.

Oh yeah — my back pain is long gone too…

Bridget Lyons is a Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor and co-owner of YogaTejas in Driggs, Idaho. She began studying yoga twelve years ago in order to recover from chronic back pain caused by guiding numerous backpacking, kayaking, and skiing expeditions. In addition to healing her injuries through yoga, she unexpectedly discovered a way of connecting to grace. Bridget loves the combination of athleticism and spiritual exploration offered by the yoga practice, and her teaching and practice reflect her commitment to a strong body and an open heart. She teaches weekly drop-in classes at her studio, weekend workshops throughout the inter-mountain west, and Yoga Alliance RYT-200 trainings for students looking to truly commit to yoga.

Recently Bridget has been offering courses and trainings online as well; you can practice with her free videos and take her 7-day Yogi Superheroes Intensive at www.bridgetlyonsyoga.com. To read more of her musings on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the mat, go to www.bridgetlyonsyoga.wordpress.com. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Bridget-Lyons-Yoga and Twitter @BLyonsYoga.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

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How Yoga Changed My Life

Name: Nicole DeAvilla
Location: Marin County, California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Bestselling Author of The 2 Minute Yoga Solution

My first introduction to yoga was a Yoga for Dancers Workshop while I was in college at UCSC. The instructor gave us stick figure illustrations of the routine. Then one of those unexplainable things happened: I began practicing the sequence, every day. I had never set out with the intention of practicing yoga regularly, let alone every day. It just happened. Depending on how much time I had, I would spend anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours practicing. I did this for at least a year.

Later, after I had graduated from college, I found myself living in San Francisco. At this time, I was not practicing yoga nor dancing and I found myself in a lot of pain and going into a downward negative spiral. After learning that I had practiced yoga in college, a colleague of mine named Cheryl (her name is now Nayaswami Lila and she went on to be an assistant and cook for Nayaswami Kriyananda.) suggested I try yoga classes at a place called Ananda.

Ananda San Francisco was offering a teacher training course and something inside of me just told me that I had to take the course, that it would be my lifesaver out of the pain. I had no intention of teaching yoga, however something was strongly telling me that it was what I needed to do for my own healing.

I was the youngest person in the class and with my dance background I was physically able to master the asanas more easily than most of the others. However, I very quickly learned that my deficiency was elsewhere. It so happened that this group was very advanced in yoga lifestyle, philosophy and meditation – probably more than the usual yoga teacher training group.

I allowed myself to be open-minded about all that I was learning; it was new and very different to me. I decided that rather than judging everything during the course, I would experiment and try all of their suggestions. Gurus and miracles, meditation, karma and reincarnation were all new concepts to me and I had to work hard at opening my mind to these esoteric ideas.

I had back pain up and down my spine and at times radiating down my arms and legs. Interestingly, practicing even some of the more advanced yoga postures helped me to feel better. However, sitting still for meditation was the most painful thing I could do – excruciatingly painful.

Among the many nuggets of wisdom taught by my teachers, Dhyana, Ram and Pranabha, was that if a person meditates on the eyes of a true guru or saint that they will be blessed – even if they are only meditating on a photograph. One afternoon I desperately wanted to meditate. Having experienced little tastes of meditation in class, I knew I wanted more of its nectar. But every time I tried, I ended up meditating on a worsening pain.

On this day I thought that if I meditated on the eyes of a saint or guru that perhaps I would be blessed to be able to sit and meditate. The only problem was that I didn’t think I had any pictures of a saint or guru. Then I realized that I had a copy of Nayswami Kriyananda’s book, The Path. His photo was on the cover. “He’s a saintly man.” I thought to myself. “I will look into his eyes.”

I set myself up for meditation, I placed the book in front of me, and I prayed and looked deeply into Swami’s eyes. I began by alternating looking into his eyes with closing mine and visualizing them as I practiced the techniques that I was learning. It took tremendous willpower to keep the focus as I sat. As it usually did, the back pain was creeping up on me. I kept willing myself to stay focused on the eyes and as I did I asked for help. After a time, something happened that I can only describe as a miracle: I no longer felt any pain whatsoever. I had transcended the pain and gone deeper into meditation than I ever had before.

When I came out of the meditation, however, my back pain was not cured. It was still there but that momentary experience of being pain free made a believer out of me. Curing the back pain altogether is another miracle story for another time.

I went on to finish the three-month Yoga Teacher Training program. Though I had not intended to be a yoga teacher, the very next day after I graduated with my yoga teaching certificate in hand, I was teaching a yoga class. Nearly 30 years later, I am still teaching yoga and loving every second!

Nicole DeAvilla lives in Marin County, California with her husband and two teenage children. In addition to living, researching, writing and teaching about yoga and yoga lifestyle, she enjoys hiking, being creative and spending time with friends and family. Having been inspired by her own mentors and having felt the support of a yoga community in her own growth, she wants to give others the same opportunities. She is passionate about making yoga accessible to all people and providing support for them through The 2 Minute Yoga Solution book, community and events and The 2 Minute Yoga Club. Find Nicole on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/2MinuteYoga and www.Facebook.com/nicole.deavilla. Tweeting at: @NicoleDeAvilla. Join Nicole for Twitter Chats #Yoga4Moms, #Yoga2DStress, #4YogaTeachers and #YogaSFBay.

Edited by Jeannie Page.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.