Yoga “The Great Exposer”

        Years of tackle football, basketball, and weight lifting are likely culprits.  A weak core and a genetic predisposition could’ve also played a role in the injury.  As with many things, it’s probably multifactorial.  Painfully twisted and miserable for over a year, I finally scheduled an MRI in 2016 to investigate my chronic lower back pain.  

Initial Imaging Results - “L4-L5: mild disc height loss with disc desiccation. Shallow disc bulge with a superimposed central protrusion, measuring 3 mm. This contacts the bilateral L5 nerve roots. Bilateral facet hypertrophy.  Mild right neural foraminal narrowing. Mild central canal stenosis.”

        Basically, I had a herniated disc.  Imagine a fresh tomato with its skin intact, inside is the juicy pulp of the fruit.  Now, envision that tomato is like a disc in your spine, where the outer skin represents the tough outer layer of the disc called the annulus fibrosus, and the juicy pulp represents the gel-like center called the nucleus pulposus.  A herniated disc occurs when this juicy pulp pushes through a tear in the outer skin.  This bulging out can put pressure on nearby nerves and cause pain, numbness, and weakness.

        Thankful for an official diagnosis, I started weekly physical therapy assisted by anti-inflammatory drugs.  My physical therapist (PT) guided me through hamstring stretches, hip strengthening, realignment exercises, traction, decompression massage, and neural flossing.  Additionally, my physical therapist’s enthusiasm and positive outlook helped me overcome the psychological effects of chronic pain.  In 6 months, I was back on my feet.

        Now I’m thirty-one, it’s been 7 years since the initial insult and as you’d expect I’ve had a few back episodes and when I do, I address them quickly with a different therapy—hot yoga.  I found this route to be an efficient substitute for physical therapy.  There’s a saying in yoga, “you’re only as old as your spine”, and at age twenty-four, I had the spine of a very old man.

        Yoga is physical therapy.  Yoga is stretching.  Yoga is strengthening.  Yoga is breathe-work.  Yoga is meditation.  Yoga is balance.  Yoga is alignment.  Yoga is a maintenance program you can run on your human operating system to identify physical vulnerabilities.  

        With yoga I can achieve the same goals my PT set for me.  My PT repeated again and again to me, “your core is your anchor”.  You don’t want to over rotate, overstretch, or over bend your spine.  He emphasized planks over sit ups for this same reason.  Your core muscles act as a brace that stabilizes your spine. After strengthening your core it’s pretty simple, when your muscles above and below the core are more flexible they absorb shock and stress better.  Greater flexibility in your arms, shoulders, hips, and legs disperse force, shielding your spine.  Some like it hot and I am one of them.  The heat of hot yoga gives me greater range of motion and elasticity.  Heat has always helped me manage pain and relax tight muscles and reduce spasm.  

        Akin to the camaraderie I had with my physical therapy team,  I feel a great sense of community when I attend yoga class.  To finish yoga class it’s common to assume Corpse Pose, or Shavasana.  Here breathing and stillness are your only objectives.  Lying on my back, eyes closed, palms open facing the ceiling, I often receive a new perspective, I leave class feeling psychologically lifted and mentally cleansed.  

        You cannot minimize the psychological toll of chronic pain, breaking the cycle of negative thoughts seems impossible.  To anyone battling chronic pain don’t give up, it may seem bleak, just take it one day at a time, one step at a time if you have to.

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