Healing Vata Back Pain Through Ayurveda and Yoga
I was born with scoliosis. It never seemed like a big deal until I hit my mid 30’s when I found out that I had bone spurs in my thoracic spine and arthritis that was comparable to someone twice my age. In other words, I had the spine of a 60 or 70 year old. Not to mention over 13 years ago, I was in a car accident that caused spinal stenosis and complete degeneration of my cervical spine as well as a bulging disc in my lumbar spine. After visiting several western doctors, who told me my disease was irreversible and informed me that I would live a life of pain – I turned to eastern medicine for my healing journey. Over the years, I saw a massage therapist, craniosacral therapist, physical therapist, as well as numerous bodyworkers. Then one day it dawned on me that I was paying a fortune for well-intentioned people to work on my body, but I was doing nothing to heal my own body. I hit a wall. This prompted me to get serious about my yoga practice.
Being predominantly a Vata Constitution, I was very weak when I started on my yoga journey. I chose a more Vata aggravating practice during my yoga teacher training. I completed my training in Core Power Yoga and Baptiste Yoga. Both of these types of yoga are wonderful for more muscular body types like Pitta or sturdy Kapha. But for me the flow was too fast for my nature and chronic injuries. The yoga ended up aggravating my bulging disc and neck and that is when I turned within. I found a Yoga Physical Therapist with a background in Ayurveda, and she taught me how to move slower and more methodical in my Vinyasa Flow, and I have never turned back.
Here are some tips I learned in healing my back pain:
1. Exercise the Pelvic Floor
Many yogis say we don’t have a yoga practice without our breath! I would say the same about the pelvic floor and deep core – the breath and the bandhas go hand in hand. We don’t have a strong yoga practice until we have learned to incorporate the bandhas. A bandha is a lock where a segment of the body is sealed, isolated or constricted in some manner.
2. Practice Mula Bandha
The Mula Bandha is also called the root lock. It helps tone the pelvic floor. Mula bandha is found at the base of the torso at the perineum, and is part of the muladhara chakra. If you think about it, the chief axis of prana is the spinal column, which rises from the perineum to the crown of the head. I utilize the Mula Bandha to stabilize many yoga postures. Activating the Bandha takes time and concentration to incorporate it with my breath, so it slows down the ether and air aspects of my Vata Nature and grounds me in my practice. It’s great for lower back pain because it allows you to move in a safer way through your asana practice. It takes pressure off the lumbar spine, and it allows strength for the upper spine to expand upward when the lock is in place.
3. For Thoracic Back pain or Scoliosis, Practice Uddiyana Bandha
The Uddiyana Bandha, after all the air is exhaled, is an upward lock or abdominal lift where the abdominal organs are all swept up to a higher than normal position. The abdomen is pulled under the rib cage. By activating the Uddiyana Bandha, I am able to message my thoracic spine through my breath with the lock engaged. When the lock is in place, there is a balloon-like effect of the rib cage. Udiyana stretches the respiratory diaphragm, which spans the chest and the abdomen and attaches to the base of the rib cage and lumbar spine. When you have Scoliosis the chest cavity and breath can be constricted, and it feels really nice to open up the chest cavity that can get locked down with scoliosis (or at least that is true in my body).
Connecting the Root Chakra to Ayurveda
When someone of a Vata nature is out of balance they can feel anxiety, isolation, feelings of being alone, abandoned, fearful or unsupported. Thus, working with the root chakra helps draw attention to aspects of Vata that need attention. In my case, after I started working with the root chakra, I realized that when my back pain was exacerbated, I felt unsupported, “in it alone,” or abandoned. It’s my Vata nature to push through projects, and then be completely diminished. I work intensely on tasks and then end up feeling weak and unsupported when all things are said and done. Most of my life, I have felt that I have to go it alone or make it happen on my own and that I am unsupported. It is when I don’t feel “support” that my lower back will go out on me literally paralyzing me in pain.
Root Chakra and the Relationships with Vata Dosha
The root chakra is related to the earth element. It’s responsible for our safety and security. It is the support or base that grounds us and provides stability. Imagine the roots of a tree deep within the earth giving the tree strong roots to soar high into the sky. When I started working with my root chakra, I realized that I was usually afraid or fearful that something wouldn’t work out financially in my favor.
Declare Your Needs to Save Your Back
Throughout my real estate career, many close friends or family members would engage me in a conversation about selling or listing real estate. I always assumed that my friends and relatives would use me as their agent when it came time to list or sell their home. In many cases, I would later find out that someone I assumed would work with me to sell their home, would end up choosing to work with someone else. I learned from these experiences, that in life if I fail to declare my authentic needs and allow others’ needs to take precedence over my own, I pay the price. For example, I never signed exclusive buying agreements with close ties because I trusted them. I did not pronounce and stand for my need to get paid and reimbursed for my time. I put friends and family members’ needs above my own self-protection. In one case a relative bought without using a realtor (thus not paying a commission or me after I had offered lots of free help), in another case a relative didn’t want to mix business and family, and in a third situation the financial decision-maker in the family wanted to work with their real own estate contact, after getting lots of free help from me. Over and over again I was devastated by these betrayals. On one occasion, a family member who had asked me to send them listings for months ended up using someone else. When I found out one day over a nonchalant conversation in the kitchen with this family member, my root chakra was on fire, my lower back was debilitated, and I was in crushing pain. This family member was insensitive to the fact that I had skin in the game. I never received an apology or an explanation. When I began to work with my fears, I was able to release the tension in my lower back. The fear statements that I would tell myself is that if you cannot rely on your friends and family, then who can you rely on? These feelings of abandonment were literally putting me into back pain attacks. The lesson I learned is to stand up for myself and to declare my needs. Had I declared my needs and wants, then I could have saved myself a lot of pain.
Dhanvantri – The Divine Healer
Lord Dhanvantri in Ayurveda is the Divine Healer within all of us. Healing back pain requires turning inward, and the best way I can describe this experience is becoming very primal. When my back and neck hurt, if I close my eyes and get on my mat and breathe I find my body instinctively knows what to do next. The breath guides me into the next posture, and the next, and the next. At times I lead my body with the ego, but when I let all that go, and I start with my ujjayi breath and then begin working with the bandhas, the gateway opens into an incredibly deep experience. I typically start in cat cow and breathe into that asana until my body decides what it needs next, usually it is a simple down dog. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a down dog! These two postures alone can be enough to just melt away the stress and bring the necessary ease to turn inward. For all those with back pain, I highly recommend stretching gently, slowly, and to close your eyes and just look within there is a mystery of healing waiting for you. I promise!
Relieving Pain with Meditation, not Medication
In saving the best for last, one of the best practices for calming down my back problems and bringing me back to ease and a sense of security is finding a state of calm amongst the storm. When my back has flared up, my body has communicated to me that I need to slow down, and if I don’t, it will slow me down by locking my back up. When I have overworked, ran myself into the ground, or overextended myself for others, without honoring myself, I have been crippled by pain. One Christmas I had 16 people coming over for dinner, and my back locked up. I couldn’t cook, clean or manage or do anything. I don’t smoke pot, but I was so desperate that my husband called a friend who brought over pot butter for me to eat to help me unravel and unwind. At Christmas dinner, I proceeded to tell everyone I was high and f*&^# it. I got a few good laughs that year. At the time, I didn’t have a meditation practice to know that I could turn inward to heal. I was still seeking outside relief without knowing the Divine Healer was within. Our body is immensely aware of what we need. Without meditation, I am not able to turn inward and listen to what my body is trying to communicate to me. If I cannot slow down, my body has a way of arresting itself for me.I’ll admit that I am not good at any of these practices. Being a Vata, I resist these practices with every ounce of my being, However, it is through habit evolution that I have learned to honor my body. I crave movement, multitasking, and chasing my next biggest idea – however, nothing can come to fruition when one is arrested by back pain.
Final Tips for Overcoming Back Pain
Slow down long enough to listen to what is really going on inside yourself.
- Focus your attention on your root chakra. Are you afraid of something, angry about something, or feeling out of touch with yourself? Bring your awareness from your crown chakra all the way down to the root chakra, allowing each chakra to feel your attention through your breath and awareness. Acknowledge what you are feeling, and start to meditate and breath into your own body, and allow whatever comes up for you to be released.
- If you have a yoga practice, then bring this awareness into your body and listen to what your body is communicating back to you. If your body isn’t wanting to do an asana or posture, hold back, and do the postures that bring you the most relief. If you are a Vata nature, slow down and move through your practice slowly and methodically. There have been times when I have been in such crippling pain that I could only manage one posture. Find the posture that fuels your entire being, breath, and open up to the whispers of your soul awaiting you.