When I was new to the yoga practice, I was in it because I was attracted first and foremost to the physical aspect of it. I fell in love with Vinyasa flow and my body appreciated the movement and physical demands. I was (and still am) enamored by the way yogis moved into difficult arm balances, inversions and the grace by which they flowed through them. I wanted to have that. I wanted to learn to have that much control and that much focus. I was hungry to learn. It wasn’t always easy but I stuck to it. I committed to practicing almost everyday and 80% of the time, it had to be a “strong” flow practice. What kept me going was seeing the transformation in my body and how I progressed from pose to pose. It was definitely challenging, many times leaving me frustrated. But the good moments, those times I flew, floated, went upside down and did poses that were once impossible outweighed the moments of frustration. In a span of a few years, with a consistent and committed practice and study of asana, I reached my physical goals and it made me feel like a yogi.
However, my REAL yoga practice began on the onset of chronic pain in my lower back, years after I first stepped on the mat. I literally had to slow down because my body was no longer cooperating, no longer able to catch up with what I thought I could still do. When I got injured, I really had no choice but to stop, listen, reassess my life and how I was spending my energy on a daily basis. I began to observe that even after those years of practicing, teaching yoga and being in this wellness industry… I wasn’t actually well. And if yoga is about finding balance, union of mind, body and soul, then I needed to take a step back.
Experiencing chronic back pain was nature’s way of stuffing a huge slice of humble pie in my mouth. I had to go from being strong and active to letting go and giving into what felt like a “weakness”. The pain made me see just how imbalanced I was not just physically but also in other aspects of my life. I was forced to embark on a different journey towards strength and resilience, one that forced me to check my ego out the door.
Looking back, I can’t remember what triggered my back pain. There was no accident, no sports injury… nothing. It was slow… a gradual, throbbing, nagging pain that just got worse and worse over the course of two years. Two years! It was so frustrating to experience pain on and off for months, then out of nowhere, for the pain to strike everyday. I found it hard to lie on my back for long periods of time and would find myself whimpering as I woke up in the morning because of the pain.
I still have not been able to pinpoint the cause of it all and that has been quite frustrating. Was it a pose that I did or a transition that hurt me? Why wasn’t my asana practice healing me? Could it have been fatigue from teaching multiple classes a week and coming home to do chores? Was it caused by my 13-year career of playing competitive ultimate Frisbee, training twice a week in the evenings and tournaments over weekends? Did a massage therapist hurt me during a massage? Or did I lack proper rest and sleep? Was it… (dare I say it)…age? It was probably a combination of everything.
It had to take something physical and tangible to teach me and wake me up to the reality of things. The pain made me pay attention and face the facts that the way I was living my life had to change. It woke me up to the fact that even if I had a career in health and wellness, I didn’t take care of myself. I needed to let go of a lot of things and assess how I was spending my days and start focusing on what was truly important in my life if I wanted to achieve true wellness. I had to adjust my schedule in such a way that gave me more breathing room, sometimes having to decline teaching on some days. With a heavy heart, I gave up playing Ultimate Frisbee to open up more days for rest and recovery.
I adjusted my practice and went through different kinds of physical therapy. Though I’m better, I still experience aches in my back every now and then. My journey towards totally eradicating the pain isn’t over. But it has made me pay closer attention to my body and how I practice, my overall nutrition and making sure that I don’t overwork myself. I am learning to truly care for myself in more ways than just practicing asana. Each time I step on the mat, I make it a point to sit still for a few minutes and figure out what my body, mind and heart really need for the day. On some days I still challenge myself and need a “strong” flow practice to energize and motivate me but most days I just keep the flow slow and simple.
I chose that cover photo of me for a reason. It reminds me that I have to work through some poses all over again, poses that were once accessible. Backbends like that don’t come easy and it took years of practice to get my hand inches away from my foot. However, the current range of movement in my spine has changed and feels limited. And you know what? That is completely okay with me because as cheesy and as cliché as this sounds, the beautiful thing about the yoga practice is going through the journey. It’s showing up on the mat and unwinding not just the knots in the body but also the chatter in my mind. Maybe one day I’ll reach my foot and even if I don’t, it doesn’t really matter. I could go on my life without having to reach my foot behind me. It won’t stop me from going through the process.
That slice of humble pie definitely wasn’t the most delicious but I had to have it, if only for me to reawaken my senses and find my yoga all over again.
Nica Hechanova De Erquiaga teaches vinyasa flow, community yoga and kids yoga at Urban Ashram Yoga. She recently published a yoga book for kids called Amazing Me. She’s editor of www.urbanyogi.ph and part of the Align&Refine Yoga team.