Returning to Yoga after a Back Injury

By Lynn Lloyd

This past year, I returned to teaching yoga after a nearly two-year hiatus while I recuperated from a painful back injury: a bulging disk at L5-S1, which was further complicated by a very inflamed sacroiliac joint. How did the injury happen? In brief, because I did not listen to my body when it was telling me the low back was stressed out. You would think a yoga instructor would know better, but obviously I still had some lessons to learn!

Dealing with it

The injury was excruciatingly painful. No position approached anything close to comfort. Any forward flexion at all brought me to tears, but standing and lying down weren’t much better. Asanas were out of the question, as was meditation. This was a big blow as they have been a daily part of my life for a long time, and I rely on them for physical and spiritual wellbeing.

My physical therapist helped me understand the physiology of a posterior bulging disk, and guided me to the one position my body could endure: a pillow-supported Cobra Pose. I spent hours and weeks in that position, anytime I possibly could, and slowly the disk began to move back into place. However, it would be many months before my pain level was low enough to sit in meditation, or do asanas.

So what was a yogi to do? During the first year, I spent a lot of time lying on the floor, moving very gently (when I wasn’t in Cobra Pose). Holding still was more painful than moving, so I kept moving, as carefully and mindfully as possible. Since meditation was not a possibility, I began a very active prayer life. I’ve always loved to pray, but now I began to get very intentional about it. I made sure to pray a lot for others in order to not become overly self-focused (a definite danger when one deals with chronic pain and limitation). Sometimes I could do some of the Energization Exercises of Paramhansa Yogananda (like the arms), but sometimes it hurt too much to stand up and do them. I did, however, incorporate aspects of them into my rolling-on-the-floor routines.

A turning point

One very powerful moment stands out in memory from this time period. The pain was particularly intense that day, and I was hollering to God for help. I remembered Yogananda saying that God likes us to argue with him, and I was arguing! I was feeling rather victimized at the time (“What did I do to deserve this?!”) when suddenly something in me shifted. In a very loud, firm voice I said (ok, I yelled), “I DON’T CARE WHAT AFFLICTION VISITS ME! I WILL NOT ALLOW IT TO MAKE ME FEEL SEPARATE FROM YOU!” The pain eased up from that moment on, although it would still be many months before it disappeared entirely. From that moment, I began very actively to affirm my oneness with God through, or in spite of, the pain.

After about a year, I was able to sit for a while. I could usually stand and walk without too much pain. I felt ready to return to an asana practice. Oh my poor, stiff, weak body! Poses that previously had been easy and yummy were now uncomfortable or impossible. I went from being able to do a deep, full forward bend, to having to keep a flat back at all costs. My hips screamed at just about everything. Poses that require forward flexion to enter (like Shoulderstand or Headstand) were off the list. The innervation to my legs was still affected, so I fell over in balance poses.

I adopted Patanjali’s sutra, “Asana should be steady and comfortable” as my guide. I joked about how I was doing “tiny yoga.” In Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose), my lean to the side was about ½ inch off center! I used straps and blankets and pillows and walls to support my body. It was very frustrating for a long time, but I persevered. I now had to apply to myself all those adages I had said hundreds of times to my students: Go only to the point of first resistance. Deeper isn’t better. Honor your body and its history. Present time is the only place you can do yoga. Don’t compare the body of today with the body you once had. Breathe, breathe, breathe!

Fast forward to present time

I am a much better yoga instructor for having been through this experience. I am more present, and my attention to proper alignment is meticulous. I have deeper compassion for people with physical limitations. There are still poses that I cannot do deeply, and I often use students for demos (something I never used to do; it was, ahem, a point of pride …). I tell my students that I am a walking advertisement for the fact that yoga is for everyone, not just the young and flexible. Interestingly, although my body is more limited, my classes are fuller than ever—proof that people come to yoga for more than a physical workout!

I feel now that God and Guru wanted me to have this experience to learn so many things: humility, patience, mindfulness, compassion, subtlety. I am an acupuncturist who deals daily with other people’s pain, and I now have personal knowledge of the psychological and physical challenges of chronic pain. As a devotee, the plethora of techniques given to us by Yogananda was what got me through each day, and brought me out the other side.

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Comments:

  1. Mary Jo Cleaveland says:

    I so appreciate this acccount of working with Yogananda and Ananda’s teachings of working with the body that is in pain. I too recently have experienced a fracture at Thoracic vertebra #8…the most intense pain I have experienced in this life…even more than labor pains with childbirth. I have just moved and have needed to cancel my yoga classes in order to tend to this body. I will use your wisdom and examples as the fracture heals and bring the students back soon so that we all heal together. Thank you, Lynn. You will be with me in my journey forward.

  2. Lynn Lloyd says:

    Mary Jo — I will be with you, and so will Master and the ageless wisdom of yoga. Blessings, Lynn

  3. Surana says:

    Ahhhh Lynn, what a testimony and encouraging story. I am currently trying to come back from a broken leg. I’m taking those “tiny yoga” steps back to a full practice and a comfortable seated meditation. I join you in determining not to care about the time it takes to return to the flexibility this body had before injury…it will happen, a tiny step at a time. I’m heartened by your words – thank you! God’s Grace is ever present!

    • Lynn Lloyd says:

      Surana, I had to let go of the idea of returning to the flexibility I once had. That picture only led to frustration (which comes from attachment I think). I may be a less flexible yogi now, but I think I’m a better one overall as a result of this injury. Blessings, Lynn

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Your trial and success reminds me to be careful, to prevent injury due to osteoporosis (it increaded since the last test). I am able to share your story with my students. You show that Yoga is the Path toward Union.

  5. Lila says:

    Thank you for posting this! I’m in a similar situation with 13 yrs of an ongoing yoga practice I had experienced a herniated disk which 2 years ago that I then healed as quickly as possible to then threw myself back into my practice, ignoring what lesson the injury had for me. This injury has now reappeared and I’ve been unable to do the physical asanas for 2 months. Forward bending or bearing any weight on my back or hips is completely out of the question which leaves me with very little I can do. Forced to change, I miss yoga tremendously and am seeking to pay attention and deeply learn from this twice injury. I know so many fellow yoginis whom have never hurt themselves where all of my adult injuries have come from yoga, I appreciate any and all feedback in the matter. Thank you so very much for the share!

    • Nayaswami Gyandev says:

      From Lynn Lloyd: I just want to send encouragement to you to hang in there with God through your recovery. Never forget the potential of the human body to heal, which is infinite! I try not to get too invested in the medical model of herniated disks. We’re made of divinely intelligent light and space! I found so many gifts in my injury, things I never would have thought about. It is truly humbling to be in pain and physical limitation and that can only make us better yogis. Much light and God’s blessings to you.

  6. Thank you so much for posting your journey. I too have a back injury, herniated and bulging discs in my back from a car accident 2 years ago. I used to either go to the gym or do yoga daily neither of which I’ve been able to do since. The result being quite a bit of weight gain and overall feeling blah. I miss that (for lack of a better term) “high” that yoga gives me, anyone that regularly practices knows exactly what I mean. I had given up to ever being able to get back into some type of exercise routine but your story is very encouraging and has given me hope again. Thank you so very much for your post and God bless!

  7. Railovy says:

    Hi Lynn, I am in pain with exacerbated sciatica nerve and I hope not a more serious problem after one strainuous yoga session. How did you diagnose your pbm? Did you do xray to know what was going on? What is “pillow supported cobra”? Thank you for any help !

    • Nayaswami Gyandev says:

      From Lynn Lloyd: I’m so sorry to hear that you are in pain and will share what I can with you. I do strongly suggest that you seek professional help to understand exactly what is causing your pain. My bulging disk was diagnosed by a physical therapist and a chiropractor. I did not get xrays because they mainly show bone problems and this was pretty clearly a disk problem. If my condition had not responded to treatment, I definitely would have gotten an image taken, probably an MRI since they show soft tissue damage.

      The physical therapist was very helpful in guiding me toward movements and positions to avoid. He also recommended the “supported cobra pose” you ask about. It is simply a modified cobra pose: lying on your abdomen with your upper spine lifted, but then you place cushions under your chest so that you can comfortably remain in the pose without engaging back or arm muscles. This position allowed my bulging disk to slowly move back into place. However, it may not be the right pose for you. I would get a professional diagnosis and treatment recommendation first.

      Blessings to you on your path to healing.

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