This morning I had a FaceTime call with my younger brother to help him with his back pain. I am a retired yoga teacher and a former sufferer of back pain. I remember when I was a kid I thought that when I grew up I’d have a “bad back” and, because I was a girl, I’d also have to be on a diet all the time. My understanding of adulthood was not well-formed, but what I knew for sure was that all women had to watch what they ate and that most men (and a lot of women) had bad backs.
Back pain runs in our family. My grandparents suffered from back pain, my father, my uncle, my stepfather. Back pain was always part of the conversation. “How’s your back?” “Any word on the surgery for your back?” “Here, take this chair. It’ll be better for your back.”
My brother is very athletic. He does the hardest rides on the Peleton. He used to run marathons. He’s a lawyer and he works hard. He told me that all the scans and ultrasounds and x-rays look good. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his back except that it hurts. He says that no matter how much stretching he does, it still hurts. When I worked as a social worker many years ago my back hurt all the time. Then I became a yoga teacher and I suffered much less, but I still had intermittent moments of “bad back.”
When I was a yoga teacher many of my students came to me complaining of back pain. It was several years into teaching that I began to understand that getting in shape wasn’t all about working hard. Our bodies also need to know how and when to soften. They need to learn when to turn off as well as when to turn on. When our muscles are always primed and ready to go, even with stretching after a workout, they will still be working if we don’t give them an invitation to soften. Learning to let go of using our muscles is probably more difficult than learning to activate them.
Slowing down, working less hard, doing something easy, is frowned upon in our country. We’re a no pain, no gain culture, and this has led to an unnecessary amount of pain and suffering. No body can thrive with constant exertion and activation. Many athletes get massages or physical therapy to help release muscular discomfort but the truth is we can serve ourselves by just learning how to release from the inside out.
Several years ago when I had a chronic and very painful shoulder injury that severely limited my range of motion, my acupuncturist helped me to understand the concept of softening. He taught me a series of Qi Gong exercises to help restore the movement in my shoulder. He told me to think about soothing my hurt shoulder as I brought movement to the area. He encouraged me to be very gentle, to move my shoulder, but to do it tenderly, softly.
Every morning I’d do the exercises and imagine a little voice inside whispering softly into my rotator cuff, “Shhh, it’s okay. You’re okay.” With every rotation of my arm, as sensation visited my shoulder, I visualized a gentle hand rubbing the little hurt innards of my shoulder like a mother rubbing a toddler's back after a tantrum. It took time, but eventually, my shoulder recovered completely.
That lesson informed every injury I have had since, and it helped me formulate the theory that often when we are in pain, we simply need to give our muscles space to soften. By just letting go of the gripping our muscles are overtrained to do, we are holding on to pain that we could be releasing simply by softening the muscles.
I showed my brother a few restorative yoga postures that would help him develop an understanding of how to soften his muscles. A few times during our FaceTime call he repeated the word “softening” as if trying to find a place in his brain for this new word. I explained to him that what he would need to do would be to stop striving, to stop trying to relax or stretch the muscles. What would help, I explained, was to position the body so that it would be supported in a way that the muscles could surrender their grip, truly let go.
“Softening,” he said, “I have never thought of my muscles in this way.”
Until someone introduced this idea to me I hadn’t thought of it either. Now that I understand the concept, I use it all the time. It took a while to be able to turn off my muscles because I too am athletic and my body has had decades of programming to teach my muscles to turn on. The key is that muscles don’t need to stay on.
Now, whenever I feel sticky or uncomfortable in my hips or my back or my shoulders, I think about where I can let go of an unnecessary muscular hold, where in my body I can soften. It might take a few days or even a week but the method has never failed me. By softening, my body finds its internal balance again.
Because working hard, sweating the most, going the fastest, breaking our personal records, and winning are the measures of physical success, we don’t value or even recognize the importance of giving our bodies true rest. With a little training, a bit of intention, we can literally invite our muscles to soften and make more space within our own bodies. We can heal ourselves from the inside out. We just have to stop trying so hard.