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.