I have not been sure what I should write about this month for the3rdi magazine and was thinking about my different yoga classes hoping for some inspiration. It occurred to me that I had had quite a few conversations about back problems, both in my classes and also in some of the massage sessions. What struck me about these conversations was the fact that they all ran along similar lines: sore back, visit to the doctor, diazepam and pain killers. Subsequently visits to chiropractors/osteopaths, usually with some benefit but not always lasting.
It all sounded only too familiar because that’s how it happened to me, until I learned how to keep my back safe and healthy.
I had been on holiday, after a particularly stressful time in my life. I don’t know how it happened but I hurt my back and was barely able to walk and certainly not upright. Luckily, it was quite near the end of the holiday and by the time that I got home it was more or less back to normal. However, every so often I would end up in pain again and my mobility temporarily impaired. I put up with it, using pain killers, until I had a particularly bad episode which involved a lot of crawling and crying out in pain.
I went to the doctor and he gave me diazepam and strong painkillers, which certainly did the trick in the short-term. I had also started doing yoga again, after a very long break, a few months before, and I resolved that I would use this as a way of strengthening my abdominal muscles in order to keep the strain on my back at a minimum. I had also heard about a chiropractor who was considered to be very good. I visited him a few times and while I got some relief, it did not seem as though this was a long-term way of dealing with my back problem.
He informed me that the problem that I had was that my hip joints were out of alignment, which is apparently quite a common problem. While he cracked me back into place though, it left me wondering about the impact on the muscles. It seemed to me that if my hip joints were not properly aligned they must have been pulling in an unnatural way on some of the muscles. When I returned, each time, he cracked me back into place. It seemed to me that we were only dealing with part of the problem.
Yoga certainly did help as the episodes became less frequent but they were still happening. Just when I thought that I was doing really well, my back went again and I was in a lot of pain. I went back to the doctor and he wanted to give me more medicine and I told him that I did not want to go down that route again, so he referred me to a physiotherapist. She gave me some exercises to do; they were very similar to some of the backbends we do in yoga.
I practiced them diligently, several times a day and the next time I went to see her she was impressed with the progress that I had made. I understood now that once a week yoga was great but it needed more than that to sort my back. After that I was on my way up, but it was a long process and it has taken me years to get to the stage where I don’t have a sore back. I am very careful with it and I still get a bit of a niggle from time to time, but I can manage it.
However I do think that while yoga has a big part to play in keeping my back healthy, it is also to do with my lifestyle. I have used a book over the years which I have found to be extremely helpful in looking after myself and have also recommended it to others. It is called Dr Ali’s Ultimate Back Book.
He recommends the following as necessary to keep your spine and back healthy:
* Nutrition: he reminds us that muscles and bones need calcium and that we need to have some eggs, fish, milk, yoghurt as part of our diet. We need the vitamin D which is present in animal fat so while we should not over-indulge, some is important. Muscles need potassium which can be found in bananas and carrots. It is important in the action of contraction in the muscles. He also recommends supplements like magnesium and Vitamin B complex to help with stress and strain. He also cautions against too much of: coffee, very spicy and deep-fried food, white wine, in fact excess citric and acid-producing food and drink. These foodstuffs can cause inflammation of ligaments and joint surfaces. We should also avoid excess red meat, fatty foods and refined sugar, chocolate and sweets. Most of this is what we understand as forming part of a healthy diet in any case.
* Posture: I have written about the importance of this in a previous article.
* Massage: Dr Ali explains how, when we have backache, the muscles tense up and massage can be a great antidote to this.
* Exercise: He recommends a series of yoga exercises that is designed to de-stress the body. As I have found and he states, yoga is the best way to keep the spine supple and to deal with poor posture. There is no substitute for attending a class regularly (but make sure you let the instructor know of your back problem before you start) but you can find examples of yoga postures for the back on-line. These should be done very carefully and instructions followed carefully. Cat pose is a lovely, leisurely, relatively easy way to work the spine gently. It is a good place to start.
* Sleep: This is important for the muscles and ligaments to rest and restore energy. It allows the spine a break from supporting itself. We should do what we can to ensure that our sleep is peaceful and not disturbed to get most benefit from our rest.
In western medicine, I believe that our systems are not well-organised to help with what is after all a very common problem. However we can help ourselves in looking after our spine and back and the sooner we start the better.