Stretching out on the brown and orange 70s carpet next to my mom, I could feel the backs of my thighs heat up as I bent forward to touch my toes. “Breath into the pain,” the yoga teacher said from the TV. I didn’t know what she meant, but I closed my eyes and held the pose as I breathed.
Lilias, Yoga and You was the first televised yoga program in the United States, and my mom loved the show. Doing yoga on the carpet in front of our TV every morning, mom would stretch out, listen to Lilias Folan, and close her eyes as if taking in a delicious treat. I joined her on the floor sometimes, before I ran out the door to catch the school bus.
Being young and super flexible, I never quite understood the instructions to “feel the skin on your face,” “tilt your pelvis forward,” and “breath into the stretch.” Her talk about Namaste (an Indian greeting), asanas (poses), and the guru (the teacher or director) made no sense to me at the time, but I liked closing my eyes and feeling my body move.
My mother had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and she told me that doing these yoga stretches helped her back feel lose and kept her from hurting. I was also diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 12 and began seeing a chiropractor, and doing yoga stretches to help my back muscles loosen as well.
But I was also fitted for a back brace. A hard, plastic shell the strapped around my torso and hips, the brace was bulk, about 1-inch thick. And it was painful. I was supposed to wear it 23 hours a day for a year to help my spine grow straight. The pain was worse at night, and sleeping with the brace on was nearly impossible. I tried to wear it at night, but found myself taking it off, half-asleep, to find it next to my bed in the morning.
I also couldn’t wear any of my regular school clothes because the extra inch around my hips meant my jeans wouldn’t fit over the brace, and my tighter fitting shirts would show the brace underneath. For a 13-year-old girl, this was horrifying.
Just at the time you want to fit in, belong, and be like everyone else, I was required to wear this uncomfortable, lumpy looking brace. I gave it a chance for about six months, and then I just stopped wearing it. The pain was too much, and I couldn’t sleep. My clothes didn’t fit, and I hated not being able to look cute in anything I wore. I hated that there was something wrong with me and that people could see it.
I didn’t tell my mom I stopped wearing it, I just stopped. She didn’t seem to notice.
I had weekly chiropractor visits after school, which helped my growing back pain a lot. My mom also discovered our health insurance covered weekly massages. So at the age of 14, I started getting weekly hour-long massages. It was heaven.
Muscles in my back and neck would feel tight or cramped, so I would do the specific side stretches and seated spinal twists to ease the tension. When lower back pain flared up, I would ask the massage therapist to spend more time on a specific area to loosen the knots in my muscles.
My massage therapist was a lovely, longhaired healer. Ankle-length purple dresses and waste long salt and pepper hair were her trademark look. She was so kind and respectful that a young teenaged girl would be embarrassed about her body, that she always kept the room darker for our sessions. Knowing she couldn’t really see me helped me feel more relaxed.
As her fingers smoothed out my muscles and searched for places of tension, she would remind me to breathe and relax. I finally began to understand what Lilias, the yoga teacher, had been saying all those years from the TV. Breathing into the pain meant bringing awareness, relaxation and expansion into the point of tension.
See, a knot of muscle tissue gets congested. A cramped muscle or tight neck are so constricted that the blood flow can’t move into the area. This lack of blood flow means the tight muscles stay tight and begin to hurt. They need to breath to loosen up. Closing my eyes, her fingers pressed and moved in a small circle on the tight bunch of muscles on my back and she spoke: “Just breathe into my fingers here.” So I did.
With my breath I could focus my attention on the point of pain while simultaneously relaxing my muscle, allowing the blood to flow in and dissolve the inflammation. Within minutes the pain was gone, and my back felt free.
From this “deformity” I learned to feel pain, relaxation, release, and my body in a deep, connected way. From stretching with my mom on the floor during yoga, to wearing a brace that forced my spine and ribs into a stationary position, to weekly chiropractic adjustments and deep tissue massage, I learned from a young age how to feel what my body needed and how to listen to the pain.
And I learned that pain isn’t always bad. Sometimes pain is the message from your body that you’re healing and releasing something. As I grew older and continued my yoga practice, I began to see that pain in life is sometimes a message and an opportunity to release as well. When I’m holding on too tightly to something, I can’t let it go and it rules my life. The old adage, “what you resist, persists” is as true in life as it is in yoga or on the massage table.
Learning to listen, breathe, release and stretch has kept my back and my life in pretty decent shape. And stretching into the pain, with awareness, and without fear, has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. Thanks, Mom.