Yoga and Sciatica - 7 Things I Do When Sciatica Flares Up

Yoga and Sciatica - 7 Things I Do when it flares up

I've been asked a ton by my yoga students about sciatica.  It happens to most of us, pain from lower back down to the hip, down to the hamstring, and sometimes down to the foot or toes.  I won't pretend the feeling of sciatica doesn't suck, but it doesn't have to stick around with us forever.  Here's what I do if my sciatic nerve asks for attention:

 

  1. Rock - Somewhere between Tai Chi, Belly Dancing, and Modern Dance, I wiggle and wave.  I try to melt my body with movement.  Neck rolls. Shoulder shrugs. Whatever the movement, I try to be a flag flapping in the wind.  I try to move all of me in fluid and sometimes funny ways, .  I draw circles with my knees and hips.  I point and I flex, I hang and I bend, until I feel soft and relaxed.
  2. Roll - Oh sweet pain of the foam roller.  I roll both I T bands focusing and pausing on knots or points of tension.  I also roll my piriformis on a yoga massage ball, if you like firmer you can try a lacrosse ball.  Both of these provide instant relief. 
  3. Twist - I start with gentle twisting movements and work my way up to twisting warrior focusing on hollowing my belly and pressing through by back foot to decompress my spine.  
  4. Love Your Spine - I move up and down my spine and search for holding.  I search for stress.  I search for emotions.  I breathe into and sit with all the troubled spots.  If I am holding tension in my jaw and neck, or between my should blades, it eventually works its way down to my lower back.  If I can sit with it and find a relaxed upper or middle spine, it helps to take pressure off my lower spine.  My stress is often related to holding something in. There is fear in speaking your truth, but when you are able to speak your mind or do what you need to do in whatever expression. A lightness quickly follows the heaviness of that fear.
  5. Cold Bath or Shower (Not So Relaxing)  This is truly mind over nervous system.  Want your nervous system to calm down?  Take an ice cold bath.  For me the time is somewhere between 3-5 minutes.  When I first get in, it burns and I breathe like crazy.  I know when the burning stops and my breath has calmed that my nervous system and stored lactic acid are all starting to release.  If I’m feeling it I’ll submerge my head for one minute too.  For the the result feels like a double shot of espresso, an anti inflammatory drug, and a shot of whiskey.  Anything that was bothering me before, no longer bothers me.  Check out Wim Hof Method, pic below. 
  6. Long Held Stretches - Forward bends with a completely hollowed out belly and relaxed pelvic floor:  Prasarita, Janushirasana, Pigeon (for a really long time!) Paschimotanasana.  Hold them forever.  You are creating new neuro-pathways.  If you come up every couple of seconds you are telling your nervous system “this is not ok.”  Twice a day find a stretch you can hold for at least 3 minutes for 3 sets.  
  7. I Check My Long Held Beliefs and Patterns - Nothing keeps me in pain longer than believing that “this is just the way it is” or  “that old back injury will always bother me.”  Old patterns in stretch always kept me from going further.  The Belief that I was just a certain muscle type, means I’m just tighter than most people.  Believe that you can heal yourself and you will.  The truth is sciatica is happening now, it’s a signal to bring awareness to parts of your body that need it, to emotions that need your attention.  It doesn’t mean that this sciatica is here as a persistent and pervasive part of your practice.  It’s just a signal for now.  Face it and thank it for helping you evolve to a higher state of awareness.

Foam Roller, Massage Balls, and Cold Bath Wim Hof version. 

 



 

Keys!!! (I want my two dollars)

You are sprinting to a door. On the other side of that door is relief or safety. Your breathing is heavy, your heart rate is quick, you are sweating, and sense of urgency quickens as each second ticks away your ability to get through this door to safety.

Whether escaping a zombie, fleeing the paperboy demanding $2,

 

...or you need to get through that door because you thought you’d impress your friends by ordering Extra Spicy Mapo Tofu at Little Pepper and after a very uncomfortable drive home, you gotta get through that door.

You finally make it to the door.  Keys!!!!!  The key you need is buried in a cluttered bag, it's in one of the 29 pockets on your jacket, or it’s on a janitor size key ring with at least 30 other keys.

As you struggle to find the key you sweat more, breathe harder, and your hands and memory are less steady than they would normally be, just at the time when you need them to be cool. Where is the fucking key???

This is the way I feel when I'm on the precipice of learning a new difficult posture.  Everything feels crazy and impossible.  As I get closer, I almost feel agitated. Then, I finally find the key or I'm handed the key by an experienced teacher, there is immediate relief, my breath goes back to normal and all is right in the world. I often think to myself, “this isn't so hard, what was all the fuss. I could stay in this all day with a little practice. Why was I so afraid?”

When do I feel like have the posture?  When I can breathe.  When I am not totally freaking out. It doesn't have to be the fullest expression, it just has to be the next progression for me.  It doesn't mean perfection it just means I've found the way.  Ease melds into my efforts as understanding moves into my body.  The iron lines up and it's time insert one bolts at a time and slowly tighten the screws.  

Thank you to Yoshio Hama for giving me a key to my inversions, I have  so much to work on, but after months of falling flat on my back, I stayed up in forearm stand and handstand longer than I ever have.  It is coming, I can feel it. 

Thank You Rebecca Causey for continually helping me find keys to those little muscles that I've ignored for too long. Serratus posterior, middle trapezius, rhomboideus major, and supraspinatus, could you please start carrying your load, my wrists are tired of doing your job. 

Thank you to Michael Guiou giving me a key to get the fear out of my forward bends.  Paschimottanasana right out of wall walks "without delay before your mind tells you, you can't," a game changer in all my forward bends.

Thank you to Jared McCann for helping me line up soul with my practice.  A master key that seems to fit all locks. 




 

Seeing is BELIEVING IS SEEING is Believing

I’ll never be able to do that...

...is a common refrain I hear daily.  It’s a feeling I can empathize with deeply, as it used to be on repeat from my brain as well.  A soothing capitulation that meant I didn’t have to try to be or do whatever it was that I thought were beyond my capabilities.  It didn’t mean that I didn’t try at all, it was just my ticket out when it got tough.  I’d make a small effort and when I wasn’t immediately in possession of the thing I wanted, I’d quit.  

“I will be the best _________” is what my heart would tell my mind.  My mind would say “HA! Ok, give it shot, I’ll believe it when I see it.”  After my heart’s first failed attempt, my mind would give a “told you so” grin and begin to put me back in “my place.”  “Stop playing around, stop dreaming, you are what you are.”  So my heart, head down, would go back to its corner and pout.  (The Mind being the collective peanut gallery, including yourself.  An amalgamation of experiences, judgments, people, both past and future.)

How do people do things seemingly beyond their abilities and at what point does belief become part of the process?  There is a bit of a chicken and egg cycle to the genesis of feats great and small.  When does effort become belief?  When does belief became effort?

When did this guy believe he could do a backflip on his surfboard?

 

 

When your new idea is counter to what other people understand, be ready for the judgement of your actions, stumbles, and failures that make you complicit with the crime of changing their expectations of you.  Fingers may be pointed, laughs may be had at your expense.  How dare you try to be a better version of yourself.  How dare you be anything other than what’s expected of you.  I told you so may be coming your way, even from within your own mind.

Keep whittling away.  One small step at a time.  Belief comes from those actions, those actions come from your belief.  Soon enough, when you have achieved or exceeded your own desired outcome, those same naysayers, will start asking you how you did it.  

Think about that dream you have.  What are the actions you will take today towards that dream?  What do you tell yourself and what do you tell others when you stumble along the way to that dream?  Because you will stumble!  How will you pick yourself and start over the next day?  How can you be playful on the way, so you don’t stress yourself out?  You can be serious about accomplishing something and have fun along the way.  

Create a trigger to put yourself in motion.  Have fun getting where you are going.  Once you believe in your own actions that distant dream will start moving its way towards you.



 

Meditation Medicine for Digital Headaches

I can feel it.  I can feel it behind my twitching left eye.  I can feel it in my sinuses.  I can feel it in my neck and shoulders.  I can feel it in my occipital bone.  This is where I feel my addiction to digital stressors and distraction.

Green part saying "...quit looking at the screen"

Green part saying "...quit looking at the screen"

 

It flares up when I open the computer screen.  To trick myself, I disguise it as work.  “I’ve been waiting for that email about that thing that will make me money,” I tell myself.  By the time I’ve closed the screen it’s 45 minutes later and nothing was accomplished, the truth comes out. It was just a distraction.  

A few minutes later I feel that pang.  I swipe open my iPhone in the name of checking on a friend or checking to see if that email has come through even though I just checked 10 minutes ago.  I look at Instagram, which I tell (lie to) myself isn’t as bad as facebook.  The same feeling also used to come up in stressful business negotiations.  I’m stressed!

It seems to boil down to fear, the fear of disappointing, the fear of judgement, the fear of being left out, or the fear of (gasp) feeling alone!

My external search for validation always comes up empty.  My body is trying to tell me that this distraction is actually stressful.  My body is telling me to do something else.  “Meditate, pray, cook, clean, love, or play, just quit looking at the screen for meaning... it is hurting us.”

It’s not easy for me to break this cycle and usually takes time for me to even notice the building tension.  The feeling isn’t sharp and one pointed, it’s a dull broad ache with many tentacles reaching for a tighter grip.  

I have been trying out a meditation to help loosen the digital distraction grip.  It has been trial and error, but I’ve noticed when I meditate on the occipital bone (and the muscles surrounding), my shoulders start to relax, my neck and jaw let go, my sinuses open, and my eyes stop twitching.  I can begin to drop the desire to distract with the latest news story, the latest Instagram inversion, the latest facebook post, or whatever that isn’t really that important.  

My meditation usually goes something like this:  

  1. Sit.  I’m usually seated legs crossed, with my eyes closed. (For whatever reason this usually doesn’t work lying on my back, maybe that’s just me.)
  2. Breathe.  I begin bringing awareness to my lower rear skull with my breath.  I have to be particularly calm and slow with my breathing, to keep from irritating my sinuses.  I imagine inhaling through my Occipital bone and exhaling from the third eye and visualize the opening for the third eye getting larger as I progress.  This helps me relax my sinuses.
  3. Feel.  After about 20 breath cycles, I sit with my attention only on the occipital bone feeling the energy buzzing in and around it.
  4. Meditate and Merge.  Eventually, a spot or a feeling emerges that I can merge my complete attention into, typically this has been the hole where the spinal cord connects to the brain.  

Total time is usually about 15 minutes. Sometimes, I have epiphanies about why I am seeking out distraction, but I always feel much more relaxed and less likely to grab the closest device to fill the void.  

Related Article: Using Guided Meditation for Anxiety  

When Bikram Yoga Isn't Enough Anymore

After a little spiritual sabbatical, I am back to throwing words at the screen to see if they stick.  A few thoughts over the past several months have been sort of repeating themes.  I have so many ideas that trigger “hey, I should write about that.” The ones that survived my long break probably need to get out.

The idea that percolated the most over the last half year was this:  

How do I share my disillusionment or disappointment with Bikram Yoga without pissing everyone off?

I hit the wall physically (energetically, spiritually is another story) in Bikram yoga.  I was on a physical yoga-asana plateau.  Why was my body revolting against something that seemed to work for so well for so long?  Why, right when my energetic and spiritual bodies were waking up, was my body in so much pain with new injuries cropping up all the time?  

What do I share with the Bikram yogi  who may be going through the same plateau?

The answer, for me, was disheartening, but Beginner Bikram Yoga wasn’t enough anymore.

I denied it for so long.  One of my favorite teachers, Rebecca Causey, pointed out the obvious over a year ago.  I knew she was right, but my addiction was strong.   I kept trying to use the thing that hurt me to fix me.  I refused to try other yogas or go to therapy.  Almost like being stolen from, lied to, or cheated, a profound disappointment set in as my injuries grew worse.  I wanted to believe that just practicing Bikram’s Beginner Series everyday was enough.  That it would fix all.  To its credit, it fixed a lot and is still useful in moderation.  

As I have come to find out from quite a few more experienced yogis, there are a few tell-tale signs of someone that only practices Bikram’s Beginner Series.  One even pointed out just looking at my body: tight hips, weak or non existent middle and upper back strength, weak shoulders and arms, zero pectorals.  My friends, who hadn’t seen me in a long time, called me “spread chest” because my muscle was gone.   

I accept all blame for not seeing the signs or listening to those that pointed them out.  The daily Bikram yoga habit was so strong that I just ignored what my body was telling me.  I could show up and practice in my sleep, so the trigger-routine-reward cycle was slow to fall apart.  The reward was working mentally, spiritually, and energetically.  My body had to scream to be heard.

This is what I have to share with the advancing (or in my case plateauing and injured) Bikram yogi who feels stuck.   

Teacher Training Graduation with my teacher Jared McCann                      Photo: Istvan Pono

Teacher Training Graduation with my teacher Jared McCann                      Photo: Istvan Pono

  1. Find a teacher that won’t let you fake it or force it.  It’s cool to take a beginner’s class, it’s not cool to sleepwalk through it or cheat your way into looking good in the mirror.  (You know you’ve done both, I sure have.)  Find a teacher that learns your body and your practice.  Find a teacher with whom you can be vulnerable, yes all that other stuff in your life matters too.  Find a teacher that will squeeze everything out of you and give them a big squeeze to thank them.  See photo for proper hug alignment. 
  2. Take higher level or advanced classes.  Use the guidance of your teacher and start to challenge yourself.  Yes, they are hard.  No you’re not going to be able to fake or force your way through it.  More advance classes keep you in the humble (and hopefully playful) state of beginner’s mind.  (Yes, I still practice Bikram’s Beginning Series.)
  3. Lift Weights when weak or use gravity like the 7 minute scientific workout.  Strength matters, but don’t force it.  If you are using the heat for flexibility and instead of Reciprocal Inhibition, be ready to be injured.  It is easy to be lulled by the heat, either with strength zapped so that the oppositional muscle can’t contract efficiently or overconfidence you can go further than you should.  Strong, healthy muscles are needed for effective and balanced stretching. Slow and steady… or better yet slow, strong, and steady wins the stretch.
  4. “Practice other yoga!  Yes, without heat!” This will be hard to hear for Bikram heat addicts like myself.  The search may take a while, but find studio where you are challenged.  There are too many styles to name so it may be best to start with some of the more traditional asana practices.  Again, back to #1 find a great teacher!
  5. Use your Bandhas.  They are super important and never discussed in Bikram Yoga.  I didn’t know I could hold my legs, for what seems like forever, in Triangle until I learned to engage Mula Bandha.  I had no idea that engaging Uddiyana Bandha would lift me up in Finger Stand or help me find more ease in inversions.  Bandhas work like magic, a centimeter of Bandha engagement can mean 6 or more inches forward folding.  The more you learn to use your Bandhas the less you will force yourself into postures.  Effortless effort is what it’s all about.
  6. Drishti.  The gaze matters.  I use to crank my eyeballs out of my head to get further into a backbend and always ended up sore and with a tight neck and jaw.  In Bikram, you often hear “point where you are looking,” but if you are forcing your gaze then you are forcing your posture.  I sure was.  Just like the heat, the mirror is also addictive for the ego.  If you have a mirror, use it for alignment, but even better to have a teacher guide you.   Learn the Drishti for each posture and keep it relaxed and centered.  Don’t tighten your eyes like a fist around the posture that you desire, surrender with a soft but focused gaze.  It will come whenever it’s time.  This way, you get to practice (abhyasa) with detachment (vairagyam) the whole class.  Patanjali would be proud.
  7. Alignment really matters.  Practice with a teacher that’s not afraid to tell you you're out of alignment.  Practice with a teacher that’s not afraid to touch you and guide your body to alignment.  Put years of practice into an asana that’s out of alignment and injury is coming your way.  Just talk to my left shoulder, my left hip, my right wrist.  By now you know that pain is part of yoga (sorry insurance company that underwrites yoga studios).  Healing an injury with yoga is painful, but effective.  Getting out of alignment to avoid pain or exhaustion will just create another injury.   See #1.
  8. Meditate.  Sure, I know you’ve been practicing an “open eyed, moving meditation” in Bikram.  As you advance in your asana, it seems time to advance your meditation.  Again there are so many styles, so finding the one that works for you will probably involve trying on a few different ones.  Learn to use your mind to find stillness in your mind.
  9. Read.  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Autobiography of a Yogi, Iyengar’s Light On Yoga, The Key Poses of Yoga... I even enjoyed reading A Brief History of Time alongside the Yoga Sutras, a great juxtaposition.  When learning to harness the power of the universe, why not read about the Universe?  Actually, it doesn’t have to be about yoga, great writing is transformative.  Anything that gets you to close the screen, put down the iPhone, and be absorbed is a great thing.
  10. Yoga isn’t about looking beautiful on Instagram.  Of course postures can be beautiful and awe-inspiring (I know you want that handstand scorpion so bad, me too!  I guess I need to work on aparigraha and santosha).  We live in a world of judgement and comparison, anxious for social media likes and followers.  Remember that asana is only 1 / 8th of the limbs of yoga,  asana just happens to be visible. Yoga isn’t really about exercise, stretching, or looking beautiful, though all might happen. See @gokulacandra @fitqueenirene @wearejared on Instagram.  Yes, their photos are jaw dropping, but I see a common element, a Surrender to the Divine.  That’s yoga.