I used to love backbending. It was my favorite part of my yoga practice for a long time.
Then I got my heart broken. I was amazed to see how quickly my body took on the metaphor: all my muscles tightened around my chest and suddenly “heart openers” weren’t so fun anymore.
Eventually the muscles around my chest began to let go, and the pain shifted down to the bottom of my spine, to the joint where my pelvis and spine meet: the sacroiliac (or “SI”) joint.
Teachers kept telling me I had too much of a lower back curve. I wasn’t using my core enough, I needed to lengthen my lower back and tuck my tailbone more. “Tuck your tailbone” is shorthand for “engage your core,” but really, the two actions are very different things. Anyway, I tried. I worked hard on my core, and made sure everything was in place to keep my lower back long and strong. I still had pain.
I tried chiropractors and massage therapists, and they kept telling me to strengthen my core and open my hips. When I told them that I’m a yoga teacher and that’s literally all I do all day, they said, “Well...do it more, then.”
I tried hard to work against my tendency to curve my lower back in backbends, warriors, and at the bus stop. Yoga teachers kept telling me I was sticking out my butt too much. I was trying to tuck it under, but I’ve got some junk in my trunk, and it’s not always easy to flatten that baby out.
The thing about yoga teachers is that we are trying really hard to care for a whole bunch of different bodies that we can’t understand because we don’t know what it’s like to live inside them. So we obsess about alignment and try to find a one-size-fits-all language that will keep every single student in our classes happy and healthy. We often end up teaching what we know about our own bodies, layering that knowledge over what we know about other’s bodies, like the most uncomfortable tracing paper—or we get so skittish about hurting these strange bodies that we barely teach beyond Tadasana while vomiting out so many alignment cues that the students tune out our voices anyway.
General rules are comforting. They whitewash our differences and prevent us from having to do the work of exploring our own bodies and sending our students into the terrifying world of body awareness and self discovery. Anatomy teacher Leslie Kaminoff has said, “Oh, you want a rule? Is that so you don’t have to think about it anymore?”
One day last week, I came to my yoga practice with pretty brutal pain in my SI, and I just stopped trying so hard. Instead of trying to flatten out my lower back curve as much as possible to “protect” it, I let my sacrum release away from the natural curve of my spine while keeping my core gently engaged. Suddenly, it all made sense: it was easy to keep my thighs in line with my hips, and the opening in my chest and shoulders felt good. Pressing my hips up and trying to tilt my pelvis forward in a backbend was creating undue clenching in my glutes and tension in my hip flexors and back. I was exploring a subtle movement called “sacral nutation,” but the details of that are not the point: all I needed to do, as it turned out, was take the yogic stick (or danda) out of my butt.
I walked out of that class with 90 percent of my pain gone. And though this new way of working with alignment is good for me right now, the real problem isn’t about sacral nutation or any other physical cue. I had been trying so hard to please someone else that I ignored my own needs and got hurt. Same story with my heartbreaker ex.
When my heart got broken, I had given it to someone without listening to the many warning signals coming from my gut. When I hurt my back, I handed it over to other people without really listening to my own body’s intelligence. I had forgotten the lesson I keep trying to teach my own students: the only person who knows what it feels like inside your body is you.
It’s not that alignment cues and advice from professionals aren’t useful: it absolutely is, but as a tool to help us understand our own bodies better, not as the ultimate truth for every person. The only way we can stay healthy in mind and heart is by listening to our own selves first, and integrating how we respond to information from our teachers and our lovers.
Now I’ve stopped squeezing my butt so hard, in backbends, and at bus stops. I keep paying attention to the whispers from within and take into account the instructions from without. I got my heart and my bones back in my own hands.