“In philosophy, it is not the attainment of the goal that matters, it is the things that are met with by the way.”
~ Havelock Ellis
When we practice yoga, the idea is to still the ﬂuctuations in the mind (Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah) so that all the distractions and variations in this world don’t sway us from our path. We are able to remain observers and witnesses to ourselves; we are able to fulﬁll our original intentions.
Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The problem, perhaps overlooked by this great man, is that if we are truly insane, would we even realize we were repeating a harmful behavior?
How do we pull back and become the witness when we are so entrenched in a certain behavior?
It’s like a campaign for drunk driving in which the drunk person is asked to hand over his keys. That doesn’t work well on a person who is already intoxicated because they can no longer think straight (they cannot act as the observer) and they truly believe they can drive.
It makes sense only to the sober people, those who are not caught in the fog.
For ﬁve years, I suffered from heartburn.
The kind of heartburn that woke me up at night, made my jaw burn and my face ﬂush.
Neither I nor my doctors could ﬁnd the reason. I am healthy, I do not drink alcohol, smoke, eat red meat or fried foods. I analyzed everything from my food intake and my environment to my exercise routine. There was no constant factor on which to pin the source, or so I thought.
It wasn’t until a completely unconnected incident occurred that I was forced to accept the truth behind the source of my heartburn. Only then was I able to step back and have an unbiased look at my behavior.
“Listen to your body.”
I say it in every class I teach, and I hear it in nearly every class I take. It became a mantra, a deep set part of my practice. We hear these words, but do we hear the meaning?
To fully “listen to your body,” you have to listen for the whispers instead of waiting for the scream.
My body was whispering, then talking, and ﬁnally screaming before I chose to listen. I have had my share of obsessive-compulsive moments, a diagnosis of ADD, and addiction. But I don’t resent that. As a matter of fact, I relish in it. Once I gave up my addictions 24 years ago, I loved the fact that I could go all day and crash hard in my bed at night. I loved the fact that I got a lot done in a day.
I was so busy that there was no time for boredom. But the “addiction” gene ﬁnds other ways to sneak in, and I believe it never truly leaves.
I became addicted to backbends. When I backbend, a wave travels through me–it is exhilarating beyond description. The deeper I go, the more the wave ﬁlls me, seeping into every crevice in my bent body until I am saturated.
This wave overpowers any logic–much like a drug or a drink. The immediate gratiﬁcation takes over the long-term effects. You cannot be the observer or witness to your own behavior; you are trapped in a fog, skewing your perception, logic. All that matters is that delicious feeling of the wave consuming you. I would leave class with such a high and often a bad migraine.
I knew I was breaking the cardinal rules:
“listen to your body,” and “ahimsa.”
But I couldn’t stop. At night, as I tossed and turned to ﬁnd a comfortable and pain free position, I would vow to skip backbends in my next class, But instead I would feel a little better the next day and repeat my backbends, repeat my thoughts and justiﬁcations, repeat the pain and broken promises to take a break from the backbends.
In my ﬂeeting moment of clarity, it was as if I were standing above my body looking down and there was no doubt that deep backbends were not good for my body.
I was engaging in the exact behavior Albert Einstein described: Insanity! I knew it was crazy behavior but I never thought to call it “addiction.”
Eventually, the physical toll of abusing my backbends started to affect my entire body. I had numbness in my ﬁngers, tingling down my arm. My neck hurt almost all the time, and I was losing some range of motion in it. My left trapezius was much higher than my right side, and I had bad heartburn.
Why would I have heartburn? Five years, two endoscopies, and years of trying every treatment for heartburn, I still had it.
I read in Yoga Anatomy, by Leslie Kaminoff, that camel pose could stretch the esophagus. I wondered if this could this be the source. I asked my doctor as well as many other doctors. “No, you would have to be an incredibly extreme backbender to achieve this state of heartburn.” So I proceeded with my asana practice.
Occasionally I would stop backbends for a week or a month, but nothing changed.
Fear of esophageal cancer, Barrettes, etc. would take over my thoughts during my sleep–deprived nights, many of which were spent searching for a position in which to rest my neck.
Then the “injury” happened: I hurt my neck.
I hurt it so badly I had to stop practicing all but the basics for a year. No backbends, no headstands, no shoulder stands, no ﬁsh pose. In addition, I added weight training to my exercise routine. It has been almost two years since I injured my neck; it was a slow and methodical injury.
I had compressed cervical discs likely brought on from bearing weight on the head and repeated backbends. Since then, I have had a lot of time to reevaluate my asana practice and my motives. I know enough to recognize addictive behavior. I knew from early on that the way in which I was backbending was unhealthy, yet I continued.
Did I like the attention drawn to my extreme backbends? Likely, yes. I craved the immediate physical feeling the backbends brought on. Whenever we forget the initial goal of anything we do, that is where trouble begins.
I had swayed from my original goal of practicing asana: to free my body from disease, distraction and discomfort so that I may be in a good physical place in which to serve God through His manifest of beings. Every day. All day.
When I allowed the compliments I received from backbends and the immediate physical sensations to overtake my original goal, I went awry. I was no longer able to step out of the fog and be the observer. I have since resumed a healthy practice. I still backbend but I never get the “wave” feeling, no one ever “oohs and ahhs” at my backbends.
I lift my heart, I look up to the sky and I say a prayer of gratitude–thankful I get another chance, grateful I can still practice. Grateful I can once again look down at myself and check to see that I am sticking to the plan.
Still no headstands, no shoulder stands, no ﬁsh pose. But guess what? No heartburn either!
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Assist Ed: Julie Garcia / Ed: Catherine Monkman