Addicted to Backbending. ~ Rosie Greene Mulford

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“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

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Rosie Greene Mulford

Rosie Greene Mulford lives in Asheville, NC with her family. Rosie took her first yoga class in Coconut Grove, Florida at the age of 14. Her instructor was Eve Diskin-then the Director of the American Institute of Yoga. During college and for a short time after, Rosie concentrated on her ballet studies, incorporating her yogic knowledge into her ballet exercises. For the next ten years, she began an intense practice incorporating Bikram and The Barkan Method under the guidance of Jimmy Barkan in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rosie is certified in Pre-natal yoga, Vinyasa Flow yoga,Children’sYoga, and has her 500-hour ERYT from Yoga Alliance. Rosie’s goal as a Yoga Instructor is to teach her students how to effectively sit with the physical and mental discomforts associated with asana practice so that her students have the tools to practice sharing compassion and kindness with everyone when they face the discomforts often associated with life off of the mat

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anonymous Aug 9, 2013 2:49pm

Great insight Rosie, I especially like the part about listening to the whispers from our bodies rather that waiting for the screams.
This awareness is profound, thank you for sharing your story.

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 6:38pm

    Jacci- thank you so much! I think our bodies talk to us a lot more than we listen to to them. We are born with instincts- with that "gut" feeling. But we stop cultivating it at an early age and so we don't recognize it until it is truly "screaming" at us! Thanks, agin. Love, Rosie

anonymous Aug 9, 2013 2:39pm

I can relate to this post. I worked on dropping back into backbends from standing for months and month. And I admit my goal to get the pose was not a yogic one. I finally got it at home one day and was so excited. Then, the next day, I decided to try again. But this time, I didn't take precautions. I was wearing longsleeves, the kind that go over your palms with the hole for your thumbs. I slipped and hurt my hand but didn't think much of it and kept up the practice and the dropback efforts. Two months later, it still hurt. Turns out, I had a small fracture in my hand! I had to take a month off from my practice, and it still bothers me at times a few months later. I trace the injury not back to my longsleeves, but back to my reasons for trying to get the pose. It wasn't for the right reasons.

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 6:35pm

    Anne- thank you for sharing that! I believe there are many of us out there- we lose sight of the goal and then we get injured. Let your injury work for you- take a few breaths BEFORE acting and ask yourself what your intentions are. I hope your hand feels good soon! Love, Rosie

anonymous Aug 9, 2013 12:49pm

Rosie! I think you are amazing, but you already new that! I can hear you tell this story as if I were in child's pose in the beginning of your class, and as most of your students know, you are about to challenge our minds and our bodies, it is a slow build, but we "find the calm in the chaos" another of your mantras I tell myself a lot lately. I am so grateful that you shared this with me, us. I feel selfish to take your story and be able to identify, and then I know you are offering me, us, your wisdom and peace, and with that I give you love and gratitude. "I breath in, I am calm, I breath out, I am calmer" xoxo

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 6:30pm

    Rebecca- Thank you! It is interesting how many feelings we all really share. Just another way in which we are all connected- we are really all in the same ocean! love, Rosie

anonymous Aug 9, 2013 11:45am

Rosie, I admire your candor & bravery – it’s a testament to your yoga practice that you were finally able to see this perspective and make the necessary changes.

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 12:50pm

    Mado- I appreciate your thoughts so much! More than my yoga practice, it is a testament to our yoga community. As the saying goes "It takes a village…" You may not know it but you helped me during the early onset of my injury. Thank you! Love, Rosie

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 2:04pm

    Mado I appreciate your thoughts very much. More than my yoga practice, it is a testament to our yoga community-as the saying goes "It takes a village….". You may not know it but you helped me at the onset of my injury. Thank you! love, Rosie

anonymous Aug 9, 2013 10:51am

Thank you Rosie. This is just what I needed to hear right now. My SI Joint Injury has been a long, slow painful teacher and at the moment I too must avoid backbending, which I love for many of the reasons that you list. The body is always changing therefore the practice is always changing. Perhaps when we are injured the greatest transformation takes place as we must learn to honor what it, even when we don't like it. I think my injury is also helping me to slow down and refine my attention. <3

    anonymous Aug 9, 2013 12:46pm

    Izzy- thank you. Our injuries CAN be great teachers if we listen- don't wait for the scream Love, Rosie