From 1990 to 1992, I went to MIT. From ’90-91, I shared a dorm room and slept in the top bunk. The floor was linoleum over concrete. One morning I happened to fall from the top bunk and landed on my ass. From then on, I have always had mild problems with my tailbone and my neck. In ’92, someone hit me on the side of my head—just in front of my right ear—during an argument, hard enough to knock me over. That sent the neck pain from mild (and almost negligible as long as I didn’t sleep with a pillow) to killer. There were times when it hurt so much that I’d lie on my back with my eyes closed, and the tiniest movement made me sick to my stomach.
I got physical therapy; the first physical therapist helped, but when she left the hospital and I got a different one, she wasn’t able to do much. I was told that the occipital nerve at the base of my skull was pinched and inflamed; that I held my head forward of where I should which was causing stress on the muscles in my shoulders, neck, and head. A doctor put me on oxycodone for a short while; it didn’t help a whole lot, so I took it once a week to at least give me a short break from the pain. Kind of, a little time to recharge and recoup my ability to handle the pain. The doctor tried injecting some stuff in the back of my head, but it burned like hell and didn’t help.
Then my mother sent me a video she bought at Kripalu. It was called yoga for pain relief, or release, or something like that. I tried it. And little by little, the pain got better. I came to understand from talking to a physical therapist that this made a lot of sense—the pinched nerve was being released as the yoga stretches lengthened and stretched out my vertebrae, so the inflammation reduced. I was learning to hold my head back where it should be again (yoga teaches proper posture), so the muscles in my shoulders, neck, and head weren’t being stressed. However, I made the mistake of telling the doctor I was seeing that yoga had made a huge improvement, and I got shunted into the category of hypochondriac and shown the door. He was an older guy, white, male, heavily steeped in traditional American medicine. Never mind that the yoga stretches were simply an ideal form of at-home physical therapy—it wasn’t within the tools of the American doctor, therefore it was bunk.
That’s okay though—it helped far more than the doctor had, so I didn’t mind that I wasn’t seeing him any more. Eventually I got to the point where, although I still have to be a bit careful with my head and neck, they don’t hurt from day to day. I have to make sure to buy living room furniture that has good support; no people-eating soft couches and cushions. I find that plain wooden chairs, particularly those found in restaurants, often give me headaches and hurt my sacrum.
Nowadays, my sacrum is the real problem—that point at the base of my spine that I landed on when I fell out of that bunk bed almost 20 years ago. It has all the earmarks of sciatica. My last doctor just said “get exercise” when I asked him about it, which wasn’t entirely useful, but this last week I was reading a review copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stretching Illustrated. It has a stretching course to use if you suffer from sciatica, so I’m working with that now in addition to going to the gym most nights.
A lot of people who haven’t worked with yoga think that it’s something hard. This isn’t surprising—photographers love to show us the most complex and fascinating-looking poses that leave us saying, ‘I could never do that!’ Yoga instructors love to show those stretches too, because it shows how accomplished they are, and it’s an implicit promise: ‘I can show you how to do this too!’
Truthfully, however, yoga can be one of the gentlest, easiest exercises you’ll find. Sure, there are some tough, impressive yoga stretches out there, but those are something that you work up to, if you do them at all. Many yoga stretches are designed to nurture the body, and can be adapted easily to injuries, weight issues, etc. Yoga: the Iyengar Way is one of my favorite resources; it includes detailed photos and hints, as well as ratings of each pose’s difficulty so you can find the easy or hard ones. Yoga for Wellness is another good find, since it is designed entirely around the idea of using yoga to heal an injured body. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga, Fourth Edition will also give you a good place to start; it includes many variations to help make the poses easier or more challenging as necessary.
Luckily many new doctors these days are open to such ‘alternative’ and natural treatments as yoga. They recognize it for what it is: a legitimate form of stretch therapy that can be practiced at home or with a teacher, that doesn’t require the expense of a physical therapist (many health insurance plans cover a very limited amount of physical therapy, and that’s assuming you’re insured). Look around, and find a yoga instructor who has experience with injured clients. If your instructor insists that there are no detrimental yoga poses, keep looking—a good instructor, like those books I list above, will know the limits of the poses and how to determine your body’s limits as well.
A doctor’s input is important, and you should absolutely see one first to find out the limits of what you can safely do. But then it’s time to take charge of your own health, and stop waiting for a pill, surgery, or injection to solve everything that ails you. I was lucky to have a great mother who thought of me when she saw that video and sent it along, probably saving me years of pain. Now that you know about this stuff, you can get what you need for yourself.