Last September, I went canyoneering on a grad trip with some friends in a beautiful island in the Philippines. We hiked through forests, swam through canyons, and jumped off cliffs and waterfalls. At one juncture, we also had to slide down a stream leading to a waterfall.
So I lay down in the stream in prone position, and then off I went with the current, accelerating down the stream and plunging down the waterfall from a height of about 5-6 metres. Once I landed in the water below, I felt a sharp pain radiating up my back. I couldn’t move for a few moments. It turned out I had sprained my lower back quite badly from the impact of landing in the water with the wrong body alignment.
This took a huge toll on my yoga practice. As a result of the injury, I struggled even with the most basic yoga positions like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog). They were simply too painful to do — at best, I could only manage to arch up a few inches. More advanced back bends like Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) were completely out of question.
However, from this adversity, I learned valuable lessons relating to my yoga practice on several different levels.
First, I learned to put my ego aside. It did not matter that I was the only person in class who could not do those poses properly. Yoga was not a competition. I learned to listen to my own body, because to force it beyond its limits despite the pain would have been a violation of Patajanli’s first Yama, Ahimsa.
Second, I learned the importance of engaging my core to protect my lower back. As the lower back is generally very prone to injury, it is all the more crucial to strengthen the core muscles to protect the lower back.
Third, I should not rely excessively on my lower back in back bends. Rather than putting all the pressure in the lower back (which is a very bad habit I have), I should learn to use my upper back and middle back more. As my lower back has always naturally been very flexible, I tend to arch it excessively in back bend poses. However, I never knew this until I injured my lower back and realised how much I had been relying on it to get into these poses. Increasing the flexibility of my upper back and middle back is thus one of my main goals now.
Fourth, I discovered some yoga postures for strengthening my lower back muscles and easing lower back pain. From my experience, these are the most effective ones.
- Apanasana (Wind-Relieving or Knees-to-Chest Pose). Slowly rocking side to side in this pose provides great relief to the lower back.
- Bitilasana Marjaryasana (Cat-Cow Pose)
- Supta Kapotasana (Reclining Pigeon Pose)
- Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
- Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Fifth, proper alignment and posture are indispensable for a safe and effective practice. I injured my back because I landed in the water with the wrong posture. If my guide had pointed out that I was going down in the wrong position, I may not have injured myself. I found out afterwards that I should have gone down the stream lying face up, and not in prone position. Perhaps this could have been common sense to someone who was experienced with outdoor adventurous activities, but it certainly wasn’t common sense to me at that time as it was my first time canyoneering.
Applying this lesson in yoga, it is similarly important that we practice asanas with the correct alignment, lest we incur injuries and fail to reap the benefits of the pose. As yoga teachers, we will have to keep a sharp eye on our students at all times (especially if they are beginners!) and correct any wrong alignment, in order to protect them from injuries and maximise the effectiveness of their practice.