By Jay Garman . Written on 25 September 2020
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
– Nelson Mandela
What is lower back pain?
It’s everything. Because when you have it, you can’t feel anything else.
What causes lower back pain?
A breakdown in functional movement. No longer using the patterns that you developed when you first learned to roll, sit, crawl, stand and walk.
How long does lower back pain last?
It lasts as long as it takes for you to embrace a different way of being. For many people, that means life.
How can I get rid of lower back pain?
You have to be brave enough to let go. To release your identification with who you are and how you move. To be a rebel in a society that keeps telling you to harden. You have to be brave enough to soften.
I know pain. We all do. We’re human.
Pain comes in many flavours. Intensities. Depths. Lengths. Pain evolves, changes over time. So do our feelings about pain. Our attachments to it. Our identification with it. The stories we craft around it. The ways we define ourselves with it.
For me, one of those ways sounded like this: “I have a bad lower back.” That was one of my unconscious, but self-chosen, defining characteristics for 30 years.
When I was younger, I was a gymnast. It’s a beautiful sport, one that develops people in many ways. By the time I was about 15, my lower back hurt regularly. It oscillated between a dull ache that I would incessantly reach around and massage with my knuckles, to a searing electric shock that was completely incapacitating.
For the last seven years of my gymnastics career, I regularly received untrasound, massage, electric muscle stimulation, ice, heat, pain killers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories. Sometimes my back was fine. Good even. And other times I’d be out of commission for weeks.
Then there was the psychological conditioning. It hurt, but I had to get on with my life. I had to study, take university exams, grocery shop. I had to train. Sometimes, I had to compete. If I was lucky, I went on dates. All with a portion – sometimes large – of my attention taken up by the pain.
When I retired from gymnastics, I wasn’t aggravating my back as much, so the debilitating spasm episodes didn’t happen often. But there was still the ache. The habitual reaching around to dig into the erector spinae, serratus and obliques with my knuckles to try to soften the tension.
Then when I was 34 it flared up. Nerve pain started to shoot down my legs. I came to know the dreaded sciatica. Eventually I was diagnosed with a herniated disc. It lasted a year. And I tried everything. Everything I could find at the time. Everything short of surgery to fuse the vertebrae, which was modern western medicine’s way of admitting that it had no other tools in the toolbox. A wilful closing of the door on ever having your body function as it was designed to, as it evolved to.
Five years later it happened again. Different disc, same shit. Another year, grimacing through kids birthdays, date nights (at this point, thankfully with a wife), days in the office.
Then my yoga changed. And in time, my lower back changed.
I discovered Hañsa. I realised that I had been practicing yoga with a performance mindset. An attitude of achievement. And I learned to soften. I learned to slow down. I attuned my senses to subtlety. I began to enjoy the grace of sweeping through space, instead of locking into a shape that I thought I was supposed to make.
Hañsa means swan. Hañsa is the the beauty of curves, of gliding, of ease. Hañsa is a slow flowing movement practice. Hañsa is a challenge – it is a doorway to self-awareness and self-empowerment. And no one can walk through the door for you.
Change takes time. When it comes to movement, first you have to see clearly how you move. Then you have to interrupt your tendencies and patterns. You have to create gaps in order to present yourself with choices. You have to make different decisions. And you have to form new patterns, new habits.
For me, it was two or three years before I admitted to myself, and eventually to other people, that for all intents and purposes, my lower back was healed. I no longer incessantly reach around to dig my knuckles into those muscles – they’re soft. They’re toned. They’re responsive. They’re receptive. They’re adaptable.
I no longer live in fear that at any moment I might have another spasm and the excruciating pain that leaves me hunched over and hobbling like a cartoon witch for two weeks.
What does it feel like?
That pain lasted so long I couldn’t see beyond it. I’d been through it so many times I couldn’t envision ever being healed. It seemed impossible. The damage must have been permanent.
But it always seems impossible until it’s done.