I became a yoga teacher because my back hurt. At the height of my back problems, I had thoracic (upper back) pain, sciatica pain radiating down my legs, and pinched nerves that kept me from turning my head in a normal fashion.
I felt an intensive yoga program would help. It did, and one important side effect was that I learned to meditate, which changed my life permanently for the better. But in addition to the usual difficulties of a beginning meditator, sitting was the worst position for my back pain.
A loss of body consciousness
One day I was determined to try my best to go deeper in meditation and transcend the pain. I remembered being told that visualizing a saint’s eyes was a powerful technique for meditation.
At that time, I knew little about saints. However, I had read Swami Kriyananda’s book, The Path, so I decided to look at his cover photo. I closed my eyes and, with all my will power, focused on his eyes.
It was tough going. The back cried out as usual for attention. Eventually, to my amazement and enjoyment, I was able to transcend the pain! Through the strong concentration, I experienced a loss of body consciousness. To be free of pain, even for a short time, was a wonderful and expansive feeling.
The most intense back pain ever
More than twenty years have passed since that experience. Gradually, through yoga and other techniques, my back healed. Last year, however, I re-injured it. Applying all the healing techniques I knew, within a few weeks I managed to reduce the pain to a slight twinge.
Then one night I was up late working on a writing assignment. My five-year-old daughter was having trouble going to sleep and had climbed into bed with her father. Both my daughter and husband were asleep when I went to pick her up and return her to her room, as I have done many times.
This time, however, I forgot all about the body mechanics I had learned over the past twenty years. I reached toward the middle of the bed and picked her straight up.
Fortunately, she was only a few inches above the bed when my back “went out” and I dropped her. The pain was more intense than any back pain I had ever felt. I let out a sound that woke both my daughter and husband, and somehow came down onto the floor, where I lay on my back next to the bed, with my knees bent.
With this pain I knew I needed help
I focused immediately on deep diaphragmatic breathing—breathing deeply into the belly and blowing out the pain with my exhalations. My husband and daughter rushed to help me. I asked them not to touch me.
Normally I take medication only as a last resort. However, without much hesitation, I asked for Ibuprofen. With this pain I knew I needed help. Then I asked my husband if he would gently cover me with a blanket. I convinced him and my daughter (in between deep breathing) to go to bed, that I could take care of myself.
The spasms were intense. I had to use my breath just to maintain the pain at the current level. If I even attempted a therapeutic pelvic tilt, the spasms would deepen and increase.
There was no reason not to still be joyful
As I lay there working with the breath and consciously trying to relax the spasms, I automatically went into my usual practice of mentally chanting, “I love you God.” I focused at the spiritual eye and invoked Yogananda and Divine Mother’s presence.
Shifting into a more God-conscious state made me recall that I had been feeling very joyful before my back went out. I reflected that, though I was in pain, I was grateful for many things in my life and that there was no reason not to still be joyful.
I then started mentally chanting one of my other personal mantras, “joy, joy, joy”— all the while breathing deeply to control the pain. Chanting “joy” reminded me that joy was still part of my core being.
Somehow I knew I had a choice: I could feel sorry for myself (poor me!), and worried about the possibility of a long and difficult rehabilitation. Or I could stay in the present moment, get back to my center, and experience joy. I chose joy.
Two separate and distinct realities
It wasn’t a matter of pretending that the pain did not exist. In fact, I needed to focus part of my attention on the deep breathing to keep the pain from intensifying and spreading.
Gradually, however, despite the pain (and the need to focus on it), my awareness of joy expanded. Before long I was feeling great joy. The pain was as intense as ever. But I was experiencing two separate and distinct realities: pain and joy.
It was a revelation that I could experience such a depth of joy and still be aware of physical pain. I had always assumed that saints who remained joyful despite great physical trials had transcended body consciousness in ecstasy.
But I recalled something I had read about St. Teresa of Avila. When not in ecstasy, she often experienced great physical pain. However, in her joyful devotion to the work Christ had given her, she was only partially aware of it. Not all saints with serious physical ailments, I began to realize as I lay on the floor, lived in a constant state of ecstatic communion. Their joy in God was so intense, however, that physical pain simply did not matter.
When the spasms became less intense, I was able to move into a therapeutic pelvic tilt. After half an hour of deep breathing and gentle pelvic tilts, I was able to get up. I placed pillows under my knees—and, covering myself with blankets from the bed— went to sleep on the floor.
I am deeply grateful
The physical healing took awhile. I slept on my back on the floor with my legs over a padded bench for almost a week. For several weeks I asked both my daughter and seven-year- old son to be very careful with me— too forceful a hug could be extremely painful.
As I applied my knowledge of therapeutic yoga and other techniques, I tried to focus on God, Guru, and the joy within. Whenever I became focused and centered, I once again experienced joy.
I am deeply grateful for the blessing of the pain that was not transcended but became a separate reality. It has helped me see that the goal of life is not necessarily to remove or even transcend life’s difficulties, but to live in joy regardless of the ups and downs.
As I live this way, the more things tend to work out for the best. Challenges still come but as I live more deeply from my center in God, I am able to handle them more gracefully.