Causes of chronic back pain and the truth about healing

How do you speak to your body? Do your conscious thoughts toward your body match your unconscious thoughts? Every time you get a compliment and reply, “Thanks,” is your body able to absorb that positive attention, or does your inner dialogue feed negative talk into the tissues and cells of your body?

 
I haven’t written since August because, quite frankly, I was swimming through so much personal change, pain, and ultimately, growth, that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my head up. But here I am, fully breathing and more full of life and love than ever. Why? Because I’m starting to actually pay attention to the conscious and subconscious thoughts that fill my mind and body.
 
A couple weekends ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in a weekend workshop with Aadil Palkhivala, founder of Purna Yoga. Aadil has studied back injury, pain and dysfunction for over 30 years, much of that time with B.K.S. Iyengar. I, obviously, was very interested in what he had to share with the group. I have been practicing his low back series and hip series almost daily for over four months now, and while they help me to feel better in the short term, the spinal dysfunction I have been experiencing hadn’t gone away. Aadil showed us exercises to relieve back pain and open the hips and heart, but his main message was this (paraphrasing):
 
Chronic back pain is an emotional issue, not a physical one. Until you deal with emotional causes of the trauma, you will not heal, no matter how many physical therapists you see and how diligently you perform your exercises. The exercises are a band aid; the real healing work must be done with the mind and the emotions.
 
Well, . . . crap, I thought. It’s one thing to make time for exercises, yoga and physical therapy appointments. It’s another issue entirely to dive into the dark recesses of my mind and figure out what I’ve stored there. I could only imagine that behind the pain symptoms must lay more emotional pain. As I’ve said before, the truth about healing is that it’s painful, both physical and emotionally. Aadil continued (again, I’m paraphrasing):
 
To simplify for our purposes, we have two main types of muscles, striated and smooth.
Striated muscle are those large muscles close to the skin, like the biceps and quadriceps. We can contract and relax these muscles with our will. Smooth muscles are deep within the body, like the muscles around the vertebral column. These muscles cannot be contracted or relaxed at will; they only respond to subconscious thought. The two main subconscious thoughts that cause our smooth muscles to contract are fear or insecurity, and a feeling of uncontrollability.
 
Further, these muscles are incredibly strong. Aadil treated a patient recovering from two shattered vertebrae. When Aadil asked how the vertebrae became shattered, the man replied, “I had a seizure, and my muscles crushed them.”
 
After two and a half days of thinking about my unconscious mind, and being instructed to look inside and ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I afraid of?”, I was ready to retreat into a cocoon of mystery novels and T.V. romance dramas. But as luck would have it, I wasn’t afforded that luxury and instead went to work gathering equipment and food for a retreat I was holding in Sequoia National Forest (more on the retreat later). In the frenzied days that followed, by back tightened more, making walking, sitting, and even sleeping risky activities. But as soon as we reached the healing cover of the forest trees, I put on my happy face, introduced myself to a group of eager clients and got on with the retreat.
 
In between my retreat activities, I had time and a safe space to look inside and start to notice the underlying chatter in my head. And not just the chatter, but also the tendencies of my mind. I started noticing fear-driven patterns of thought, and continued to monitor when those arose and why. One evening, after a particularly trying day, I laid in child’s pose to try to release my spasming low back muscles. For the first few inhales, I guided my breath and mind into the tight area and took a look around, as if to familiarize myself with it, and on exhale retreated, leaving just parts of my energy there, as if I was asking for permission to be friends with the muscle. Next, my inhales focused on gentle questions: What are you holding on to? Will you let me help you to release it? And my exhales worked to release energy and relax the muscle. During this process, a friend put two fingers on the muscle very gently, which allowed me to better tune into the location and feel another level of the muscle’s stress.
 
I continued talking to the muscle in this way, like a small child, and letting go every exhale. Somewhere in the process, I was overwhelmed by an intense sadness that released from the area, but I continued to breath even as the tears came. After about 15 minutes of this process, the muscle released. My hips reached my heels for the first time in several months, and I slept better that night in my tent than I had in ages.
 
The muscle have stayed relaxed, with my breath and my coaxing, for over two weeks, which is where I am now, building a relationship with my body that is built on love and trust rather than fear or will. Through the breath — which truly is the bridge between body and mind — I’ll continue to build a relationship with the muscles, bones, and systems that support me, peeling back layers of pain and fear, and teaching my mind to have a loving relationship with my body.

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