When I was 16, I had a medical and was asked to touch my toes. Later that day, my back went into spasm and I was in so much pain that I had to lie on the floor for hours. It was really scary. I didn’t know what had happened, why it had happened or how long the pain would last. Something that I had totally taken for granted — my ability to move my body — had been taken away from me.
I had an X-ray on my back and my mum took me to see a private doctor so we could get an appointment straight away.
He looked at it and said, ‘Your lower spine is a bit straighter than it should be. That’s causing problems further up the back. We could operate, but it might not fix the problem and is risky, so I don’t recommend it. There isn’t really anything we can do.’
I was being consigned to a life of pain and discomfort. How depressing.
Luckily for me, my mother is an optimist, and a feisty one. She refused to pay the doctor — ‘Why would I? He was useless!’ — and she determinedly looked for other solutions.
A lot of people recommended Pilates, so she found a teacher and signed me up for six one-to -one lessons.
I was really aware of the stiffness in the middle of my back and couldn’t work out how to stretch that area. But the teacher guided me through some exercises that were perfectly suited to my tightest muscles.
After the one-to-one lessons, I was invited to join her group ones, which I felt a little uncomfortable about. I think it was because I was a 16 year-old male and it felt awkward to be practising with a group of middle-aged women! I only went once.
My approach to treating my back pain after that was just to do the stretches when it got really bad. I saw them as a bit tedious, so I just wanted to do them as little as I could get away with.
The result was that my back issues never went away, they were just manageable. I still often found myself trying to click my back and neck, and felt a lot of discomfort, particularly in my lower back and especially when sitting in a car. I just wasn’t motivated enough to sort it out properly, even though I’d found something that really worked as a way of improving it. I’m not sure why!
It was more than ten years later that I discovered meditation and thought to myself, ‘Given that I love this so much, I’m sure I would love yoga.’
I did my first class in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. It was two hours long and when I walked away from it, I felt like I was floating down to the beach. It was about the most relaxed I could ever remember feeling. I was also aware, during the class, that a lot of the postures were really difficult for me because I was so tight.
This wonderful feeling motivated me to try to recreate it by taking classes in the UK, which I did, when I found a teacher that I clicked with. I often came away from her classes on a high: really relaxed and even joyful.
I committed to myself that I would do yoga every single week for at least an hour, both for the positive feeling and in order to gradually release all the tensions that had built up in my body. It was so satisfying to see that, over time, I went from not being able to sit cross-legged on the mat for more than 30 seconds without feeling really uncomfortable, to being able to sit and meditate on the floor for 40 minutes. My body has transformed.
It has taken years to get my back in good shape. Since doing the yoga, I have had two other spasms that left me in agony and unable to move. But now, I experience almost no back pain at all, and I know when it does get stiff or painful, there are certain stretches I can do to alleviate it.
It’s really interesting for me to reflect on the difference between when I was 16, and given a method of reducing my back pain that I didn’t fully commit to, and when I was 28 and I really got stuck in.
It seems that many people have the same relationship with meditation as I did with Pilates. They know it helps them, but they only do it when they’re particularly stressed or anxious, and then stop again.
Few people with back pain have no idea what to do about it. They know physio, stretching, good posture, meditation, reducing work stress, etc. would help, they just don’t fully commit to doing everything it takes. Why is that?
What brings people to that point of commitment is a million dollar question.
In my case, my tolerance for discomfort had somehow become so low that I wasn’t prepared to put up with any more pain. I think it was also crucial that I had that experience of deep relaxation, peace and joy with yoga, which went far beyond what I had experienced with Pilates. That gave me a big, positive goal to aim for that I knew was possible, as opposed to the prospect of experiencing a bit less pain and perhaps not fully believing that I could go much beyond that.
It makes such a huge difference to my daily life to feel comfortable in my body.
These x-rays are of my friend Emma’s back, who has scoliosis. She was also told by the doctor there was nothing that could be done. She took up yoga and it has dramatically improved the shape of her spine.
Here is another story of an 86 year-old woman whose body was transformed in just a month through working with a yoga teacher.
Where to start
My suggestion would be, if you suffer from back pain, write down all the things that you know help it, and then reflect on what’s stopping you from doing them more. Is it busyness? Do you doubt how much they will work? Are you not valuing your own wellbeing enough?
What would it take for you to commit to doing everything you can to be pain-free?