SHEELA CHEONG

“How did you heal your back pain and what advice do you have for your students on that?”

Is pain something you’ve accepted as a normal part of your life? It was for me. In 2017, I could not get out of bed without wincing at the searing pain in my lower back, hips and legs. I knew things were bad when my toes began to go numb.

After countless tests, x-rays and MRIs at the hospital, I was diagnosed with “degenerative disc disease”. Thankfully, I didn’t have to undergo surgery but what was I to do for the pain? I tried everything: chiropractor, massage, TCM/acupuncture, Ayurveda, homeopathy, even physiotherapy at the hospital. Nothing helped. I was taking ibuprofen every day like candy.

The lowest point was having to tell my yoga students that I was unable to demonstrate postures in class. How could I call myself a yoga teacher when I couldn’t even do the postures that I was supposed to teach?

I decided that I would have to figure out how to heal myself as I couldn’t imagine having to take painkillers to sleep every night and waking up to the same sinking feeling every morning.

It took me less than half a year to be pain-free.

What did I do?
I stopped attending group classes.
I stopped being attached to (traditional) yoga postures.
I stopped visualizing (my) body movement in the shapes of yoga postures.

The single guiding principle that helped me the most is this:
DO WHAT FEELS GOOD.
What did this look like?
Every single day, when I wasn’t teaching, I would be in bed.
Everything hurt, including laying down flat on my back. So I rested my legs up on the wall. This felt good, and I would stay in the same position for hours.
As time passed, I experimented supporting my lower body in different ways using pillows, bolsters and yoga straps. If I had more pain on my left side that day, I’d figure out how best to support my pelvis / legs, which props to use and at what height. Over time, I learnt what felt best and I did more of that. Once I got comfortable, I would lay still and bring my awareness to my breathing.

In a recent podcast, Jeff Krasno interviewed his wife Schuyler Grant on her experience with debilitating chronic back pain. In describing how she healed herself, she too cites that there are two sides to healing chronic pain: the physiological and the psychological. As a mind-body practice, Yoga is perfectly positioned to address both of these, specifically with its focus on breath awareness.

Since healing myself through a combination of yoga and deep rest, I have successfully guided students through their own healing journeys. Each person’s body and experience of their pain is different, so there is no one magic pose that will cure everyone. The purpose of a Yoga practice is for the student to cultivate and sensitize their own body intelligence, so that they are empowered to make the best decisions for their health. That said, an experienced teacher can be a valuable guide and a source of comfort and strength.

Yes, we may be practising Yoga postures from a seemingly fixed repertoire of shapes. But do not mistake the shapes for the essence of the subject. The subject is your connection to yourself.
Are you practising to get better at making shapes?
Or are you practising to get better at knowing and understanding yourself?