My yoga journey started unexpectedly when I popped in to my first yoga class in 2008. At the time, no one in my life practiced yoga and I had really no idea what it was. I had always associated yoga with a physical workout, similar to Pilates and was hoping for a good core workout to begin to strengthen my back.
I never expected that one class to ignite a fire in me that would lead to a path of learning more about what yoga truly was and how it goes much deeper than physical postures. Never would I have imagined that I would dive in so deeply that I would want to share my passion of yoga with others and become a yoga teacher. Never would I have imagined that it would lead me down a path of beginning the journey of self-realization and understanding myself and difficult circumstances as lessons and blessings more and more each day.
One of the most difficult struggles on my path has been my physical body. In 1999, I had a Spinal Fusion, covering my entire lumbar and thoracic spine to correct an advanced case of scoliosis. At first, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to have the surgery and correct my spine. However, that gratefulness switched in my late teens and early 20s to a bitterness about my physical body. I was embarrassed of my 20” scar. I hated that I couldn’t round my back. I was scared of how stiff my body felt & how out of touch I was with it. I resented that I had a hard time twisting to look over my shoulder when reversing in my car. My back became my enemy.
In the past few years, as I have continued to practice yoga & began teaching, I realized I had it all wrong. Through yoga, I have slowly seen how having this surgery was part of my path. It was my weak core from my back surgery that brought me in to my first yoga class to begin with. It is my back that has helped me to realize the need for & start my path of self-acceptance. It is my back that has helped me learn more about the ego and how I can practically teach others about the ego in my classes. It is my back that made me look deeper in to what Pantanjali said the purpose of a yoga posture is. It made me examine what “non-attachment” really means & how I can practice it. Lastly, my back has made me a more effective teacher my allowing me to have more compassion and understanding for people with physical issues that may limit their physical practice but can gain the understanding of other branches of yoga more deeply.
The negativity I had associated with my back surgery has slowly melted away and made me realize it was a part of my path. It has helped me, and continues to help me, learn the lessons that I need to learn & gives me an avenue to share those lessons with others.
To begin with, my back has helped to teach me that I needed to start down the path to find self-acceptance. Since my surgery, I had always realized that I physically cannot move or bend in any way that I would like. I knew this, but had a hard time accepting it. I’ve been able to get almost everything that I have wanted in my life by setting a goal and working towards it. With my back, I cannot always do this. Even if I set a goal of going in to a full wheel pose, with a perfect bend in my spine, I know this is something that I cannot ever physically accomplish. I have to accept where I am in my body. I can go into a wheel pose- but my own expression of it. It may never be showcased in Yoga Journal, but it is where I am.
This self-acceptance has made me cultivate more compassion for myself. If a student came in to my class with a spinal fusion and couldn’t get in to a backbend, would I judge them? Would I think that they’re not “good” at yoga? Would I be embarrassed that their pose didn’t look like others in the class? Absolutely not. That would be ridiculous. So why do that to myself?
Instead, wouldn’t I have shown that student compassion & have been impressed that they were trying, even with a physical limitation? Of course.
To me, that is self-acceptance. It is seeing yourself through someone else’s perspective. I am able to teach students this concept, too, by having them think of something that they don’t like about themselves, or something they’re critical of themselves for, and realizing that self-acceptance is key.
My back has also taught me about the ego and how to control the ego. For me, the ego is that little voice in the back of my mind judging myself, comparing myself to others, and criticizing. The ego is the judging voice saying “You look ridiculous! People are probably wondering what’s wrong with you!” “Look how easily she can get in to that pose – why can’t you?!”
For a long time, I struggled even coming to classes because I was embarrassed. My negative ego was unrelentless. One day after class, after feeling embarrassed for the whole class, I was reading one of my favorite books called “Daily Guidance from your Angels,” by Doreen Virtue. It’s a daily meditation books that sets a theme for the day. The passage for that day was called “Have Patience with Yourself,” and one line of it said, “You’re much too hard on yourself at times! You’ve come such a long way, and yet you chastise yourself for not going fast or far enough.” These words rang so true with me. It made me realize that the negative ego needed to stop. It was holding me hostage to advancing in my practice. It was creating stories & lies in my head.
I realized that my back wasn’t something I should be embarrassed of or hide from. When I started telling people that I had a spinal fusion, I was met with praise for my practice rather than criticism. I have read the “Have Patience with Yourself,” passage many times in class and have embedded the lesson of the negative ego in the classes that I have taught, and have been told countless times by students that it is exactly what they needed to hear. I can relate and help students move past the negative ego because it’s something I’ve gone through, too.
During my 200-hour training, I had a “ah-ha” moment when I read Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras and it said in 2:46, “Yoga should be steady and comfortable.” I never had thought of it like that. I had always equated being “good” at yoga as to having the perfect asana practice. What I realized with my back is that I can go as far as I can go, and as long as I’m stable and comfortable, I am where I need to be in my yoga practice. I can keep progressing and going deeper in to my body and gain steadiness and comfort in a pose, than I’m progressing. When I see students who try to force themselves to go deeper and deeper in to a pose, which I know is causing them more harm than good, I remind them of this sutra.
My back has also taught me, and continues to teach me, more & more about no-attachment. When I first started yoga, I felt like I had something to prove, so I would only go to Vinyasa classes. I was attached to the thought that if you went to Vinyasa classes, you were the picture of health and it was what you “should do,” if you wanted to advance your practice. I often thought that gentle or restorative classes were for people who weren’t physically fit or had physical issues. I didn’t want to be associated with that. I didn’t want people to think that because of my back I was injured or incapable.
I kept exclusively goingto only Vinyasa class until one day in my 200-hour training, when we were doing a pranayama practice followed by a restorative practice, that there was power in stillness, too. I felt so amazing after the practice. I felt calm and clear-headed. My body felt pain free and I felt like I had taken a nap and been given a massage at the same time. I realized that I had been pushing myself so hard in Vinyasa classes, that often I left with my mind busier than ever and my body sore & beat up feeling. I had been so attached to trying to prove that I was healthy, that I had only let myself experience one tiny part of yoga. This experience has helped me to encourage students in my classes to branch out and try a different style than they’re used to. Also, at the end of my slow flow classes, I often try to work in one restorative pose or a form of pranayama to give the students a little taste of the other forms of yoga that are out there.
Lastly, my back has helped me become a better teacher because it has truly made me more compassionate and more understanding of other people. Just as I was struggling when started my yoga practice, I know other students may be, too. If I didn’t have my back surgery, I’m not sure I could relate as easily to students who may have physical limitations.
We all have a story.
When students confide in me that they’ve had an injury or are going through something, I meet them with understanding and compassion. It’s brave to tell others something about yourself that you may be struggling with or insecure about. If someone isn’t able to do something in class, no matter how “easy” the pose may seem, I always remember, our bodies are all different.
We all have limitations.
My cat/cow looks different from others since I can’t move my spine. That might seem “easy,” to one person, but for me, it’s something that I simply cannot do, and that’s okay. Why would I judge anyone else? It has also made me realize how lucky I am. I was able to be cured. I am able to do 99% of everything I’ve never wanted to do. Some students aren’t as lucky and have illnesses, injuries or diseases that can’t be cured or are incredibly difficult to live with.
When I was searching for my 200-hour training program, I talked to many studios. One studio that I talked to, when I told them about my back, asked me, “Well, you can’t curve your spine? How do you expect to teach? What CAN you do?” I knew immediately that wasn’t the training program for me and that is not the way that I wanted to teach when I finished my certification.
Sometimes it scares me that if I didn’t have my back surgery, would I have ended up getting my certification there with a teacher who had no compassion and was judgmental? When I told another teacher at a different studio about this, she said, “We all have poses we can’t do and just because you can’t physically get in to a pose doesn’t mean you can’t teach it and teach it well and inspire others.” I knew that she was my teacher and that was a lesson that I needed to learn and a lesson that I wanted to make sure that I taught to others in the future. My back helped me to learn to have compassion and understanding with everyone.
While my spinal fusion has been a struggle in my life, I also count it as one of my greatest lessons and a big part of my journey. It’s been a huge part of the lessons that I have needed to learn & to share. Sometimes when I think that if I hadn’t had my spinal fusion, I may never have gone to a yoga class and how I can’t imagine my life without it. It has taught me to work towards more and more self-acceptance, to actively work towards letting go of the negative ego, to have non-attachment in my practice and to always, always, always have compassion for myself and for students.
Alison teaches at Awaken Yoga in Mentor, Oh, and recently completed their 500hr program for advanced yoga teaching. She also holds a Body Wisdom Certification through Awaken Yoga. She currently teaches workshops and weekly classes at Awaken Yoga and other places in the Northeast, Oh area. Her students would describe her as compassionate, calming and very kind.