Part One | Part Two
By: Jean Johnson for Back1
“I think I’m lucky to have found Barbara and Todd,” said Kay Harrold, a student since 1998 at Portland Yoga Arts where co-directors Barbara Fergusson and Todd Jackson teach. “I don’t know where I’d be with different teachers.” Part One of this series details Harrold’s account of how she went from being a “stooped over little old lady” with a “cinderblock” load of pain to becoming a beginning yoga teacher in her own right.
|Using Yoga for Your Back|
Awareness, strength, flexibility, and balance are the key elements of yoga, and the way back problems may be resolved in ancient, gentle art.
A good way to find respected yoga practitioners is by inquiring who physicians, naturopaths, chiropractors, and acupuncturists recommend.
Yoga differs from more militaristic forms of exercise because practitioners do not force and push through pain. Rather, students take the time to feel their way through poses and accept where their body needs to be in the moment.
Choosing a Teacher Wisely
The full service Portland Yoga Arts studio is clearly many cuts above your standard yoga class where students schlep their own mats into rooms of marginal cleanliness and teachers mostly model routine poses. Rather, Barbara and Todd tailor each class differently drawing from a range of poses that are never the same. Also, they are off their mats more than they are on them, roving about the room to ensure that students are doing each pose in ways that will be beneficial.
It’s all rather rarified – the high-quality sort of place a person with a delicate back can trust. Shoes are removed at the door, and walls in the spacious foyer are lined with cubby holes for stowing outerwear.
Within the yoga rooms, well cared-for mats and eye bags filled with lavender are waiting. The eye bags, of course, get passed out along with a tissue for savasana; the pose of total relaxation that brings each yoga class to completion. Blankets are also available, and anyone who simply raises a finger or two will experience the nurturing pleasure of having the teacher drape a blanket over their prone form.
All the niceties, though, are simply markers for a serious and well-developed understanding of this ancient art. There is no competitive launching into back bends or warrior poses without adequate preparation among these folks. They quietly, but firmly usher new students into the fold, and somehow without saying too terribly much, teach people the delight of working with their bodies in a respectful manner. More, classes are clearly demarcated: beginning, intermediate, advanced – and students are carefully guided to the level for which they are best suited.
Indeed, Portland Yoga Arts sits almost catty-corner from one of Portland’s major hospital and clinic complexes. It’s almost as if yoga has really come of age and is a legitimate part of the larger healthcare landscape. Laura Berg, long-time student of Barbara Fergusson’s, thinks so.
“My feeling is that yoga classes are like preventive healthcare. I’m taking care of myself so I don’t have some serious problems, and at $12 a class the fees are incredibly reasonable,” said Berg. “For example, I have weak abs and lower back problems that my consulting work does not help. Sitting at my desk all day really necessitates that I am able to stretch, and the tight muscles and back spasms that I used to get before practicing yoga are gone. I just don’t have that any more.”
Students at Portland Yoga Arts like Berg are warmed up and then led gradually through sequences which, like a lovely double helix of DNA, spiral back around on a well-constructed foundation during the session. In terms of the back, that means not only awareness of one’s body as a starting point, but also building strength and increasing flexibility – all the while maintaining a balance between these three essential elements.
Building Back Strength
“Many students have back injuries and pain because of lack of strength,” Todd Jackson said. “There are a number of poses that help here including many of the standing poses that we do. Warrior poses build strength in the back and the legs that play a key role in supporting the lower back. Also lying face down on the floor and gently arching the upper body off the mat – coming into an upper cobra pose – is useful.”
And of course, as Berg observed, the abdominal muscles are never far off in any discussion of the back.
“Especially for beginners or people with low back issues,” Jackson said, “students that are sufficiently ready can lie on their backs and bring their knees up over their hips, placing their feet on an imaginary wall. Then, very gently, they can take one foot down to the floor and back, all the while engaging the lower abs and drawing those muscles back into the body so they maintain even contact between their lumbar spine and a support behind it like a small rolled up mat or wash cloth.”
Moving On To Flexibility
“Some students can’t even bring their spines into a natural curvature,” he said. “Gentle twists help to improve the flexibility and range of motion. There are ways we fold the blankets we work with so that students can begin with minimal backbends and work up. We also use folding chairs and various props to help students work at levels best suited to their body’s situation.
“With our more intermediate students, we work with forward bending as well,” Jackson noted. “Once someone knows what shape a healthy spine assumes and has developed their range of motion, forward bends help drastically reduce any long-held tension and strain in the lower back.”
The yoga teacher explains that “since these poses can be sustained longer than others, students are able to let go of tension. It’s a very soothing and quieting practice, and helpful for people that are extremely stressed or chronically fatigued.”
Extremely stressed or chronically fatigued? Gee. Where do three-quarters of the American population sign up?
“If I were to add one thing to the three elements of awareness, strength, and flexibility,” said Jackson, “it would be balance, since if any of those three variables are out of proportion, problems will arise.
“Here we can do more sophisticated things with advanced students like teaching them to connect with internal organs. That takes a well-developed understanding of the body, but the beauty of yoga is that any pose that beginners do will have reflexive action on those organs. So you don’t have to have this all-seeing eye at the beginning. You just have to do it.”
Yoga – In a Class of Its Own
The yoga session we at Back1.com observed is winding down. Students are strengthening the muscles in their lower back by doing the upper cobra. Jackson’s voice seeps into their consciousness with visible results. “Now, ask yourself: Is my heart coming up between my lungs or sinking down?” The posture changes are almost imperceptible, but they appear. There’s even a brightening in the room somehow.
The idea is to “open your body to allow your spirit to dwell in it,” Jackson said. “This is not something you can do with headphones on or while watching a movie and running on a treadmill. Yoga is not disembodied exercise.”
Sounds like “Be Here Now” to us, and Jackson seems to concur even though he’s far too young to have experienced the sixties.
“We approach the body in a sensitive way. Anyone can force themselves to touch their toes and push through pain, but in yoga we learn how to feel our way towards our toes. It’s not our minds that say ‘OK, you’re going to touch your toes now.’ Instead we carry awareness. Bring our minds and spirits to the cells and body as we are stretching, so that nothing is dictated at all.
“With yoga you are accepting where you are in the moment – both limitations and gifts. So you are not ignoring what the body can and can’t do just to get to some place,” Jackson said. “Ideally yoga is a non-violent way to change who you are.”
Enough said? If so, take deep breath, place prayer hands together into place, bow and say ‘namaste.’ Then get thy back to a reputable yoga studio.