Short chat with my student, Siyu, on her back pain and yoga journey

Q: Understand that you were dancing latin / ballroom dance. As a dancer, was it easy for you when you first started out the introductory Pilates and Yoga course conducted by me (Carol) at NTU?

A: I wouldn’t say it was easy but it was manageable as I had some understanding of my body structure and movements. In addition, my science background allowed me to grasp the anatomy and scientific terms a little quicker. 

Through the Introductory Pilates and Yoga course, I was able to further understand my body, what works and what doesn’t work. Before attending this course, I was aware that I have trouble putting weight on my tailbone. This awareness was brought about as I did pop pilates (from youtube) for a few years, there were some poses that I struggled in when it involved balancing on the tailbone. Additionally, I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t lie down flat comfortably. To be honest, my least favourite pose in yoga at that time was Shavasana as there was no way I could relax with that uncomfortable sensation on my tailbone. 

While attending this course, I consulted Ms Carol about my issue and she said that it is normal for some people to have longer tailbones. She suggested that I layer up my mat to cushion my tailbone and it felt so much better. She provided me with a modified way of Shavasana as well.

I learnt that we should be patient, understand and learn to work with our bodies instead of forcing ourselves into a pose that brings us discomfort.

Q: You were already experiencing some lower back pain at that time. Did you know what was the cause? How did the yoga and pilates practices help you during that time?

A: I believe it was due to latin dance as there were lots of hip action which should be done with proper core engagement. I guess I was excessively using my lower back to accentuate the hip action without much core engagement, hence, putting some pressure on my lower back.

During that time, the yoga actually made my lower back worse as I always wanted to go deeper in poses like cobra. My ego was telling me, ‘more is better, deeper is better’. I wanted to challenge my back and see how far it can go lol. I was not conscious of the signs that my body is showing me and let ego cloud my mind. 

I liked that pilates was used to balance out all the back-bending postures and as we have to always be in neutral alignment. I do see pilates as a conditioning for building deeper core while ensuring the practice is safe at the same time. I’m not sure whether pilates helped me with the lower back pain at that point of time but with the knowledge of pilates, I had greater awareness of my posture and alignment.

Q: You continued your journey in Yoga after the course, and you mentioned that as you progressed, you felt that if you did not perspire, it was not yoga.(I am paraphrasing here)...share a little on your yoga experiences here. 

After ‘graduating’ from Ms Carol’s class, I stopped doing yoga for a few months as I couldn’t afford it as a student. I started yoga again when I was introduced to first-timer trials at different gyms and yoga studios. Some were free and some were at a low cost for first-timers. I went yoga-studio hopping and really enjoyed having a taste of the different styles of different instructors. There were a variety of classes available and I was so eager to try everything on the menu!

One day, I decided to give yin yoga a try and absolutely hated it. The instructor made us stay in each pose for 5 minutes or so and I was internally screaming the whole time. My mind was in a negative spiral, having thoughts like ‘This is not what I signed up for! I want movement and I need to sweat it out! What is the instructor doing? What is this?!’ I left the class feeling disappointed and with some angst, told myself to never attend a yin class again.

From then on, I only gravitate towards more ‘yang’ yoga classes like hatha, vinyasa, ashtanga, hot and power yoga. I found so much joy in attending these classes and loved the challenge of flowing and getting into different shapes. I slowly dived into inversion practices as well as I wanted to overcome the fear inside me.

About a year ago, I flew to bali and attended a yoga retreat as I was interested to dive deeper into yoga and get a little break as well. There were 2 retreat leaders, one specialized in kundalini yoga and the other did hatha/vinyasa yoga. My first yoga session for the retreat was kundalini and I was totally thrown off my feet. We had to hold poses for around 10 mins and do breath work at the same time. It was the most challenging yoga I have ever done, both physically and mentally. There were even singing and some chanting involved, which I felt a little uncomfortable. 

I was trying to figure what kundalini is all about. There was a night that I had the opportunity to be alone with the kundalini instructor. I asked her some questions in an attempt to understand more about the practice. She said ‘Just keep an open mind and go with the flow, don’t ask why’. She wanted me to trust the process and just be. Her words left a powerful impact on me, to savour the present moment, be in the present moment and there’s no need to judge, control or try to understand everything that is going on in life. Our brains are wired to never stop thinking, it’ll judge a situation and do its very best to interpret every situation. I am so grateful for her words as it led me to a whole new world of meditation practice. (I think I should stop here, this can go on forever hahahaha)

To summarize the yoga retreat, we had the opportunity to try meditation, yoga nidra, restorative yoga (similar to yin), vinyasa and pranayama. It was a good balance of yin and yang practices and I gradually started to appreciate the slower forms of yoga and meditation as well. 

Q: When we connected again via email, you shared that you were practising diligently for first 2 weeks of lockdown in Singapore (Circuit Breaker). You felt pain in your lower back. Can you share your experience here? 

A: I was practicing 3-4 hours a day because there were lots of livestream classes online. Got too excited and wanted to try everything.

About 2 weeks in lockdown, my lower back started to hurt again and I had to rest it for a few weeks. Managed to recover fully in about a month’s time with the help of Ms Carol’s guidance and letting go of my own ego. I decreased the duration of my practices and was constantly aware of any sensations in my lower back. I wouldn’t go too deep into back-bending postures and stopped once I feel any discomfort. 

I learn to only do what my body allows and not to push it over the edge. It is important to build a sustainable practice instead of one that will debilitate the body. 

Q: I was pretty sure that you were hyperextending your lower back during some poses, after you described to me. Being more intermediate and advanced in your yoga poses, how do you feel that you have to step back in your practice now? How does your mind feel? How should you approach your practice now?

A: I felt pretty alright to step back on my practice to be honest. I learn to be more conscious of what my body is feeling and telling me and I’ll listen to it attentively. I do have a fear that I might not be able to do yoga due to unforeseen circumstances and that idea really frightens me. I think I’m getting better at tuning into my body and understanding what it needs and doesn’t.

I believe that meditation helped me get through the recovery stage too. It taught me to sit with my thoughts and emotions, accepting whatever is coming up in my mind and just acknowledging it without judgement. It helped me to focus on my breath a lot which I consciously try to incorporate into my yoga/pilates practices as well. It brings me to the present moment of the practice itself and relieves my mind from wandering (especially to thoughts of whether I am able to execute certain poses).

Thank you Siyu for sharing her experiences and her short conversation with me. You or your friend may have the same experience with her in one way or another. There is a time for everything, we will dive deeper each time we are more open minded. It is ok to discover and explore as we take each step to bring more balance to our body, mind and spirit. Seems like Siyu is really connected with yoga and I believe that she will blossom to a balanced and compasssionate yogini.   Open heart, open mind. 

Carol Cheong is an aspiring yogini and pilates and dance instructor for close to 20 years. 
She had been a flight attendant and dance studio owner in her 20s and 30s. Now, she adopts the yogic lifestyle and loves connecting with her students through movements and breaths. She launched an elective course (Pilates and Yoga)  in the university in Singapore and her dance choreographies are frequently featured on national TV station in Singapore.
Carol (Saraswati)