A Year of Yoga – How I Self Healed Injuries Using the World’s Oldest Healthcare System
Namaste, friends and fellow Yogi’s! If you’re not a regular yoga practitioner, you’re probably not familiar with this greeting, don’t worry, until recently, I wasn’t either. Almost exactly one year ago from the time of this writing I embarked on my journey into yoga, one which was prompted by an almost debilitating battle with chronic shoulder and neck pain. A year later, after making a serious commitment to try yoga as a holistic approach to self healing, the injury is healed and I am relatively pain free. Before I delve into the healing and transformation that happened over this life-changing year I’d like to tell you how I arrived at this place.
For most of my life I’ve been a musician, having earned a living as one for most of my adult life. I’ve been playing professionally on and off since 1989, having played thousands of night club gigs before moving from my native New England to Nashville, TN in 2002. Since my arrival to Nashville, I’ve played another thousand or so gigs, most of them as a professional touring musician. I even wrote a book about the Nashville music industry in 2011. About three years ago, the artist I was touring with decided to stop touring, and I used this moment to make a change. Having seen the country from a bus window several times over, I also decided to stop touring. I had no idea what I was going to do next.
A fellow musician whom I had played a few local gigs with owned a painting company, and one night on the way home from a local show said “If you ever feel like swinging a paint brush, let me know, I’m always looking for good help”. I took him up on his offer, as painting and drywall is something I’ve also done at different points of my life. At first I just worked a couple days a week, but a year later, now up to four to five days a week and still playing music part-time, this pace began to kick my ass! Not having done physical labor in over 10 years, I soon began having regular pain in my left shoulder and neck, as well as some relapses of tendinitis in my right arm from an old injury. The shoulder pain sometimes caused my neck to stiffen up, often to the point where I lost mobility and could barely turn my head to the side. It was getting ugly!
Like many Americans, I didn’t have health insurance, I haven’t for most of my adult life. So I knew I had to go about this holistically. I was already eating pretty well, as I had been for several years. I’m not vegan but I do eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy oils, nuts, and lots of water, with meat and dairy only being a small part of my diet. I avoid processed foods and almost never eat in restaurants. As far as exercise, at the time these problems began, I had been doing the P90X workout program on an off for about two years, and sometimes went on hikes. I was relatively fit, but my exercise habits were inconsistent. I started doing the P90X stretch DVD on a regular basis, and while this seemed to help, it wasn’t enough. I started doing the resistance exercises again, and sometimes they seemed to help, other times they seemed to aggravate the injuries.
By the end of this second year of construction I was at my wits end, the nagging shoulder problem now an almost daily occurrence and the tendinitis not far behind. I was determined to remedy the situation holistically; I knew it could be done as my wife had just conquered a bad neck injury from a car accident through regular exercise. I needed a new approach, as it seemed like everything was just too tight and getting tighter – shoulders, neck, and a whole bunch of muscles I didn’t even know the names of. I had some earlier experiences with yoga, mostly from the P90X yoga DVD, and, remembering how good I felt after those workouts, I began exploring it again. Around the same point in time a friend of mine told me how he had used yoga to heal a chronic injury. For the next few months I began doing yoga, mainly using that DVD or just putting a few poses together on my own. I wasn’t doing it with any real consistency or plan, but I was doing it.
Then one day a bulb went off in my head. I remembered something that a Soft Tissue Specialist once told me about my tendinitis. He said something to the effect of:
“The tendinitis in your forearm is the result of inflamed tendons and muscles rubbing. There’s an overlapping series of tendons and muscles that go all the way from your wrist to the back of your shoulder. So the problems in your forearm are also related to tightness in your triceps, and shoulder. You can’t just work on the one area of inflammation, you need to stretch everything around it, lengthen everything.”
Realizing that my shoulder and neck problem likely worked in the same way, I figured that yoga might be the perfect choice for something to stretch and strengthen my whole body. Right around this time my wife sent me a couple of links to some yoga classes on YouTube, one of them was a 30 Minute Morning Yoga Class by Ali Kamenova. I’m not sure if it was the unique and challenging flow to this class, or maybe her soft, steady and almost hypnotic voice delivering detailed explanations of form with a cool, Bulgarian accent, but something just clicked for me when I did this class. This was the beginning of my serious commitment to yoga.
For the first couple of months into my new commitment I did this same 30 minute routine 3 to 4 times a week, basically every other morning. I noticed the shoulder pain was diminishing and I was becoming less “tweak prone”. I started experimenting with some of Ali’s other classes and honed in on a 66 minute Vinyasa sequence that covered all the basic poses, adding this to my weekly rotation. I also began doing regular cardio, the “run-walk–run” method, basically, interval running about 2 to 3 times a week. By the time six months had passed from my initial commitment I realized I hadn’t had any major flareups in a while. I found another challenging Ali video that resonated with me, “Arm Balances Emotional Release”, and added this to my weekly regimen of yoga and running. Ali’s style of yoga, “interval yoga”, is not your traditional yoga. Many of the videos add elements of strength training and cardio, making the classes challenging on many levels.
It’s not about the hour a day that I do yoga, it’s about the other 23 hours.
During the second half of this transformational year, I began to notice a lot of other changes happening. Not only was I in less pain, I felt stronger and noticed having more energy throughout my days. I noticed feeling less beat up when I awoke in the morning. A lot of other subtle changes were happening – better posture, body awareness, deeper breathing, I even noticed that my attitude was becoming more positive. I began to make the connection between negative thoughts and tension and pain. It was obvious that my exercise routines were improving many aspects of my life.
The intermittent shoulder and neck pain that started me on this journey was often triggered by many different things. Sometimes it was from looking up for extended periods of time at work, turning my head to the side in an unsupportive way; even sneezing could trigger a spasm. These spasms would escalate to the point of constant pain and tension in the shoulder, eventually working its way into my neck and causing a limited range of motion. Once a spasm began, it would take anywhere between three days and a week to get under control. It’s not like I’m invincible now, but I haven’t had a major spasm in over six months, and if I do have a tweak, it’s much smaller now and typically gone the next morning. I am certain that it was this serious commitment I made to myself that allowed me to self-heal these injuries, as my physical problems were worsening before this intervention and I never once went to a doctor for any of this.
The benefits of Yoga in everyday life
Life can be challenging, work can be hard, and nothing is ever easy. No matter what you do I’m sure there are moments throughout some of your days when you are in physical or emotional pain. Here are some of the concepts and practices I’ve learned from yoga that seem to help ease some everyday struggles.
Breathing – It seems ridiculous that fully grown humans would need to examine their breathing. But the truth is that many of us use shallow breathing much of the time. If you haven’t been doing yoga or another exercise in which breathing is integral, then you’ve probably never given it much thought. “Deep inhalations followed by deep exhalations”. Throughout my days, as often as possible, I check in with my breath. Am I breathing deeply or have I gotten lazy. Breathing deeply seems to help the body stay loose and the mind, calm and centered. Whenever I have to climb way up high on a ladder, I’ll take a few deep breaths first. I’ll do the same thing if someone cuts me off in traffic, if I feel an argument about to ensue, or if I’m getting nervous before a performance.
Posture – one of the best things about yoga is the emphasis on body alignment, and this transcends into posture. “Shoulders back and down, tuck your butt, lift through the crown of your head, relax your shoulders, don’t hyper extend your knees” – hearing these phrases repeated over and over in the workouts has helped me cultivate better posture even when I’m not working out. I can’t think of how many times throughout the day that I catch myself faltering when suddenly one of these phrases just pops into my head. I’ve also re-examined how I sit, often now choosing to sit crosslegged in a chair, or even on the floor. I believe good posture is half the battle.
Body Awareness – the more I do yoga, the more I become aware of how my body feels at any given moment in time and space. Now that I’ve got my two biggest ailments under control (the shoulder and tendinitis), I’ve become aware of other minor discomforts that have been there all along, possibly going back years. These are not a big problem; they are simply areas of tension or limited mobility to work on long-term. Also, if I’m pushing myself too hard throughout any given day or just getting tired, I become aware of growing tension and work to relieve it.
Stretching – a few times throughout my day, I’ll throw in a random stretching pose. I love to just hang in a forward fold for a minute or so right before lunch or driving home at the end of the day. Sometimes I’ll just do it if I feel myself getting tight. I’ll also do downward dogs, back bends, and other poses to counter building tension or tightness, when necessary.
Body mechanics – to me this is the art of efficient and safe movement, and I’m aware of this now more than ever. What is the easiest way to do any given task? Whether it’s playing guitar, painting, sitting at a computer, I’m always searching for the safest and easiest way to do it.
Attitude – Out with the negative in with the positive! Stress and tension can definitely cause physical pain, so it only stands to reason that having a positive outlook can make one healthier. One aspect of yoga is quieting and clearing the mind. Getting good at this seems to have a direct correlation to preventing injuries and living with less pain, not to mention, increased happiness. I find that the meditative aspect of yoga brings great inner peace and calmness.
Paying It Forward – Yoga has been such a powerful force in my life that I want to share with others, and I’ve already taught a few moves to a few friends. I have a long-term goal of becoming a yoga instructor, not to make a living from it (I’ve heard that’s pretty hard to do) but because I want to learn it on the deepest level possible and share that knowledge with others. Yoga seems to be female dominated, with many men shying away from it for a variety of preconceived notions. Seeing many of my friends living in pain has given me the desire to help change that and make yoga more accessible to men.
I can’t say enough good things about what yoga has done for me. I’ve learned entirely through home practice, almost exclusively using Ali’s videos. Ali has been a great teacher, responding to messages with advice and encouragement. She seems to do this for a huge amount of people all around the world. It’s an amazingly altruistic venture she has embarked on to make yoga so accessible to so many (she has over 200 free full-length yoga classes and tutorials on YouTube!), and to give such personal attention to everyone who seems to need help.
At age 46, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. No matter what fills my days – painting a house, performing music, spending time with my family, running at the park, or yoga – I don’t think I’ve ever been in a happier, healthier place. We all live in varying degrees of pain, be it physical or emotional, and I believe yoga is the best pain management program of all time. There’s a reason it was invented and used over 5000 years ago as the original healthcare system in India. I’m grateful to be a part of this tradition and thankful that it found me. There’s still so much to be learned, so I better get started. Namaste!
“The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.
Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”
Here’s some photos my wife took during one of my recent yoga sessions (click or swipe the arrows to see all the photos):
Playing with Pain: Overcoming and Avoiding Repetitive Motion Injuries
Have you ever experienced hand or arm pain, or pain in your joints when playing a musical instrument? Perhaps you experience this pain while working at a computer or a mixing console? How about weakness or numbness in your hands or fingers? If you have, or do experience any of these symptoms on a regular basis you are not alone, you, like me, are one of many who live with repetitive motion injuries.
Several years ago, while working on the Toby Keith tour, I was helping the crew load some heavy cases onto a truck. Everything was going fine until one particularly hard-to-maneuver case began to fall off the ramp, with my hand still holding one of the handles. The case didn’t fall completely off the ramp and we were able to pull it back up, but not without my right elbow becoming engulfed in pain. My first thought was that maybe I had sprained something, but I had sprained joints before and they didn’t feel like this. This pain seemed to be centered on my right elbow, and was an intense, burning sensation, like my elbow was on fire. I also felt pain if I squeezed or gripped anything in my right hand. I was instructed by the road manager to get it checked out by a doctor as soon as we returned to Nashville.
At the time of this incident I had already been playing guitar for over 20 years, I had previously worked in construction for several years, and was currently performing a fairly physical job as a guitar tech. All of those years of daily, repetitive hand and arm motions suddenly caught up with me, hurling me full speed into the world of “repetitive motion injuries”. According to the doctors, I had developed tendinitis, and while this incident with the road case may have acted as a trigger, “it had likely been a long time in the making”, they explained. “So how do we heal this?” I asked.
The approach that the doctors chose for me was a regular course of anti-inflammatories, a steroid shot, an arm brace, and the recommendation to “do your best to avoid lifting or gripping anything heavy”, the last piece of advice being somewhat unrealistic for a guitar tech. Although I did follow these recommendations, even adapting some of the physical elements of my job, several weeks later I was still experiencing a lot of pain on a daily basis. It still hurt to grip things with my right hand, and I was beginning to have wrist pain and numbness down my arm. With my situation worsening, the doctors now recommended physical therapy, and this is where I finally began to see some results.
The physical therapist took an entirely different approach. He showed me several hand and arm stretches, which I was instructed to perform daily, he massaged the area of inflammation, and iced it. He showed me how to do the massages myself, and instructed me to do them every morning and night after the stretches, the application of ice always being at the end of the routine. He told me to “listen to my body” and that to perform my regular physical activities as long as they didn’t cause pain. “If an action begins to cause pain, try not to do it.” Making great improvements over the following weeks, I couldn’t understand why the doctors hadn’t recommended any of these approaches. In fact, the doctors did very little to explain the finer points of my affliction, most of what I learned about what causes tendinitis and how to deal with it, I learned from the physical therapist.
Over the following months I was able to get an upper hand on my tendinitis, and through regular stretching, didn’t have any more problems for several years. Then I had a setback. One day I was making a homemade pedal board and spent several hours tightly gripping and squeezing a rivet gun. The end result was a resurgence of the pain in my right elbow as intense as that caused by the Toby Keith road case incident. I paid a couple more visits to a physical therapist who was able to help with some soft tissue manipulation, but the biggest thing he did to help me long term was to introduce me to a whole new way of stretching. The following, which I quoted from my book “The Nashville Musicians Survival Guide”, is part of what I learned.
“The muscles in your arms are actually a series of overlapping interconnected muscles, tendons, and ligaments that run from your fingers all the way to your shoulder. It is because of this fact that it is important to also stretch areas of the arm that might not have any pain or problems. Performing stretches that work your wrists, triceps, and shoulders will ultimately help stretch all the muscles and tendons in between.
Stretching an arm with tendinitis is not the same as stretching a healthy arm and requires some caution. Listen to your body. The stretching should cause some sensation but should not be painful. The more you stretch, the more results you will experience. Stretch at regular intervals throughout the day, always making it a point to warm up with some light cardio before your first stretching sequence. (Stretching cold muscles can cause further injury.) If you are gigging, try to stretch before the performance, after the performance, and even in between songs if you have a chance”…
Taken a step further, it only makes sense to stretch and exercise your entire body, as everything is truly connected… the hip bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the…
I was able to eventually get my recent tendinitis flare up under control, but this affliction still haunts me to this day, with a constant effort required to keep it at bay. If I don’t stretch regularly, the pain comes back, and as the body ages it seems like we are more predisposed to injury – gravity is not on our side. That being said, something that has helped me greatly has been an investment in overall physical fitness, health and well-being. I’ve tried a lot of different exercise programs in recent years, my favorite being the “P90X series” of which I have done several rounds. But I must say that yoga seems to be the one exercise that has helped my overall situation the most, it’s absolutely outstanding for overall flexibility.
Eating healthy food doesn’t hurt either. In fact, there are certain foods that increase inflammation, and others that help to decrease inflammation.
Foods that help decrease inflammation:
Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids like cold water fish, canola oil, and pumpkin seeds; Olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables, lean poultry, legumes, tofu, ginger, and some herbal teas
Foods to Avoid
Junk foods, high-fat meats, sugar, and highly processed foods are at the top of this list. Avoid anything that contains high amounts of trans fats and saturated fats like red meat and high-fat processed meats such as bacon and sausage.
For more info on what foods to eat or avoid, follow this link to read the article from which much of this nutritional information was taken, or visit the website, Do It the Hard Way, to learn some nutrition basics and find healthy recipes.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that tends to address problems only as they occur, rather than focusing on prevention. When I think back to all my years of guitar lessons, even my years of music college, no instructor ever told me that repetitive motion injuries exist, let alone how to prevent or deal with them. If you’re a musician and don’t yet have any of these afflictions, it’s obvious that physical fitness and overall health and well-being will reduce your chances of ever having these problems. And if you are “playing with pain”, you’re not alone, there are many of us. But the good news is that most problems are treatable, there are solutions – they just require a little knowledge, a consistent effort, and some self-investment.
“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.”
— the Buddha
To gain some more perspective on repetitive motion injuries, as well as some of their common misconceptions, follow this link and read “A Cure for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?” by Jennie Hoeft, as it was reposted on Nashville drummer, Stephen Taylor’s blog.