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This post is the 3rd in a series of posts detailing my struggle with chronic back pain and my journey to the path of Iyengar Yoga. 

Coming to Iyengar Yoga…

Yoga Centre Toronto's Prop Wall

Yoga Centre Toronto’s Prop Wall

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that as of my first class at Yoga Centre Toronto (YCT), I was pretty much hooked. That hour and a quarter was easily the best I had felt all day, and given my condition, that was no small feat. The teacher treated me as a capable student but also made special modifications to accommodate my limitations.  I felt safe, yet empowered.  I completed the Foundations Program and segued into Level 1.  At this point, I attended 3 times per week with 3 different teachers, each class an hour and a half long.  The experience I had in my first class was repeated again and again – the time I spent in class was the highlight of my day.

As you can imagine, getting around the city was not particularly easy for me.  To get to the yoga centre, I had to trek from downtown to mid-town and deal with uneven pavement, curbs, stairs, sloping streets, not to mention snow banks at intersections or walking on un-shoveled walkways, busy TTC platforms and crowded buses.  But as soon as I started my practice, it all became worthwhile.  To be completely honest, at the time, I didn’t even know what it was that I liked about the practice.  It’s not like my pain level decreased.  When class was over, I was in just as much pain as I was in at the start.  In hindsight though, I believe the antidepressant benefits of the practice were immediate, and that was what kept me coming back in those early days.

After 3 months, it was time for me to reevaluate.  Although I had still not seen any improvement in my physical well being, I wanted to continue.  There was something about the practice and the Iyengar method of teaching that made a lot of sense to me.  From a rational perspective, I loved the specificity of the teaching, the emphasis on precises placement of the limbs, and of developing body awareness in each minute cell of the body.  But it was more than rationality that kept me doing yoga.  I connected with the practice on an intuitive level – it just felt right, more so than anything else I had tried.  So I stuck with it, religiously, at least 3 times per week.  Aside from yoga, I also swam once a week and attended 1-2 acupuncture sessions per week with my talented friend Ryan who currently runs the Academy of Eastern Medicine at Eight Branches.

After about a year (the point at which I could no longer hold on to the hope that my surgery would yet be considered successful), I was again yearning for stimulation.  I decided to apply into the University of Toronto’s Master of Urban Design program.  For my mental sanity, I needed to feel productive.   Putting myself out on the job market was too risky – if I wasn’t able to handle the pressure of chronic pain and the job, I could tarnish my future employ-ability.  Going back to school was a safer way for me to ‘test the waters’.  Looking back, it seems obvious that I wasn’t ready, but at the time I rationalized that I should at least try, see if I could manage.  I completed one year of the program but didn’t return in the fall.  The risk of my quality of life further deteriorating was too great.

Virabhadrasana I at the Trestle

Virabhadrasana I at the Trestle

After about 2 years of a dedicated Iyengar Yoga practice both in YCT’s regular classes and in special Back-Care classes, I began to notice small but definite improvements in my physical health.  I continued to look very forward to my yoga classes, and relished the fact that during those classes, I would feel the best I could expect to feel all day.  It was around now when I started to seriously question whether I would ever be able to hold down another desk job, without major risks to my health.  A clear pattern had emerged – every time I went back to work or to school, my back pain got worse.  While my mind was more than willing and able, my body just couldn’t handle it.  Every time, I would literally fall apart.  But if not a desk job, then what?  All my life, I had trained to be good at ‘stuff’ that involved the office environment.  This was a very hard thing for me to come to terms with.  It took years before I could speak about my professional life without coming to tears.

That said, it was just not in my nature to do nothing and so I entertained the idea of becoming an Iyengar Yoga Teacher.  I remember wondering if that could really be an option for me.  I still modified the majority of my poses, so could I really teach others?  I felt strongly though, even at that time, that Iyengar Yoga would be part of my life forever.  So whether it was something I did for myself on the side, or whether it became an actual career path, it was something that I needed to do to stay happy and healthy given my lot in life.  Regardless of how my future panned out, Iyengar Yoga would be a part of it, so in the end I figured why not give Teacher Training a try.  It would give me the opportunity to delve even deeper into the practice and provide further motivation to practice – pain can be a great motivator, but having students who count on you to keep them safe in class, well that is a supreme motivator for making sure I absolutely know what I’m doing!

I met with YCT’s Senior Teacher Marlene Mawhinney and asked her what she thought.  She was very encouraging.  She said that often it’s personal hardships and challenges with a practice that can help mold some of the most successful teachers.  In the fall of 2008,  she, along with YCT’s Teacher Training team accepted me into the 3-year program on a conditional basis.  After 6 months, we would meet to re-evaluate whether the program was a good fit.  The last thing any of us wanted was for this to become yet another burden that manifested in a further decline of my health.

Next Week: My Iyengar Yoga Teacher Training Experience