Yoga Is Worth the Risk

Thomas Parkinson (USA)

The following list represents many of the basic asanas – padmasana, siddhasana, siddha yoni asana, swastikasana, supta vajrasana, paschimottanasana, padar prasar paschimottanasana, sirsha angustha, pada hastasana, sirshasana, sarvangasana, halasana, merudandasana. It would be difficult to design a beginners or intermediate program without them.

Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha lists them all as, 'not to be done by people with sciatica.' The book doesn't say, '...might aggravate sciatica.' It says, '...not to be done.' Had I observed this ban, I would have come 12,000 miles, from the USA to Bihar Yoga Bharati, for half an asana program. But I have been doing most of these asanas for years, some specifically to counteract sciatic pain and to make sciatica livable. So I continued to do them here.

My sciatica struck about thirty years ago when I was serving as a US Navy experimental diver. After several years of crippling pain I had a lammectomy (removal of disc). That operation provided brief relief but soon relapsed. Now with vertebrae s3 and s4 resting bone-on-bone, I will probably have sciatic pain periodically for the rest of my life, unless yoga performs a true miracle of tissue regrowth.

So, thirty years of living with sciatica has taught me that I must keep myself light, strong and flexible. Yoga is the best method I know, and I have tried many. Yoga is especially good for flexibility of the lower back, which most exercise does not reach. Yoga (and swimming) give me pain-free mornings about 80% of the time. New exercises will sometimes generate extra pain. But I just keep working and the pain will finally subside. It is a situation I can live with.

I have learned there are two kinds of mistakes with physical exercise: first, doing something I should not have done, and, second, not doing something I should have done. The first mistake results in pulls and sprains, even breaks, from over-taxing the body by pushing too hard. The damage takes days, weeks or, rarely, months to repair. I have made this type of mistake many times and will probably make it again.

The second mistake, not doing exercises, does not show damage for a long time. The body slowly loses tone and flexibility. Muscle turns to fat. By the time the ill-effects pile up the damage takes years to correct. The condition can be so discouraging that the victim never corrects it. It takes character to get back in shape late in life. I did this once. I have vowed never to do it again.

During my mid-forties I let myself get forty pounds overweight, stiff, short-winded and flabby. Then the sciatica returned, severely. To correct this took drastic measures. I quit the film business and, with a large drop in pay, began diving again, and exercising. It took almost two years to repair the damage done by not exercising. Close call!

From my experience it is never good advice to, '...not do this asana.' Maybe, 'approach this asana with caution' or 'do a modified version until comfortable.' But DO THE ASANAS. Listen to the body. It knows. APMB lists benefits and cautions after the description of most asanas. When the asana class was taught this way, the pace was slow.

In the Roman market a sign said CAVEAT EMPTOR – Let the Buyer Beware! It said it once. It would seem that a comprehensive discussion of benefits and cautions could be given at the start. Then these non-yogic benefits and cautions could stop interfering with the body awareness an asana class needs. CAVEAT EMPTOR.

I call them 'non-yogic'. There is only one yogic benefit – preparation for pranayama to advance in awareness. There is only one yogic danger – failure to practise uninterruptedly over a long period with faith and devotion and, thereby, failure to advance in awareness.

The emphasis placed on stress reduction, school programs, scientific/medical programs, prison programs, etc. seemed to strongly interest most, if not all, of my classmates. But I am not interested as long as my yogic skills are below the very advanced level. Only as a highly developed yogi dare I think of 'shore-to-shore'.

Yoga goes through various periods. When unpopular it retires to obscurity. When popular, as now, it offers its magic to all of mankind. Could popularity be lowering yoga's standards? No! The standards as put down by Patanjali are unalterable. Yoga requires some people from each generation to fearlessly pursue these standards to the limits. They must be willing to take risks, even knowing that only a few will completely succeed.

It was worth taking risks and suffering damage to find ways to dive deeper into the ocean. It is far more worth the risks to dive deeper into the ocean of consciousness.