Are you addicted to crack? Cracking your joints, I mean! There were years during my 20s when I could not fathom getting through my early-morning yoga practice without popping my shoulders, low back, hips and neck. I was popping and cracking my way through the day like a one-woman band.
Usually these fast internal whacks felt great, a rush that temporarily relieved aches and pains. What I didn’t know at the time was that all that cracking was not only emblematic of my body’s instability, but it was accelerating my own tissue breakdown.
Denial is not a river in Egypt
I have always gone “all-in,” no matter what the physical practice. Yoga was always my mainstay and baseline, but on top of that practice (which I started at age 11) I was also a dancer, runner, skier (horrible skier), water aerobics instructor and rock climber. But yoga had always been my security blanket and my salvation. It was the way I knew that my body was balanced and set (or so I thought) to be able to do everything else I loved.
In my 20s, I was hard-core about my yoga practice. I’d get out of bed for my daily 7am-9am Astanga yoga practice. I was relentless and would not miss a day, even when I was sick or hadn’t slept enough the night before. At the time, I thought my devotion was sacrament and that my dedication to my practice was my righteous purpose. I turned down dates and family functions so that I could show up on the mat.
But all of this — what I now call my “fanatic” phase — was de-stabilizing my joints and causing me to constantly pop and crack, both voluntarily and involuntarily. I’m not sure why I thought it was “normal” to wake up in the morning, unable to fully straighten my knees. It would take me about 20 steps of hobbling towards the bathroom before they would comply.
During an intimate evening with my boyfriend, my neck finally “went out.” I could not turn it and was in insane amounts of pain. My whole body retreated into a vacuum, engulfed with searing pain and silence. My boyfriend pulled away as I disappeared inside my fear and despair. A mammoth fight erupted, which was actually a great excuse for me to leave this two-year relationship that was volatile and riddled with unhealthy dynamics (caused in large part by my addiction to exercise/yoga).
But my neck problems were only the tip of the iceberg of the physical and emotional instability that was literally stretching me to the point of breaking down.
Diagnosis: repetitive stress
I had heard of “Repetitive Stress Syndrome.” It’s something that cashiers get from overusing their wrists all day. When I was told I had the same thing, but all over my body, I was baffled. How could yoga be causing repetitive stress? I couldn’t wrap my head around it … wasn’t yoga supposed to be therapeutic and healthy for anyone? Weren’t yoga poses the equivalent of a body vitamin? Don’t yoga poses ease stress and help with pain, disease and all manner of healing? I pored through my library of yoga books that championed the healing effects of poses and practices. Interesting, none of them listed Repetitive Stress Syndrome.
I did all types of yoga practices: the meditations, the yantras (imagery), pranayama (breath exercises), japa (verbal repetition) — heck, I even did the eye exercises! And of course, there were the poses. I sure did love doing hours and hours of poses. Well, too much of a good thing turned out to be a very bad thing for me. Poses are not pills. They can be more potent and toxic than a drug when taken in excess, and I had overdosed.
I had to reckon with the consequences of over-exercising, a new insidious form of bulimia. My eating-disordered past had come back to haunt me in a different form. I had not cleared my need for body control, and I was punishing myself with yoga.
With the help of a gifted physical therapist, I learned how I had weakened my body with my yoga practice. All of that clicking and popping was the result of overstretched tendons and connective tissues unable to find points of center or balance throughout my joints. I would have to literally pull myself together if I wanted to heal.
This was a profound metaphor for my soul and psyche. I did not have to push myself so hard, punishing myself with hours of practice a day. It was hostile and showed a lack of respect for myself. I needed to learn to work with myself rather than against. Years of habits were overthrown, and I adopted massive changes in my physical practice and daily schedule. For one, my physical therapist started me on a strength-training program, and I vowed to stop cracking my neck and shoulders. It worked.
Thirteen years later, I continue to explore strength and stability as a major part of my daily practice. Looking for ways to hold myself, rather than turning into runny jello. Yoga is all about balance between strength and flexibility at every level. I had stretched myself to pieces and had become so flexible that I was no longer strong. I now practice for 30-60 minutes, instead of hours. I take days off. And I incorporate my own self-massage techniques to keep my tissues happy and to keep me out of the doctor’s office.
If you are a “crack” addict, find yourself constantly uncomfortable, or are in the process of addiction recovery, have hope! It is possible to rid yourself of unhealthy body habits and address the underlying mental forces that drove you there in the first place.