Walking towards healing

It has been quite a while since my last blog article – apologies for keeping you waiting for so long! I could attribute it to the GDPR craze that has taken hold of so many bloggers lately (and it did take me quite some time to get all the associated things done). But the truth is: during the last couple of weeks I decided to give a higher priority to myself and my own wellbeing than to the need to write new blog content. There have been some health-related issues I’ve been dealing with – thankfully nothing really serious, but still enough to remind me how important it is to take good care of my body, mind and soul, and to prioritize myself over all the other things I regard important in my life.

Those of you who have followed my journey on social media may remember that I have shared the story of my recurring sciatica before. I’ve been struggling with it for years, and even though I’ve learned to manage it quite well in general, I still have recurring episodes where it is bad enough to reduce my favorite go-to yogas flow to a minimum and force me to rest more and practice less. While for many people acute sciatica is caused by a herniated disc, the culprit responsible for “my” type of sciatica is the musculus piriformis, a pear-shaped muscle sitting deep in the hip joint below the large buttock muscle that directly touches the sciatic nerve. Whenever the muscle hardens from unbalanced movement, constriction by prolonged sitting or wrong exercise, it compresses the sciatic nerve, causing it to produce the pain in my upper thigh and backside of my right leg.

That was exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago. I had been working a lot during the days and teaching several yoga classes a week in the evenings. I thought I had a good mix of work and physical activity, but I was woefully negligent of the fact that working essentially meant sitting in front of the computer all day, and teaching usually involved a lot of one-sided demonstrations of the poses, which I didn’t think would cause me problems as most of them were beginner poses. In between I spent my time in cross-legged and rounded-back position knotting mala beads or working on more advanced yoga poses during my home practice. I should have seen it coming, you might say… But I didn’t – until my body eventually protested.

I woke up with the oh-so-familiar ache in my buttock region and a burning sensation along the back of my right thigh, paired with a feeling like a trapped nerve in the area of my right knee. Though I took immediate measures to uncramp the muscles with a session on my acupressure mat, the discomfort stayed and even deteriorated over the next couple of days. Having to sit at my desk during the majority of my working hours didn’t make things better. On the contrary, sitting even for only ten minutes intensified the sciatica so much that I found myself wanting to take painkillers just to get through the days somehow. By day 5 I was in pain more or less all the time, and even worse, the discomfort and pain caused by the misalignment in my hip area had slowly but progressively spread to my upper back and neck and manifested as bursts of cervical vertigo. That was when I knew I had to get serious and do more against the problem than just taking medication and hoping for it to get better again soon.

So I saw my chiropractor to seek advice, and he confirmed that the piriformis was the root cause of my symptoms. He did some spinal adjustments to correct the misalignments I had developed due to the antalgic posture I had adopted, and, in regard to avoiding these issues in the future, he recommended that I drastically reduce the periods I spend sitting.

“Sitting is the new smoking.”

I recall the anatomy teacher in my YTT saying this and causing a lot of disbelieving protest among the training participants. But when she explained her rather harsh statement we couldn’t help but concede that there’s some truth to it. On the long term, sitting for prolonged periods does damage to your body just like smoking tobacco does. It might not be as obvious a health hazard​ as smoking, but the long-term effects can be just as serious. Even the National Institute of Health issued warning about the correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and an increased risk for various health complications, including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, circulatory disorders, and even cancer.

The average person sits for 8-12 hours per day. This not only includes the times we spend hunched in front of our computers at our work desks, but also the time we sit in our cars, on the bus or subway, or in a cafè chatting with friends. And once we get home after a long day, the first thing we do is – you guessed it – sit back and relax. From an orthopedic point of view, the biggest problem that results from prolonged sitting is that it weakens the dorsal and abdominal muscles that normally support and protect the spine and keep it aligned with the pelvis and lower limbs. The typical rounded back and slumped shoulders that most people have when sitting puts additional strain on the vertebrae, discs and tendons in the lumbar region, and also makes the muscles along your spine, shoulders and neck have to work much harder to hold the weight of the torso and head.

As my chiropractor says, the best thing you can do for your spine and skeletal muscle corset is doing what the human spine is evolutionary intended to do: walk. Walking is the most natural position for the spine, and the one that makes it most robust against injury. It leads to an even and well-balanced weight distribution from the soles of our feet up to the crown of the head and sort of “normalizes” the entire posture after periods of sitting. Even a moderate pace is sufficient to produce health benefits such as an improved blood circulation and muscle tonus. In addition, walking has been found to reduce blood pressure, the levels of stress hormones in the body, and the overall risk of chronic disease. In addition, walking puts only minimal vibrational stress on the joints and spine compared to running or jumping. Instead it improves the fluid flow and retention in your discs, your spine’s shock absorbers. By doing this it helps reduce muscular tension and misalignments and gives your body a full posture reset with time.

So in order to finally get some relief for my sciatica and the associated symptoms I decided that I would do just that: walk.

I started on a sunny and pleasantly warm evening with my favorite route around the little lake and through the parks close to where I live. I made several detours to give my body enough time to enjoy this natural way of moving in the warm evening sunshine. I tracked my route with a neat little app that also gave me useful additional details about the distance, speed, pace, fluid consumption and burnt calories (even though the latter didn’t matter to me at all). When I got back home after more than an hour I felt uplifted and energized and the most pain-free I had been in days. I couldn’t wait to repeat my walk the next day, and even if it were only to get my mind on other things than my sciatica.

From then on, I added another hour every day, and another green line on the walking map in my tracker app. After 4 days I noticed that the trapped-nerve-feeling in my leg was gone. On day 6 my vertigo was barely noticeable anymore, not only when I was walking, but all throughout the day. I couldn’t believe how quick and easily I had been able to reduce the symptoms that had persisted for weeks before. Every step I took was literally one towards healing.

Don’t get me wrong: walking is not a universal cure-all remedy that will spirit off any health problem once and for all. I know my sciatica and back pain are not entirely and forever gone; in fact I see them as a reminder from my body to never forget to make my health my number one priority. But walking turned out to become one of the most nurturing and rewarding practices I ever cultivated.

But the most remarkable changes didn’t happen on the physical level but on the inside.

I very quickly noticed that I didn’t perceive my daily 1-hour-walk as a point on my to-do list. It was rather like my personal self-care ritual at the end of every day. Walking made my head clear and my heart still (although it made my pulse go up). It took me to places and hidden corners I had never consciously noticed before, even though they were right around the corner of my house. I got to enjoy magnificent sunsets, fierce rain showers that came out of nowhere and drenched me to the skin, smiles from strangers I met along the way, and the clearest, most nurturing breaths I had taken in weeks. I walked with eyes wide open, taking in everything I passed by and mindfully observing all the little things that are often overlooked.

Except for two omissions, I completed my 1-hour-walk on every single day, sometimes even longer. On one of the two days I skipped a storm was raging and it was raining cats and dogs, on the other I fell asleep on the sofa after a 4-hour standup paddling tour I had done before, and when I woke up it dark outside and too late to walk. Taken together, I walked more than 197 km in a total of 39 hours. That means I spent more than one and a half days out of the last 30 days just walking.

There’s a saying that it takes 30 days of repeating a new activity to make it a habit. So if I’m lucky I have gotten so used to my 1-hour walk by now that it will stay a natural process, and, most importantly, an indispensable tool towards my healing that I will always have right at hand – or rather, right at my feet.

I invite you to try it for yourself. It doesn’t matter if you walk for an hour or for 10 minutes, it doesn’t matter how fast or slowly you go, or whether you walk or run or dance. Wherever your steps may take you, make sure to take them consciously and mindfully. And who knows: you might as well find yourself along the way.

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