As I was coming out of Urdhva Dhanurasana (also known as Wheel, a backbending posture) the other day, I rolled up to take Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and felt a strange discomfort in my lower back. Saraswathi noticed my expression and asked what was up. I told her my back was uncomfortable and she said I should take Paschimottanasana and that she'd help.
So, I leaned forward and wrapped my hands around my feet as she gently pressed on my back to bring me further into the posture. I felt better afterwards and chalked it up to a little random muscle pain.
When I woke up the next day, my back and hips were extremely stiff and I had a nagging pain in my lower back. That was the day of our first led class.
In practice I took much longer to get warmed up than usual and could feel that something was wrong the whole time... In a led class, you proceed as far in the series as you can (I couldn't get past Marichyasana D that day) and then you wait for those who can proceed to finish, to join back in for backbending and the finishing postures. As I came out of Urdhva Dhanurasana once more, there was that pain again. It nagged me through the finishing postures so much that I could barely put my feet on the floor in Halasana (Plow), which has become relatively easy for me lately. I finished practice feeling very much "off" and was beginning to become concerned.
I took the rest of the day very easy and pretty much just lied around hoping to feel better. When I woke the next morning though, the pain had become more than just nagging. I couldn't take Balasana (Childs Pose) without experiencing pain. Lying down was uncomfortable; sitting up, worse. The only thing I could do that didn't give me pain was some gentle reclining twists that I had read about from Yoga Journal online. As the pain did not go away, I became more and more concerned. "Is this going to be the end of my trip?" Was all I kept thinking.
Trying not to panic, I e-mailed one of my teachers from the Yoga Sanctuary, who I knew had a background in Yoga Therapy. She gave me some helpful advice, but primarily suggested that I speak with Saraswathi, as she was my primary teacher for the moment. As I came to class the next day, I explained to Saraswathi what had happened; she smiled knowingly, and said "you take it slow for a couple of days, only do what you can, and no backbending until Saturday."
My practice that day was slow and sloppy. I was stopped after Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank), the counter-pose to Paschimottanasana, the two of which are the first two postures of the Primary series. As I warmed up I began to feel a little better, but not much. In finishing and going home, I found myself in much the same position as I was the day before. I was trying to stay positive, but seemed to be fighting a losing battle at that time. Not wanting to just give up, I continued to go to practice.
After about the third day, I began to feel some genuine relief. It's been two days since then and while I'm not exactly right back where I was, the pain is gone and I'm feeling much, much better.
The whole ordeal seems to have left my hips and hamstrings a little tighter than they were, but that's okay; I'm putting in daily work to open them up again and have learned some valuable lessons.
First, though it's said regularly in yoga, sometimes we need a little reminder; listen to your body! If you're feeling pain or discomfort, particularly in any of the sensitive areas like the lower back, knees, neck and so on, you should probably back off and take it easy until you are no longer experiencing that pain.
Second, it can be a good thing to slow down your practice. Ashtanga is a fast-paced system, where we attempt to co-ordinate breath and movement. It can be tempting to hurry some of the movements to keep up with our breath, especially once we've really warmed up. It is always important however to be mindful of the posture - to work at creating awareness of your body the whole way through, and to not sacrifice that awareness for anything.
One of the best things about Ashtanga is that it is a fixed series. We do the same poses in the same order every time - this allows us to have a clear sense of progression, as well as creating a meditative state through repetition. This repetition-induced meditation can also be dangerous however, as it can lull a less experienced practitioner into complacency; just going through the motions without first creating that all-important awareness.
Since this experience, I find myself slowing down, taking an extra breath here and there if I need it and making that little bit of extra effort to be sure that I am always listening to my body. It has allowed me to bring a new level of enjoyment to my practice.