September is when the Air Force celebrates its birthday! In honor of that, we wanted to share stories from the Air Force members in our tribe on their experiences as service members, yogis and teachers. Below Sean Miller shares his story about how yoga helps him manage chronic pain in his back and why he continues to spread the benefits of yoga and meditation with other in the military community.
The Journey Begins
I began yoga the way many Western men began yoga over the last several decades: spousal coercion. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I viewed yoga as a fad that skinny girls in skimpy clothes participated in for the sake of likes on their social media feeds. Needless to say, I didn’t have a desire to get involved with yoga and I openly denounced it as another trend as many western men continue to do. However, the universe has a funny sense of cosmic karma.
If you rewind the story a few years to 2015, you’ll find a young, invincible Sean who was active in a number of physical pursuits. As a younger man, I grew up using my body to play soccer, to rock climb, to backpack and to run around the Rocky Mountains with no end in sight. Not much changed once I entered the Air Force. I stayed active and I thought I was invincible, as most young men do.
Long before my wife approached me about her yoga teacher training, I suffered what seemed to be a simple, short-term injury. While stationed in Mississippi I was in the weight room deadlifting and was struck with blinding pain which radiated from my knees, along my spine and into the base of my skull. I dropped the weight and spent several minutes on the floor wondering what happened. “Did I screw up my breathing? Did my form get sloppy?” I wondered to myself. It didn’t take long to realize that something was off. I made my way to the hospital where I was quickly diagnosed with a Thunderclap Headache. The medical team spent a full day looking for a “brain bleed” or any signs of hemorrhaging of blood vessels supplying blood to my brain. Numerous CT scans and several spinal taps later, the medical team came up with nothing to support their initial diagnosis of a Thunderclap Headache. I was quickly discharged and prescribed what I lovingly refer to as “Vitamin-M” (Motrin) and sent on my way. While the pain in my head quickly subsided there was a new, near-constant discomfort in my lower back. I shrugged it off as a symptom of the spinal tap and used more caution in my daily physical activity.
What I thought was a simple injury that would heal with time turned out to be a condition that I had to constantly monitor and manage with painkillers. At 24 years old, this wasn’t a very bright outlook for the future of my health. On a scale of one to ten, the ache in my back ranged from four to seven on a daily basis. My job compounded this issue due to the number of hours I spent sitting at a desk. (It’s the new cancer, have you heard?) I spent the remainder of our time in Mississippi wondering when my lower back would start feeling “normal” again.
Later in our marriage, after we moved to Fort Bragg, my wife approached me and said she was interested in becoming a yoga teacher. I was initially skeptical but I made a conscious choice to support her in what I thought would be something that would have little impact on me. After she started training, I began to notice how passionate she is about the work, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled that she had found something so profound. This was a portable job that would allow her to continue to serve others and support our family financially everywhere we went.
I was less-than-thrilled when a few months into her training she arrived home and told me she needed to start practicing her newly acquired skills on others. Since I was the only other living being in our house without a tail and a body covered with fur, that meant I was on the hook to be her guinea pig.
Our first few sessions were really rough. I had a lot of feedback to offer, to which she didn’t always take kindly. She started off her languaging and phrases way too woo-woo, talking about the Earth and feeling energy and a bunch of other nonsense. She was sometimes unclear when she wanted us to move from one posture to another. I asked a lot of questions while we were in postures because to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure if we were doing them right. But it wasn’t my feedback that really ruined our sessions; it was my increasing back pain.
The moment we began practicing together I discovered tightness and discomfort throughout my entire body. Yoga was painful for me. And here was my wife, telling me to “feel into the stretch” and to “enjoy the sensations in my body.” I wanted to do neither one of those things. My back hurt. My legs hurt. My hips hurt. And I was infuriated when she giggled at my lack of being able to touch my toes. Twenty minutes into our very first practice session together, I quit. Pain, anger and frustration drove me from the mat.
The story could’ve ended there. But here’s the rub: I love my wife. She’s the greatest and I was so proud of her for working so hard at becoming a yoga teacher. So, despite a rocky first session, I returned to the mat. I mumbled, I grumbled and I definitely took my frustration and anger out on my wife by trying to correct her teaching or by pointing out flaws. But I kept coming back to support my wonderful partner.
Several months of on-again off-again yoga practice — at no more than 30 minutes a practice before the discomfort in my body got the better of me — and I noticed some change in my back. I had more flexibility — I could touch my toes, barely — and my pain seemed somewhat lessened. Hitting this patch of smooth sailing and modest improvement however meant that life felt it was time to test me to make sure I really wanted this change.
The Turning Point
One morning before going to church I bent down to get something from a cabinet. And that’s when I triggered a spasm in my back similar to what I felt in Mississippi. I immediately knew something was wrong. A trip to our doctor and several appointments later, I was informed that I had disc desiccation and protrusion of the discs between L4 and L5 and L5 and S1. (This is medical talk for a diagnosis of “crushed discs.”) My diagnosis left me dumbfounded. It appeared that one of the discs slipped out of its place and pressed against the nerves running the length of my spine, causing blinding, intense pain. I was in shock; how could a “kid” in his 20s have crushed discs? I was never in a combat accident, bad car accident, or experienced any serious trauma that I could recount. I had no “cool” story to tell about why my lower back looked like that of a 90-year-old.
The doctor explained that he sees this condition frequently in young men who have been active and accumulated small and seemingly benin injuries to their lower backs throughout their young adulthood. I was prescribed opioids to help ease the pain and informed that I would have to manage this condition with painkillers. While the drugs helped reduce the pain some, they moreso made me foggy and irritable.
After that appointment, I spent a week in hell. By the end of the week I felt like the pain would never end. I’m sure I was hell to deal with all week because by Friday night my wife finally said, “Enough. We’ve tried managing your pain your way and it’s not working. Now we’re doing things my way.” At that point, I was desperate and willing to try anything.
That’s how I found myself on my back on my bedroom floor with my wife gently stretching my legs and hips. Together, we spent about half an hour gently and slowly stretching out my legs. I experienced pain in my back, but my wife insisted that we stretch out my legs and hips. I was in no state to argue, so I offered guidance to my wife on what I could handle as she methodically moved my legs and feet around.
She guided me through each stretch by asking me to breathe deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Using her physical body to help stretch mine, she asked me to notice the movement of her belly every time she took a breath. Tears streamed down my face as she firmly held my legs in various positions.
When she finally finished, she laid my legs back down onto the floor. She sat down next to me and asked, “What’s your pain level at right now?”
To my own surprise and relief I responded, “Five.”
It wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t a ten. That’s when I started to get serious about yoga.
We spent the next week doing the same gentle yoga together at the end of the day, which helped me sleep through the night and come down off a long day. From that point on I stuck with the guinea-pig-yoga sessions and didn’t leave the mat angry and upset when the entire practice felt uncomfortable. I continued to offer my wife feedback on her teaching style, but I refrained from taking my anger out on her when my body was in pain.
In October of 2016, my wife graduated from her yoga teacher training program. The following day she began teaching at a brand new studio that opened near our home. I showed up to as many classes of hers I could because for a while, I was the only one. I wanted to support my wife and despite my hesitations, I discovered heated yoga was a boon for my back; it warmed up my body much quicker, allowing me to get more out of my practice while at the same time reducing my risk of furthering my injury.
I consistently practiced with my wife through the end of the year. In January 2017, I deployed. It took me all of 48 hours before I asked my wife over Skype if we could do daily yoga sessions together. There was no way I was going to make it through the deployment without yoga to help manage the pain in my back. So every day for two months, my wife would wake up at 0445 to teach me yoga via Skype, just as I was coming off my duty day. We’d spend a total of 45 minutes together on the call, her guiding me through a practice, me doing the actual postures. We found a rhythm and I gave her feedback on what poses I enjoyed and that offered me relief from my pain.
Together, we created a sequence that I continued to do every day on my own once my wife could no longer get on Skype with me, due to the Daylight Savings time change in the States. Without fail, I would get on the travel yoga mat my wife lovingly sent me for Valentine’s Day (that I was a little too excited to receive) and practice our sequence. Yoga is what kept me from falling apart from pain during my deployment. It’s what allowed me to manage my pain without opioids or over-the-counter painkillers. It’s what helped me improve my flexibility and achieve noticeable improvements in the gym.
It’s both dramatic and true to say, “Yoga changed my life.” I often avoid saying this phrase to others until I have the opportunity to share my full story. Yoga did, in fact, change my life. It’s thanks to the simple, straight-forward style of yoga my wife learned through Warriors at Ease that I’m able to manage the injury in my back and live a relatively pain-free life. I don’t need a daily dose of painkillers to get through the day; what I do need is at least 20 minutes on my yoga mat. The sequence my wife and I created is what helps me stay loose and prevents me from triggering a spasm in my back.
I notice when I go a few days without yoga. It’s not pretty. And I’ve noticed since I’ve started a consistent yoga practice that:
- I’m more flexible
- I’m able to workout without fear of triggering a back spasm
- I feel better in general
- I’m able to manage what should be debilitating pain
I’ve talked to doctors and physical therapists who are shocked at how well I’m able to function, despite the injury in my back. I have no fear when hitting the gym hard, running around a field with my troops, or taking a fall on a climbing route. I tell them it’s because of my yoga practice. Without knowing my story, you would likely never guess that I have desiccated discs in my back and that at the age of 24 I was told the only “treatment” was painkillers and fusing my spine. Thankfully that’s not how my story ended.
Instead, I now enjoy all the things I love to do — working out, traveling, rock climbing — without fear of furthering my injury. And, much to my wife’s delight, I’ve become a convert of yoga and prosthelytize it’s benefits to my fellow military members every chance I get. I encourage my PT Leaders to include it on our monthly PT calendar; I encourage my fellow gym goers to include a yoga class in their weekly schedule; I talk with others after yoga classes who seem on the edge about returning, offering them what I’ve learned in my experience, and how I’ve seen this practice change the course of my life.
Yoga is by no means a magic pill and it’s not a silver bullet; it took months of consistent practice before I really started to notice a change in my back. Still, with dedicated practice, my pain did decrease and my mobility did increase. It’s through devoted application that someone experiencing chronic pain can find relief, like I did.
Sean Miller is a Captain in the Air Force and is currently stationed in Japan. He practices yoga on a weekly basis at home and attends yoga classes offered by his wife on base.
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