As a birthday present this year, I gave myself a full physical check-up, and as a part of it, I went for an MRI of my spine yesterday. This was something I wanted to do for a while, as I knew something was going on in my lumbosacral and my neck, but never got around to it and honestly, the idea of being trapped in that machine for almost an hour scared me. But, after the dull and sometimes piercing pain in my lower back started to be more frequent, I decided it's time and, regardless of the discomfort and a small anxiety attack I had in that machine (I almost walked out due to restraints and small space), I am happy I did it as now I have answers to so many questions. Answers only those scans can give.
Mine showed a cervical disc protrusion which did not surprise me at all, one in my lumbar which I also kind of knew about (felt it), and something I had no idea I had - a unilateral (meaning only on one side) fusion of the transverse process (the bit that sticks out on both sides of your vertebrae) of the lowest lumbar vertebra to the sacrum called Bertolotti's syndrome. It’s congenital and, it seems, not that uncommon at all.
Of course I had no idea I had this - X-Ray vision is not one of my superpowers nor is any of the specialists I have seen. My symptoms were consistent with SI joint inflammation, and this is, apparently, a common misdiagnosis. The truth is, no doctor can make a definitive diagnosis without an MRI scan, they can only make assumptions based on symptoms. One of the great parts of living in 21st century are the technical advancements like all those fancy machines that can look beyond the skin and let us know what's going on. So, why not use them?
The bad news
Because of the fused bit, the mobility of lumbosacral is limited, causing the compensation at upper vertebra and discs, especially L4-L5, so it's no surprise this is where I have a disc protrusion as well and this will continue to deteriorate if I’m not super mindful. But, I see this new found condition as a blessing and an invitation to research more, learn more and be more mindful with my body, on and off the mat.
The good news
My symptoms are now mild and I do hope it stays that way, and the doctor who examined my scans said I have a healthy spine, regardless of the condition. I could have shown scoliosis which is a common symptom, more degeneration of lumbar discs etc, but, thankfully, none of that is true. My body is strong and I am grateful for yoga and for asana practice, as in terms of physical exercise, that is the only constant in my life for the past two decades. But, I am also grateful I am not practicing asana the way I did ten or more years ago. If I did, the reality might be very different. The truth is, there is so many asanas which are harmful more than beneficial, especially when there is a pathology involved (and let’s face it - most of us have some).
When I started teaching teacher training courses, I started questioning everything I have learned about yoga thus far, and have found my own path lit with knowledge - checked facts, research and constant study of how our bodies work and move as well as experience from my own practice and from my teaching. There is so much I have taken out of my practice as well as my teachings in the past decade, and I believe that switching to a more mindful practice and less form-based have helped me stay healthy and injury-free. Asana is a tool, and a tool can be used to make something or to break something. The only question is - what do you choose when you step on that mat?