Finding Strength

The following is a revised edit of a personal essay I wrote back in 2014. This was during my pre-yoga teacher days! Yoga and finding my strength again were prominent topics for me at the time. I had experienced chronic illness in the past (Epstein Barr Virus more than once and Chronic Fatigue) and at the time of writing, I was only a few years into living with Osteoarthritis. As part of the explorative and reflective process, I interviewed Eben, John, Luigia and Steve as part of an assessment for university studies. I invite you to read through it and then reflect on your thoughts regarding strength and how you relate to it today.


Sweat is threatening to trickle into my eye as I teeter on my Reebok yoga mat. Steve, our class instructor asks, “Are you shaking and baking?”

My body replies with trembling arms and the heat of working muscles as I reset and attempt the Crow pose again. Crouching on the mat, I start with my palms to the ground, fingers splaying wide like roots. I adjust my triceps to brace against the inside of my knees and then I try to tip my body weight forward. The aim is to resemble a crow with my bent legs as wings. I get one foot off the ground, as do most of us in the class of baby birds this morning.

Crow Pose 2014

At times I wondered if I would find my strength again, so I could do things like yoga.
My perception of it altered when I became sick.
It lead me to re-evaluate what strength is. Furthermore, what is it to someone who has a chronic medical condition?

Physical energy was something I already associated with strength.
Being chronically ill meant I found new indicators of strength, such as the absence of prolonged mental and physical fatigue. I also discovered perseverance was an ally. When you’re learning to adjust to how many “spoons” (see The Spoon Theory) are required for something, it’s inevitable a setback will occur when you test yourself too far. But, you keep trying and eventually find the balance in certain things.

It’s also been a learning curve in finding the right balance of treatment plans.
I imagine my condition would have been exacerbated if I listened to the guidance of a few medical practitioners. Second, third, fourth opinions, and seeking alternative therapies made a difference for me.

Right now, things are good. However, my adult life has been a rollercoaster ride, trying to find a constant feeling of strength again. The possibility of a relapse lingers in the back of my mind. There were times when my energy levels flickered like a light bulb with its switch between on and off. There were longer periods where the metaphorical light was on, but if I exceeded the limits there would be a blackout. I would hibernate from physical activity as a result, sometimes for months. Such is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

I was online one day and asked a severe Fibromyalgia (FM) sufferer in her late fifties to share her thoughts on strength. Luigia has been living with FM for many years and experienced moments so severe that she wanted to give up on life.
You would not think it when looking at this woman with burgundy hair, a glowing complexion and smile to match. It’s an invisible illness where sufferers look copacetic on the outside,but feel awful inside, like CFS.

Fibromyalgia is Chronic Fatigue’s unwanted house guest that, for a number of people, has moved in permanently. Imagine an ache or nerve pain in your shoulder. Now imagine that encompassing eighty to ninety percent of your body. Luigia experiences this pain daily.

She shared with me, “In a nutshell – it’s my deep spiritual connection, and my love for my daughter and grandchildren.” So, her strength is not physical, but in faith and family.

Meditating on Luigia’s life with chronic conditions and then comparing it to my own brush with Fibro in 2012-13, I feel that no one can ever grasp the full extent each person endures physically and emotionally with a chronic illness. While there are similarities in symptoms, we all have a different experience with it through the body and mind.

In contrast, a person without chronic conditions can fall sick or get an acute condition and experience their own health challenges. I say this as I think of Eben Le Roux, a 6’3’’ South African strongman and my personal trainer. About seven years ago when I was in the middle of CFS, I would have laughed at the thought of training with a guy that can pull a 24 tonne prime mover with his bare hands and raw strength.

Photo courtesy of Eben Le Roux (2016) and sponsor, Urban Muscle.

One morning at the gym, Eben was telling me in his thick accent, “I had injured my back quite terribly … [it] knocked me back for like a year … I got to the point where I was like, I’m gonna have to find something else to do here.” He had torn the soft tissue in his lumbar.

I wondered if he stopped training at that time, so I asked, “Did you keep mobile, even when you had conditions that were preventing you from doing what you usually did, you still stayed active?”

“The thing is that you’ve gotta be motivated,”
he replied. “If you’re a motivated person and you get a setback, the first thing you say to yourself is how am I gonna deal with this?
You don’t go ah it’s all over and just lay down.”

I noticed a similarity that day between Eben and Luigia. Despite their differences in physical health, both had motivational strength to keep going. Both also sought medical advice.

When something is wrong, we turn to health professionals to make us better.
On Thursday after work, I shared my musings with John, my Osteopath. Did he think strength resided in the physical fitness of a body, or in the mind that drives the body? So, with his skilful hands working on my most recent set of knotted back muscles and misalignments, we chatted away about strength.

As a result of observing changing pain patterns, John’s perception of strength had altered in recent years. “I think strength is figuring out what your body can and can’t cope with pain-wise. Sometimes it’s in certain systems and not others, but playing with those thresholds and playing with how to amplify or how to exaggerate pain, in a safe setting, so your body can actually justify it and say it is okay.”

“So,” I postulated, “I’m just thinking … in finding strength through the pain threshold, you also find your body’s strength?”

“Absolutely,” John says as he presses on my right shoulder. “Coincidentally, the two work hand in hand.”

It reminded me of Eben and how he tested his limitations while injured. If his back injury flared, then he felt the pain threshold John described. The same almost applied to me. If I tried to do some regular form of exercise, a 5km walk for example, I would find my threshold when my body protested with fatigue and muscle aches. Sadly I paid in lapses because the fatigue and muscle pain would hit like a freight train after a seemingly normal walk. I learned to listen to my body and anticipate a burn out.

“So, it goes hand in hand, the physical strength and the mental strength,” I mused through the face hole of John’s treatment table.

“I think you have to face something physically destructive that you beat to actually gain that mental strength, to know that you have more than you expected,” John replied. “That’s my impression.”

I have witnessed some inspirational comebacks from injury or illness and can agree with John’s last comment. Sometime ago, I saw a YouTube video doing the rounds on Facebook. It was of a disabled US veteran by the name of Arthur Boorman. He was told he would live out his life with a disability due to his many parachute landings in service. The video displays a man using a crutch on each arm and large black leg braces to walk around.

Arthur Boorman’s Story
Video owner credit and reference is supplied at the bottom of this blog post.

By the end of the video which is less than five minutes, a cover adaptation of Coldplay’s Fix You crescendos to the footage of Arthur running along a path with determined face. Bold words follow saying, “NEVER GIVE UP.”

He had given up for a time, due to physical damage. Then his mental strength and determination brought his body back to mobility, with an addition of about 63.5kgs in weight loss. It was achieved predominantly through the practice of yoga and the support of someone believing in him.

My class has finished for the morning and even though I didn’t manage the Crow today, I may get there yet! Scrubbing sweat off my face with a bright orange towel,
I walked up to Steve and asked him if he had ever heard of Arthur, to which he replied he had seen the same video. He sat down on the gym stage he occasionally uses. During class he likes to wander the room, checking we’re remembering to draw our shoulders down or flex our toes toward our shins. I asked him if he could impart some thoughts on Arthur’s journey and my own.

“Some people, when told or they discover they’ve got an illness just accept it.
They don’t do anything about it. There is accepting and then accepting. We seem to think that is it and tolerate it. Others have the view that they’re not going to let it take hold of their life. I can beat this!”

I thanked Steve for his insight and as I walked from class with mat in hand, I ran back across everyone’s thoughts on strength and where they found it. Then, one other thing that Steve had mentioned came into my mind.

He had said, “We all think the truth is the same for everyone, but it’s not. It’s a personal thing. It’s an individual thing and that’s what Yoga is.”

I understood what he meant. Steve tells us to look to ourselves and what we are doing. Why should we worry that the person to our left is stretching further, or the person to the right is poised in balance while we wobble? We are all on our own mission to find strength in what that means to us, our truth. While I looked at other ideas and views, it still comes back to what does strength mean to me? I have learned that I can find physical strength, albeit through a slow process, but to truly be strong, the power source is within my mind.


Works Cited

Miserandino, Christine. “The Spoon Theory.” But You Don’t Look Sick. Web.
https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

Page, Diamond Dallas. “Never, Ever Give Up. Arthur’s Inspirational Transformation!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX9FSZJu448

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Can I do Yoga? (Part 3)

Happy International Day of Yoga! This international day is relatively young. The twenty-first of June was declared as the International Day of Yoga in December 2014 by United Nations. There are many celebrations happening globally across the week. Hopefully you have the opportunity to attend an event near you.

Yoga is something that can be practiced by everybody and every body. Tonight, I’m finishing off my blog series ‘Can I do Yoga?’

This question can be fuelled by various doubts. These doubts could come from each time you see someone doing yoga better than what you imagine doing. There are memes for this line of thought. But seriously, who are you doing yoga for? You. It’s your body and mind journey and you just happen to be doing your yoga with a larger community of yogis and yoginis all practicing at their individual level of ability.

I have seen people with a range of bodies and abilities give yoga a try and I’ve spoken with people who say they haven’t stopped because of the difference it made to them. Here are some examples of different yogis and yoginis to illustrate how accessible yoga can be.

International Day of Yoga 2017 updated image

The photos have been kindly contributed by people in the global yoga community. You can see Nanna and Nonno doing chair yoga in one photo and yoga running in the family in another photo, a prenatal yogini, plus some lovely yoga instructors. Each photo has its own story. I will link these contributors at the end of this post so you can find out about their yoga story by checking out their pages.

A larger, well established project of ‘What a Yogi Looks Like’ is out there.

Simply visit Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Accessible Yoga to see many other yogis and yoginis showing the world that yoga is available to anyone. You may not see someone in mainstream media who you can relate to right now with the same body proportions, mental or physical conditions, or even a financial situation like yours, but we are here as an example of a yoga community that is diverse in its teachers and students and you can do some yoga too.

So get out there and give it a go! You may want to try a couple of different classes as there are various forms of yoga and while teachers may have trained together, they each bring their own personality and style to their classes. In Australia, there are a number of classes being offered for free or by donation this week. Yoga Australia has a page with International Day of Yoga class options which you can access here. I taught one on Saturday 17 June, which was great!

Have a great week and I hope to post again soon.

 

Photo contributors:

Top left: Lindsay from Wave Wellness

Top right: Bonnie, a yoga instructor in Ontario

Middle left: Allie from Yoga HQ

Middle right: Angela from Angela Lyn

Bottom left: Maisie from Grace Yoga Online

Bottom right: Silvia from Silvia Hatha Yoga

 

Can I do Yoga? (Part 2)

When I asked my friends on Facebook what question they would want answered for Q & A April, one friend supplied this:

Note to Sare

In Part 1, I wrote about a couple of different yoga bodies because not all yoga bodies are equally represented on Facebook and You Tube. If I were left to write posts on the diversity of practicing yogis, we could be here a while, but because I love yoga diversity and making yoga accessible to as many people as I can, there will be a Part 3 to this blog post series that focuses specifically on that.

For Part 2, I wanted to cover what is essential for a beginner starting their yoga practice. Is it essential to be learning to balance on your head as a beginner? Let’s have a look at this part of the question.

Before we get started, a public safety reminder: Remember it is important to have the all clear from your GP or Allied Health Professional, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions, before starting any new practice. So, if you’re feeling inspired to try something new after reading this, get your medical clearance first.

What are the yoga essentials?

I think that this question is like throwing pebbles into a lake and watching multiple ripples flow across the surface. Each pebble is someone’s interpretation of how yoga should be taught and what is vital for a yogi’s progression in their practice. You will come across a number of contributions to the lake and what pebbles you draw back out of the water makes your yoga practice.

I can provide you my insight on the essentials of general yoga practice, only for an example.

Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga is a form of yoga that I’m going to refer to as an example for this blog post. There are many forms of yoga out there, but this one I have been studying and continue to study.

Ashtanga Yoga has eight limbs. For this post we’ll say that a limb equals a step in the practice. Western yoga practices usually pick up at the third step which is Asana – the physical practice of yoga – and fourth step of Pranayama, the breathwork. These are the two main factors that most people focus on as they are combined in a physical practice.

The physical practice is usually completed with meditation in a resting pose or comfortable seated position. Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are the steps that take us into meditation. They involve bringing the attention into the body, focusing the mind and then eventually releasing the focus, being aware and dwelling in the stillness of the mind.

So, when we have done some physical practice with breathing techniques, we’re ready to sit in meditation.

Do we need to do Asana, Pranayama and Meditation?

Is it essential you do the Asana (physical practice)?
Well, if you’re doing some yoga poses, that’s great! You’re getting mobile, building strength through the resistance of your own body weight and stretching muscles in the body that may have become tight from sitting in one position for prolonged periods. Alternatively, you could be stretching tension out of muscles that have been overused through repetitive movement.

Do we need to balance on our heads in physical practice? There are benefits to doing inversions. Some are circulating the blood around our bodies, back from the extremities and encouraging our lymphatic systems to shift toxins, etc. If you cannot do inversions today, you may be able to do them eventually, given the right circumstances. If your body has a medical condition preventing you from doing inversions, such as un-medicated high blood pressure, there are other things you can do to experience benefits from yoga.

Is it essential that you do the Pranayama (breathing)?
Breathing is definitely essential. Even if it’s not one of the breathwork practices, you can still do your normal breathing and practice progressing in and out of the breathwork until you can maintain some of it or all of it. We’re not going to glare at you until you can do 10 rounds of Oceanic Breath with your mouth closed. Breathe how you need to.

Is it essential that you do Meditation?
I have been in classes where people make an escape route for the door when the last floor pose is done and the teacher has said, “Savasana.” Not everyone likes meditation. That’s okay. I think my first thought on this part is: It is essential to exit quietly before people get comfortable in Savasana.

Have you ever found yourself drifting off at night and there’s a bump of a car door outside that shocks you back from the edge of sleep? It’s similar when we drift into a fully relaxed Savasana. We are aware in our relaxed state, but someone jangling their car keys and walking to the door midway through relaxation breaks our meditation.

Meditation has been known to produce benefits in mental wellbeing and there are more studies coming to light on improved mood, mental resilience and so on. Some people are initially put off meditation from what is known as monkey mind, where thoughts flit in and out of your attention, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Practice, usually starting with guided meditations, can help to reduce and calm the cacophony of thoughts.

Is it essential to do the spiritual stuff when it comes to yoga? Can I just do the stretching?

Yoga has evolved greatly from the practices where you could not progress to the next level until you had completely mastered the first. At present, there are still forms of yoga that require a certain structure for it to adhere to its heritage and the knowledge handed down through generations. It’s sometimes referred to as lineage.

If you feel that chanting, mantras or kirtan (singing) are not your thing after listening to it or giving it a go, then discuss it with your teacher. I have had some people attending classes where I will do a brief chant to close the practice. I usually sing in Sanskrit and then speak the translation afterward, so people are aware of what was sung instead of it being completely unknown and irrelevant to them. Some will give it a try, some will stay silent and listen to the sounds. It is their choice and their yoga practice.

Ease into your beginner essentials

Take your time starting out in yoga. Try a few different types of classes. They could be Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, Yin Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Purna Yoga, there’s many options to find the class you like.

Remember the essential basics of movement, breathwork and meditation to start with. There’s many different ways to meditate too, so give a few a try, and if you try a mantra or chant and it’s not your thing, okay. You may find that any of these things may not be right for you now and you may revisit them later. That headstand can be visited later too.

Get out there and try some yoga first and learn what you can do in your body. You may find it’s a body that likes working towards handstands more than a headstand. It might like forward folds more or leg-balancing poses. This is all going back to the diversity in the people that practice yoga and what we can do in our body from one day to the next.

 

Part three of this Q & A April post will follow soon, as a special post titled This is a Yoga Body. It will present a few photos supplied from the yoga community and how we each practice in our own ways.

Thank you for reading!

 

Photo via Visual hunt

Can I do Yoga? (Part 1)

When I asked my friends on Facebook what question they would want answered for Q & A April, one friend supplied this:

Note to Sare

This is a good question to ask.

Many people these days see images and videos of yogis who have a slender, powerful, flexible body and are deterred from giving yoga a go. I can only speculate why there is such a high amount of posts online that build a stereotype of what a yoga body looks like and what a yoga body can do. There are people out there of all shapes and sizes, various ages, genders, nationalities and abilities doing yoga.

The definition of who can do yoga is a lot broader than you may initially think.

Dodgy joints, arthritis, scoliosis. . . Can I really do yoga?

The first thing I have to say is: Ask your doctor or allied healthcare professional.
They have done the medical hard yards to understand bodies and the scope of their ability, and yoga teachers value their input. When I first started practicing yoga over five years ago, I asked my Osteopath and Physiotherapist what I should be careful of and what I could do with my arthritis. I then took that information along to my class and the teacher advised what pose modifications I could make, or which poses I should substitute.

The same goes for “dodgy joints”. In this case, I’ll use the example of joint hypermobility. One common thing that can happen for people with hypermobility in the knees is they can lock back, causing a bowing of the legs, knee discomfort and a risk of damage. With guidance from your health professional, a yoga teacher will be able to assist you with directions to protect your knees or other joints.

While I am on the topic of knees, I am reminded of Arthur Boorman’s story and transformation from being a disabled veteran in leg braces, to reclaiming mobility through the practice of yoga. You can access a short video here on Arthur’s yoga journey.

Yoga as therapy

Yoga is more than a flexible person sitting in an asana (pose) with their feet wrapped behind their head. It is more than being strong and able to balance on your head.

Yoga is a many-faceted practice that enables people to access it from different angles. Anna Pesce was in the headlines in late 2016 when her regular Yoga Therapy sessions made a notable difference for her scoliosis. You can see Anna’s video story here. Yoga Therapy is another limb, or approach, to yoga. Yoga can be a physical therapy as well as an option for psychological therapy and research is continually emerging about the benefits yoga may contribute to these fields.

We all have our individual experience with yoga

While I have supplied some uplifting transformational stories in this post, I need to remind you that we will all have a different experience with our yoga practice. Results you get out of practicing may be different to the friend that practices with you. In yoga, our journey does not belong to the person on the mat next to us. It is our own.

 

Part two of this Q & A April post will follow shortly, covering some essential starting points for practice and discussing whether headstands and other advanced poses matter.

 

Photo credit: ejmc via Visualhunt /  CC BY-SA

Q & A April: How can I start practicing yoga at home on a tight budget?

In this Q & A April blog post response, I’m going to focus on the equipment. First up on the yoga home practice kit is a good mat. You could put a large bath towel on the floor. However, that will only go so far in slip prevention. You wouldn’t want to lose your grip in downward facing dog and turn it into a downward face plant. Also, do you really want to sweat all over your carpet, tiles or wood floors? It’s better to be on a mat.

I said “tight budget”, but a lot of mats seem so expensive.

These days, there are many yoga mats to choose from so it can be as mind boggling as a build-your-own sundae. Do you want a plain vanilla mat or something with all the extras?

A simple mat could start from $15 at something like Target or Kmart. While they do cater to a tight budget, you may not get a good quality mat. Then there’s $89 for a big reversible mat at Lululemon, or even up to $209 for a Manduka PRO purchase online – definitely not a tight budget mat. What I can suggest is first, work out how much you want to spend and then second, look for the qualities of a good mat to fit your price range.

Properties of a good mat are:

  • a non-slip surface,
  • durability (doesn’t dematerialise from regular use),
  • ease of cleaning, and
  • the ability for it to be repurposed or recycled if you want to upgrade in the future.

How much padding?

Some sites may also recommend you choose a mat that is padded enough. My personal preference is a thin mat and to use a folded blanket for cushioning or by folding over one end of the mat.

I have a pilates mat that is about four times thicker than my yoga mat. The reason why I would not use the thicker mat for yoga is while it makes the floor more comfortable, it makes balance more challenging and can put more strain in the wrists. We can all benefit from a little challenge every now and then, but when it risks the stability of the ankle or wrist I am not so keen to use a thicker mat. Mat weight or thickness is a personal preference and I can only offer suggestions. Just remember the adjustments that may need to be made with either choice.

MATerials

From the size of your mat to what it is made of is another thing to think about. PVC mats have been around for a while and they are recommended as the mat you can stick to, instead of slide, yet they are not the most eco-friendly. They do hold together well, but poor quality mats may dematerialise (or wear down) in overused places like where the feet contact the mat in downward facing dog.

Then there is rubber, which is more eco-friendly but might not be friendly for someone with a sensitivity to the stuff. My partner was gifted a rubber mat. You could definitely smell rubber and my hands smelled like rubber after giving it a test run Vinyasa Flow. While I’m on the topic of smell, you also want to ensure the material won’t end up stinking of yoga funk.

Keeping it clean

There’s nothing worse than body odour on a yoga mat. It’s right up there with losing grip on the mat because it’s in need of a good cleaning.

Given an average Vinyasa Flow class can build heat and some sweat by the end of Sun Salutations, you want to clean your mat off after class. A spray bottle of diluted vinegar is good, but it does need time to air dry. There are cleaners for mats out there depending on if you are eco-friendly or wanting to eradicate all germs off the face of the mat. What I have found great is if the mat is washing machine safe. You do not want to put a porous mat in the machine and take it out later, falling apart from the water it absorbed.

Check with the retailer or manufacturer if the mat is safe for an occasional clean in the washing machine, so when you think a bottle and cloth is not doing the job, you can give it some extra care with a proper wash. The mat should be able to go through on a gentle cool cycle with mild detergent. When you take it out, lay it across a clothes airer or on the washing line in the shade.

What do other people recommend for mat selection?

I’ve had a look around online as I don’t regularly buy mats. I have one reliable favourite Reebok mat. It has lasted me for over five years. I don’t even recall where I purchased it, it was that long ago. It may have been one of the locations you can source a Gaiam mat from in the list that follows.

These are names of mat brands that have come up again and again in my online research. Popular buys are:

If you are interested in a Manduka or Jade Harmony yoga mat and live in Canberra, I may be able to source these at a lower price at EMP with our super mat buying powers combined . . . a.k.a. through a bulk order. Contact me for further information if you want to be included.

What do I need after I have a mat?

You may have spent $40 to $90 to get the mat that met your criteria, hopefully one that will last you a while. If you have money left to buy some props, then shop around. Other useful props are: yoga blocks, a yoga strap and a bolster. Before I could afford to purchase them, I used equivalents. So to my readers on a tight budget, here’s an example: use a workout towel instead of a strap or folded blankets in place of a bolster.

The good thing is, if you are being taught by a resourceful yoga teacher, they will assist you in making the necessary adjustments for your practice whether you have a yoga prop or not. A number of yoga studios provide the prop equipment for classes. If you are unsure on what prop alternative could be used at home, it doesn’t hurt to ask the teacher before or after class. We are here to ensure your safe practice of yoga.

 

That is all the time I have tonight to answer this question.

If you want to ask anything relating to this post, please leave a comment below. I hope to be back online again before the end of the month with another Q & A April post.

This month’s image is courtesy of Visualhunt