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.
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.
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.
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.
Miserandino, Christine. “The Spoon Theory.” But You Don’t Look Sick. Web.
Page, Diamond Dallas. “Never, Ever Give Up. Arthur’s Inspirational Transformation!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.