20+ Years as a “Long-Hauler”: Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)

According to the Mayo Clinic Website (note the comments in bold are mine):

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that lasts for at least six months (or 20 years) and that can’t be fully explained by an underlying medical condition. The fatigue worsens with physical or mental activity but doesn’t improve with rest.

Other characteristic symptoms include:

  • Sleep that isn’t refreshing–YES, DAILY!
  • Difficulties with memory, focus, and concentration–YAH!
  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing —SOMETIMES
  • Doctors who have no answers after spending 10 minutes on your case or any idea as to your past accomplishments, saying “maybe you’re a little depressed.”

This condition is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). Sometimes it’s abbreviated as ME/CFS. The most recent term proposed is systemic exertional intolerance disease (SEID)–HUGE ISSUE!

The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is unknown, although there are many theories ‚ÄĒ ranging from viral infections to psychological stress. Some experts believe chronic fatigue syndrome might be triggered by a combination of factors. –suspect a severe case of viral pneumonia in Japan followed by salmonella on Bali (travel isn’t all glamour ūüėČ

There’s no single test to confirm a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. You may need a variety of medical tests to rule out other health problems that have similar symptoms–and spend all your time, money, and sanity schlepping around from doc to doc, dept to dept. Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome focuses on improving symptoms–AND IS TOTALLY LAME. They all follow the same ineffectual protocols–it’s groupthink run amok.

While COVID-19 is a terrible tragedy on so many levels, for the first time, I feel optimistic and less alone. Suddenly, the news is rife with stories of people suffering from many of the same symptoms I’ve struggled to manage for decades. It’s hard to watch: many of them are young, like I was, suddenly debilitated by fatigue in their prime on the cusp of great things: careers, marriages, starting a family.

When I say “debilitating fatigue” what do I mean? The kind of fatigue that prevents you from hopping on a train for an hour to catch the women’s doubles at Wimbledon, or even take a shower. It’s a kind of tired that leaves you stranded in the dairy aisle of Cub because you don’t know how you’re going to carry the milk all the way to the front of the store and back to your car. If you do push through it, you know it will mean an hour’s nap once you get back home. It’s the kind of fatigue that seems so irrational to your friends and family, they start to lose their grip right along with you. You’re forced to say “no” to so much that pretty soon the invitations stop coming altogether.

Approximately 1-2 million Americans suffer from CFS/ME. According to the article “The Tragedy of the Post-COVID ‘Long Haulers'” (Health.Harvard.edu) that number could double in the next two years due to the COVID “Long Haulers” / “Long COVID” sufferers. Trust me when I say, our healthcare system IS NOT ready for this. My heart breaks knowing so little has been accomplished on the CFS/ME front in the past decades and the frustrations the afflicted will face.¬†

Why so little progress? First, I think many sufferers are women. All the Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine docs I saw were men. What they had in common: terrible listeners, very “busy and important.” Secondly, CFS/ME patients are lousy advocates. Why? They’re TOO TIRED!¬† It may take half a day to get ready for an appointment and another half day’s nap to recover. All that to hear the same BS and see the same lab-coat shoulder shrugs.

In one of my final appointments, the doc tried to write me a script for Prozac after 5 mins. My husband started cross-examining: What’s the “end game”–is she on it forever? Why do you think she’s depressed? To this day, we’re not sure if we stormed out or were thrown out of his office!

Luckily, somewhere along the way, when I still had some energy, I had taken a few yoga classes. I found myself in a situation where my energy improved somewhat (as it always does with an international move–more on that later) and I could commit to a weekly yoga class. It became clear to me that I got a hella lot more out of yoga classes than doctor appointments. Slowly, my health improved, but in fits and starts.

Remember, the “C” in CFS is for “Chronic.” It never goes away; it’s a condition that has to be “managed.” I basically fired all my doctors and started managing it myself, primarily through yoga, and not just any yoga.

One of the most frustrating symptoms for a former athlete is the post-exercise malaise which is perhaps why experts are starting to refer to it as systemic exertional intolerance (SEID). Luckily my first teacher was a classically trained yogi and Zen Buddhist in Singapore. She was in her 60’s and strict. She did a lot of seated meditation and it showed in her approach. She knew that the “exercises” were to be done as meditations, not gymnastical performances. There was plenty of time to phase in and out of the pose, downshift if need be, and integrate between poses. There was no distracting music or mirrors around. The point was to reside in your body (not let your mind drift) and find the “seat of the pose,” the asana, and most importantly, accept how it was for you that day. No comparisons to last week or last year.

When I got back to the States, I was shocked at what was passing for “yoga” and couldn’t find a class. I finally came across a Kripalu teacher on Cape Cod. If you would’ve told me when I could barely shower and shop that I’d enroll in a 1-month residential yoga training of all things yoga from 6am to 10pm, I wouldn’t have even dared to dream. I became certified in 2001. Confession: there was a break in the afternoon, so I could catch a nap; otherwise, I don’t think I would have made it.

I started teaching yoga full-time and never really went back to my “professional” pre-yoga life. Turns out, CFS/ME had taught me a lot. First and foremost, you have to have a strong purpose, a mission for your life that, against all odds, gets you out of bed in the morning. My first mission was “heal thyself.” Accepting that I’d maybe be lucky to reclaim 80% of my previous energy was a big part of that. The mission is never over, as I don’t dare grow complacent. I’m always trying out the latest “life hacks” to boost my energy and clarity; and, I’ve even invented a few on my own. I relish sharing what I’ve learned with others, especially those with similar symptoms who might be dealing with anything from Lyme disease to fibromyalgia or just general burnout.¬† I have a lot more patience and empathy for sick people and the difficulties of aging. I felt I had more in common w/ ninety-somethings in my 30’s.

I also learned that a good shot of natural adrenaline does wonders. Travel has always been my jam. I crave the buzz of being out of my comfort zone–a buzz I used to enjoy as a lifestyle pre-CFS. Now, I get to share some of my favorite destinations with my students. Yes, I do get nervous contemplating how people are entrusting me with their vacations, some of the most important days of their year; but, it’s the good kind of nervous–those butterflies keep me energized. I also treat myself to the occasional trip to Japan to re-immerse myself in the language. You just don’t have time to be tired in Tokyo: 30 million people in a bizarre vortex where the ancient and futuristic intersect. I throw myself into the mayhem, feed off the flow and go-go-go. I do “pay” for it though when I return, but to me, it’s worth it.¬†

Conversely, I’ve learned to protect my energy and avoid things that drain me. I view energy as a finite quantity to be “spent” carefully. Bureaucracy, in-the-box thinking, and unnecessary paperwork are best avoided; so are social-climbers, one-uppers, and fixed mind-setters.¬† I have come to realize that “busy” and “important” are not the same things. I avoid conversations about errands and to-do lists. There seems to be a uniquely American pastime I term “competitive busyness” –something I wouldn’t have noticed before CFS–in fact, I may have mastered it at one time.¬† It’s a lot of “jumping up and down, calling it progress”–and then telling everyone about it.

My purpose now is to use the energy I can muster to make as much of a positive impact on the lives of my students as possible. Happiness for me requires a yoga mat, a library card, and yes, a passport. If you’d ever like to discuss books, travel, or yoga, I’m all ears and will stay awake for that. If you want to learn more about what has and has not worked for me in terms of CFS/ME, I’m also happy to oblige. I hope to set up a Zoom practice for CFS/ME/COVID Long Haulers soon, so do get in touch via the contact page if that applies to you.

YogaHotDish in the News… Take Back the Night (TBTN) National Shine Your Light Yoga Festival, Dec 12th (ZOOM)

Take Back the Night (TBTN) Shines Light on Sexual Violence with the National Shine Your Light Yoga Festival on December 12th.

Hundreds of yoga studios and fitness centers across the country to hold trauma-informed classes for survivors and their supporters on Shine Your Light Yoga Day 2020, including YogaHotDish of North Oaks and Arden Hills.

YogaHotDish will be offering two trauma-informed ZOOM classes on Saturday, December 12th with all proceeds going to TBTN. Visit www.yogahotdish.com to register. The recommended donation is $12, the normal class price, but you can donate any amount via PayPal/credit card.

YogaHotDish Founder Shaila Cunningham, a twenty-year veteran of the yoga business, has fielded a multitude of requests to do classes for various causes. “I was impressed with TBTN as they took the time to research the kind of yoga I offer and ascertain that it is a good fit with their trauma-informed guidelines.  There are as many kinds of trauma and stress as there are people; that said, we can all use a common set of yoga tools to better wire the body and brain for healing and transformation.” Former Minnesota resident and certified Kripalu Yoga Instructor Libby Wendorf of North Carolina will be facilitating the Noon Zoom class.

Cunningham explains,  “The idea that anyone who has experienced any kind of sexual violence from date rape to domestic abuse can go to www.takebackthenight.org, fill out a contact form and speak to a lawyer within 24 hours is comforting. I imagine a lot of victims just don’t know who to turn to, and I encourage anyone reading this with a college-aged kid to take the time to send the link to them or post it to social media.” 

Since the 1970s, Take Back the Night has been supporting survivors of sexual trauma and domestic abuse. It is the oldest international movement fighting to end sexual violence in all its forms. Formed in 1999, the Take Back the Night Foundation (TBTNF) is a volunteer-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Katie Koestner, the first survivor to speak out nationally and publicly as the victim of ‚Äúdate‚ÄĚ (as opposed to ‚Äústranger‚ÄĚ) rape, brought together activists and long-standing participants in TBTN events to create the foundation. TBTN has reached over 10 million people at 800 colleges and communities across the US and in more than 30 countries with its initiatives and evidence-based educational programming.  

“Katie Koestner is a contemporary of mine and a force of nature; meeting her, if only via Zoom, was inspiring,”  says Cunningham.  “I remember seeing her on the cover of TIME Magazine when I was also in college. It took so much courage to share her story, before date rape was ‘a thing.'”  

The United Nations Population Fund roughly estimates that there has been a 20% rise in intimate partner violence alone around the world since the start of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. That equates to 15 million additional cases in just the last few months.

Through the National ‚ÄėShine Your Light Yoga Festival 2020‚Äô, Take Back the Night hopes to shed light on and strengthen survivors who have all too often been denied justice and silenced behind closed doors.

On December 12th, 2020, TBTN invites communities across the country to show their support and take part in a trauma-informed yoga class at their nearest participating studio or fitness center. The National Shine Your Light Yoga Festival 2020 also includes 8 virtual classes live-streamed throughout the day to accommodate up to 80,000 more participants. All proceeds from the event support TBTN’s programs and initiatives, such as the Respect My Red educational program on healthy relationships.

At a time when our communities are in tremendous need of healing and restoration, trauma-informed yoga offers a powerful opportunity for individuals and communities to come together in a safe, welcoming atmosphere to facilitate recovery. Yoga practice teaches us we cannot always control what happens outside of ourselves or in our immediate environments. However, we can control being mindful of ourselves, our bodies, our breath, our thoughts, and our surroundings. Little by little, with dedicated practice, we can start to truly grasp our inner

strength and connect with others to affect positive social change, one breath at a time.

For more information about the National Shine Your Light Yoga Festival 2020 or TBTNF, please visit the TBTNF website: https://takebackthenight.org. You can also find a list of participating

studios and fitness centers near you at https://takebackthenight.org/yoga.

Making Online Yoga…Yogic!

zoomyoga


After sampling a variety of online yoga offerings, including FB Live, Zoom, and YouTube,  I realize now the challenge for yoga teachers is similar to what it is in any large in-person setting: to make yoga feel like yoga and not just a follow-along, group exercise class –in other words, giving participants as much of a work-in as a workout! While instructors have to modify the way they teach to make this happen, the question is: what can you do as a student to make your experience more…yogic?


1) Set up a “safe space,” free from interruptions. No phone in the room, period! Close the door if you’re lucky enough to have one and make sure spouses, pets, kids –anyone who needs/demands attention from you is ON THE OTHER SIDE of said door, or better yet–out of the house.¬† Explain in the nicest possible way that they are “errors” of meditation and that a high level of concentration and internal focus is required for true yoga.¬† “The deeper states” of meditation are achieved by racking up consecutive moments of concentration. If they come into your space and distract you, you lose your momentum and have to start over. Plus, they need to know and accept that what you’re doing is simply more important than their perceived urgency–OPU–other people’s urgency–has no place in your yoga practice!

1.5) Set “reminders” for several classes a week, even though you don’t plan on doing them all. This is key as we’re losing our sense of linear time which is great while doing yoga, but makes it hard to show up to class. And, don’t let arriving late or having to leave early deter you; the ZOOM format is made for that–enjoy it while it lasts!


2) Have all of your props at the ready.¬† Keep them in a pile somewhere so you don’t have to reassemble them every time. It’s Murphy’s Law: the one prop you don’t have will end up being the star of the class! If you haven’t “invested” yet in blocks, strap, blanket, or even a bolster, it’s time–what are you waiting for?


3) Set up your screen so the instructor has a fairly good view of you in both floor and standing poses when doing a live class. I have my laptop on a block for the floor and move it to a shelf or plant stand for standing poses. Figure it out ahead of time! If the instructor never leaves his/her mat to “check” on or interact with students, consider it a red flag.


4) Try not to make your screen your focal point!!!!! This may be the most important piece of advice. Eyes glued to a screen isn’t yoga–sorry. Set up focal points above or around your screen: a plant, a picture, a window. Try not to have your screen directly in front of you.  Use it as a visual reference as little as possible. Try to follow the verbal instructions first and use the screen in small doses for verification.  Do as much w/ your eyes CLOSED as possible! 


5) Finally, this for people who don’t come to YogaHotDish¬†classes: It’s important that you assess the difference in body types between yours and that of the presenter. This is where visually following along and trying to mimic each and every movement lands people in Physical Therapy.¬†

First, know the difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga presenter. “Presenters” are there because they look good doing the poses and are good at memorized “cues” (lines) and putting together choreographed sequences.  They’re not going to stop and check on your joints/spine–especially if it’s pre-recorded, silly!  If you have NO idea how to modify the poses for your individual body type, (and it’s not that of a gymnast or dancer) watch out! If you don’t know your internal rotation from your external, you may be in over your head. At a minimum, try to find someone around your own age to follow.  Better yet, follow someone who explains or “cues” for differences in body proportions, ranges of motion and actually demonstrates alternatives.

Most online presenters give a little legal disclaimer at the beginning (“you can modify”) but they don’t tell you how or when. Why not? Because it disrupts their flow, their presentation, or, they just aren’t experienced¬†with or interested in working with people of all ages and stages of life.¬† This holds especially true for SENIORS! I can’t tell you how many injuries I’ve heard of first hand when seniors start doing yoga or personal training w/ young and inexperienced instructors. Experience matters in yoga– you can’t put together a training course that magically endows / decades of wisdom –it literally takes…well…decades.¬†

Finally, we have to accept that COVID is changing our bodies. We’re not moving as much. Often an injury can be just as much about what you DIDN’T do as what you did do! Muscles lose their pliability and “intelligence,” joints dry out and get creaky. Take care, lower expectations and ¬†good luck out there!

The Best Benefit of Yoga No One Mentions

“Mouthbreather,” the ultimate dis on “Stranger Things.”

In a recent study on the National Institute of Health website entitled, “Could nasal nitric oxide help to mitigate the severity of COVID-19?” the authors explain the role of nose breathing in creating Nitric Oxide. You know all about this if you come to class, but for the uninitiated, here’s the intro to the study:


The nasal cavity and turbinates play important physiological functions by filtering, warming and humidifying inhaled air. Paranasal sinuses continually produce nitric oxide (NO), a reactive oxygen species that diffuses to the bronchi and lungs to produce bronchodilatory and vasodilatory effects. Studies indicate that NO may also help to reduce respiratory tract infection by inactivating viruses and inhibiting their replication in epithelial cells. In view of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), clinical trials have been designed to examine the effects of inhaled nitric oxide in COVID-19 subjects. We discuss here additional lifestyle factors such as mouth breathing which may affect the antiviral response against SARS-CoV-2 by bypassing the filtering effect of the nose and by decreasing NO levels in the airways.   

So what’s a longtime mouth breather to do? You can’t just start breathing through your nose overnight.  No, but you can start yoga with an instructor who emphasizes pranayama (breathing exercises) and gives constant coaching on the in’s and out’s (sorry) of exactly how to breathe!

You take around 20,000 breaths per day; don’t you think it’s worth doing optimally?

In America’s search for the perfect yoga booty in under an hour, a few things had to go–top of the list were breathing exercises. It’s a practice that’s extremely subtle, frustrating for many, and difficult to teach. Besides, how are you supposed to nose breathe when you’re whipping through your vinyasa flow to get your cardio in?  There’s the other problem: classical yoga was never meant to be cardio in the first place. Sure, the gurus of yore had troops of adolescent boys who would perform almost circus-like routines to attract attention pre-Instagram, but that wasn’t for the “regular” folk coming to yoga for health and wellness.  

Big Yoga (gyms, Lifetime, CorePower, ) knows you’re busy and want a Total Body Workout in under an hour.  That’s great for them as they want to cram as many classes into a day as possible for their business model.  Poof!  There goes breathing exercises!  Besides, “I think my lungs are getting fat,” said no one…ever.

To do even a basic breathing practice takes at least an extra 10 minutes. Over time, you develop a kind of nose breathing momentum that gradually seeps into your posture practice so that you’re rarely, if ever mouth breathing — not even on exhalations. Stick with it, and you continue to breathe through your nose even after your leave class.

I know this progression as I was a mouth breather too, due to decades of allergies. Think about how much people spend on filtered water! How about some free filtered air? Once you start breathing the filtered, upscale variety of air, you never go back!

Still not convinced? Here’s an article outlining the negative effects of mouth breathing. Link here.

In children, mouth breathing is just as serious, possibly resulting in an ADD/ADHD misdiagnosis. Link here.

Why not set a basic #Covidgoal to become a nose breather if you’re not already? You’d be doing yourself a favor, as well as everyone else. The latest UMN study on indoor COVID transmission assumes that participants are all mouthbreathers– Whaaaat? #ew. At a minimum, your stress levels will decrease while practicing as nose breathing calms the heart and nervous system with all that Nitric Oxide –we could all use some more calm, right? Conversely, mouth breathers tend to be on edge, continually scanning for threats.

So yes, nose breathing can make you a calmer version of yourself, as well as improve your posture and spine. Shallow mouth breathers don’t create the micro-undulations of the vertebrae diaphragmatic nose breathers do, so their spines tend to calcify more easily, locking into place when sitting for long periods.

Diaphragmatic nose breathing keeps your joints and internal organs lubricated. It keeps stuff juicy and slippery, not sticky. Try it now: sit still on the edge of your chair, head balanced atop sitting bones / tailbone. Take a couple “normal” breaths, without thinking about it. How much and where does your body move? If the only part that moves is your shoulders, you may be a “clavicle breather.” It’s detrimental to your overall health and wellness, but completely curable!

Now, soften the belly (if you can) and imagine filling it with the breath. You should feel the nasal hair move as you inhale. Exhale as though you’re whispering “om,” (mouth shut, gap between upper and lower teeth) trying to make your exhalation twice as long as your inhale– you should feel the nasal hair move in the other direction. Feel how much and where your body moves, even though you’re technically sitting still.

YogaHotDish runs a couple all-breathing practices per month on ZOOM and includes breathing exercises in every ZOOM and in-person class. Your spine, nervous system, and heart will thank you– so will the people you live with!

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~

Shiva’s Pandemic Dance

zoom shiva CERN.webp

 

This statue of Shiva as “Lord of the Dance” sits outside the world’s largest nuclear collider known as CERN in Switzerland. Turns out, HInduism and physics have, in some ways, a similar worldview: that everything is constantly changing–matter to energy, energy to matter.¬† Sometimes known as the “God of Destruction,” at my training in Kripalu, they¬† used a kinder gentler “transformation.”

Shiva’s cosmic dance may start with destruction, but it is an ongoing process that also includes evolution, the revealing of “illusion” and eventually something Christians can recognize as “grace.”

Many of us are learning that the material things that formed the scaffolding for our lives–jobs, healthcare, schools, etc. weren’t the “sure things’ we once thought they were.¬† Our illusion of stability was shattered pretty quickly, by some microscopic beast we can’t even see!

So here we are, forced to confront who we are without all of that infrastructure. Our plans are on hold. Our futures are uncertain. Who are we without all of these anchors?

I suppose that’s the question most religions try to answer. Many people start to contemplate that sort of thing the older they get.¬† The surprising thing is seeing so many young people being forced to move such a big question up their list of priorities to ponder. I am truly excited to see what they come up with. I feel like a whole new generation of “millennial elders” is germinating.

Every single person is going through some sense of loss in these days of corona and quarantine. If we’re fortunate enough to escape grieving the loss of a loved one, we still have other losses– a wedding, a semester abroad, a prom, a hug–and those losses are a big deal.

When you see Lord of the Dance in art, Shiva is always surrounded by fire, symbolizing the circular nature of the universe. What you might miss is the scary looking gremlin creature on which he is balancing (while simultaneously creating and destroying the universe no less). That little demon is said by some to symbolize human cruelty and a visual reminder to be kind to one another, lest you get crushed!

Namaste from 6+ feet away.

 

 

 

What’s Wrong with Resolutions?

Ah January… for anyone in the fitness space, it’s a bit¬†like April for tax accountants.¬† We even call it “Resolution Season.”¬† Some marketeers have¬†pointed out to me that it would be more strategic if I had my sessions renew in January to get the “Resolution Crowd.” Still, over the years, I have kept to my schedule of running my Winter Session December-February.¬†¬†Whilst a class or two may renew/launch in January, it’s usually due more to the venue than me.

So am I missing out on the¬†Resolution Crowd?¬†¬†Maybe so. That said, I’m not sure they’re¬†my tribe.¬† Health clubs and big studios love the resolution crowd.¬† They know they’ll get a year of monthly fees from these well-meaning wellness wannabes. It doesn’t matter to the club or studio if¬†they show up; which, studies show, many of them won’t after about March.¬† Then these poor people¬†spend the rest of the year feeling even lousier about themselves–especially when they see that $100 + charge on their credit card statement. To me, that has always seemed¬†a depressing way to make money.

The YogaHotDish business model, on the other hand, appeals to people who are ready to be committers.¬† They have to choose one class a week to attend for a manageable chunk of time: 3 months. And yes, we cater to travelers and go-getters so they¬†can pro-rate out if they’re¬†going to be gone.¬†¬†There is a “make-up” safety net in that HotDishers¬†can attend another class outside their normal time to make up a missed class, but the key is,¬†normal classes don’t “rollover” after the 3-month session.¬† If you missed a couple, I can’t “credit” your account next time.¬† That way, you must¬†attend yoga on average of at least once per week.¬† To make up a class, you have to go twice in one week. Now, make-ups do “rollover” as long as you keep renewing every quarter. In other words, I don’t care when you make up a class, even if it’s in 6 months, as long as you’re still in the program.

Think about what a different kind of proposition this is.¬†¬†Big Yoga says, “Sign up for a year then¬†come, don’t come–¬†there are classes going all day long–you’ll get there eventually!”¬†¬†¬†YogaHotDish says, “I’ll commit to you, you commit to me, once a¬†week. I’ll know you by name, I’ll¬†help you with any issues that might impede your practice be they mental or physical. I’ll notice when you’re not there and encourage you to get to a make-up class. The group will notice you’re not there and wonder, “Where were you, we missed you.” Can you see the difference? Can you feel the profoundly different vibe coming off the screen right now?

So here’s the deal: if you want / need to start yoga, just do it in December.¬† We all know by now it takes a month to form a habit, right?¬† Do you think something magical is going to happen on New Year’s Day and suddenly everything will be easy? I can guarantee you, it won’t.¬† In fact, if you wait, you’ll probably be working off a backlog of extra calories that you’ll be intaking this week.¬† Why not use the change in schedule and downtime of the holidays to establish better habits? You’ll be on your way come January.¬† You could even sign up for the “Destress for Success” Workshop in Arden Hills come January -and it won’t be your first time on a yoga mat!¬† You’ll be a pro by then and not have to worry about the “holiday hangover” of stress and weight gain.¬† Are you ready to stand out from the crowd and get going now? If so, I am here to help!¬† Check your schedule, pick a day and fill out a contact form!

Top MN Doc Carrie Terrell: Why Women Over 40 Need Yoga

This post is brought to you by  our own YogaHotDisher, Top Doc,  and  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old,¬†often partnered with a significant other of¬†varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary¬†caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for¬†what they ‚Äúshould‚ÄĚ be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.¬† If and when they¬†sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they¬†‚Äúrest‚ÄĚ while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities¬†are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn‚Äôt enough they are¬†also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant¬†commentary that translates as ‚Äúnot enough or not good enough.‚ÄĚ In fact, the¬†incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the¬†philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe¬†ourselves.¬† Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness,¬†improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice¬†(the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels¬†good. ‚ÄúDoing‚ÄĚ yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look¬†at my thoughts and see, ‚Äėhuh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.‚ÄĚ Or,¬†‚Äúlook, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and¬†gee, I don‚Äôt have to be affected by that. I can still be me.‚ÄĚ Or, ‚ÄúThis pose sucks.¬†I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I‚Äôm way too important¬†for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.‚ÄĚ Which over time can¬†become, ‚ÄúThis pose sucks. I hate this pose. I‚Äôve gotten through this pose before. I¬†am stronger. My resilience is better.‚ÄĚ

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for myself. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability, I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

Put Some Motion in your Meditation!

There are a lot of books written about what is meditation and how to do it.¬† To be honest, it’s often more enjoyable to read about meditation than it is to actually attempt it!¬† Most of us are nowhere near ready for what we might consider meditation: sitting perfectly still on a cushion with an erect spine, effortlessly surfing waves of bliss.¬† Frankly, it’s a lot more rigorous than you might think.¬† First off, our bodies are no where physically ready to sit comfortably (usually on the floor) for an extended period–you’d be surprised how long 10 minutes can take when seated on the floor without support–our hips have long since adapted to chairs and for many, there’s no going back! Besides, is sitting really what we should be doing in our leisure time?¬† Is anyone out there wracking their brain thinking, “How can I sit more?”¬† (People who work on your feet all day, you are perhaps the only ones who may answer “yes”).

As if the body alone weren’t enough of an obstacle, we have to consider the over-tasked modern mind.¬† If you don’t already have ADD or ADHD, you’re probably catching it like the flu from your devices. All of these inventions that were supposed to save us time and energy simply multiplied all the things we’re supposed to get done at once!

The answer for 99% of the people I meet who want to reap the benefits of meditation ranging from boosting mood and immunity to cognitive function are best served by a yogic “meditation in motion” practice.¬† The yogis were the first to make the mind-body connection and flip it upside-down: instead of mind over matter (the body), they learned that you could use the body (and breath techniques) to calm the mind.¬† This was (and still is for many), a revolutionary idea!

Finding the right combination of breathing and slow moving postures taught in a serene environment can lead you to those meditative bliss waves. And, by serene I mean quiet. Meditation requires confronting silence, stepping back and watching your thoughts.¬† This can’t be done while listening to music or looking in a mirror (hence the “no music, no mirrors”).¬† While music can be relaxing, it can’t help but generate memories and emotions–both considered “errors” of meditation (ask people who compose music for hospitals how tricky it can be).¬† Mirrors put you in the comparative part of your brain where the ego lives, another “error.”¬† Even if you’re not checking out your neighbor, you might be comparing today’s image with a previous one;¬† besides that, you aren’t focused internally. I once asked for hardship pay after trying to teach a group of teenagers yoga in a mirrored studio–and I got it!

Keep in mind, yoga postures were developed to prepare the body and mind for meditation, as a prelude to the higher states.¬† Swami Kripalu realized that most people didn’t actually have 10 hours to sit in silence daily like he did, so he promoted a style of yoga that makes the “container” of the body stronger while reaping the rewards of meditation.¬† The practice then finishes with a full length¬†Savasana (corpse pose).¬† Big-box fitness yoga tends to reduce it to a couple of minutes of “relaxation,” to get you out the door so the next class can move in,¬† missing the point entirely. It’s like sending you away w/ a peppermint instead of an artfully crafted tiramisu.¬† A proper savansana is the piece de resistance¬†toward which the class has been building. You, the student, have a small window of opportunity to transition from “meditation in motion” to just meditation, now that the mind, body and breath have been carefully prepared.¬† To forego that opportunity is a loss and shows a lack of respect or understanding for the underpinnings of classical yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You must be free from doubts, fear, delusion, egoism, anger, passion and Raga-Dvesha

Is Your Spouse the Biggest Threat to Your Health?

I have been working with “active seniors” so long, that I am literally starting to become one.¬† The AARP knows where I live.¬† Decades of helping people discover self-care, often in the nick of time (around retirement) has given me an insight I’d like to share. It may sound a little harsh…

Look around the room of my “Fit and Feisty 50+” crowd and you WILL be impressed! There are students ranging in age from mid 40’s to 90+.¬† There’s not necessarily a correlation of age to ability either in the areas of strength, flexibility, focus and balance.¬† Some of our oldest students are the fiercest and fiesty…est.¬† What they all seem to have in common is that they’re committed to longevity and doing the aging thing “right.”¬† They’re socially plugged in, active, purpose-driven, taking care of family, serving on boards, continuing to work, pursuing passions like art, writing, travel, and faith.¬† I love to remind them that even on their worst day, they’re in the “upper percentiles” compared to their peer group!

So how and when does it go wrong for them?¬† Well yes, it might be a health crisis like a fall or a diagnosis, but what I see more often than not is that the illness of a spouse is most likely to throw them off-track.¬† The next thing you know, they’re missing their own self-care to take care of a spouse: running to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, picking up all the slack in doing errands, taking care of grandkids.¬† And, more often than not, while they have gotten into the habit of wellness/fitness/self-care, their spouse has not.¬† Maybe the spouse was the sole breadwinner or perhaps it’s just that opposites attract. Whatever the reason doesn’t matter at the end of the day.¬† The spouse needs them and that’s what they signed up for–it’s in the contract.

So what’s a healthy senior to do? My advice is look around and learn.¬† Get those spouses off the sofa and get them engaged in wellness. If said spouse likes to try new things and has a sense of humor, riding shotgun to your yoga class may, in fact, be an easy answer.¬† However, more often that not, I find that men especially are squeamish about joining a mostly female class surrounded by women who are likely in better shape than they are. Remember, yoga is about the balance of strength, flexibility, breath and focus.¬† While men often show up with greater strength they can find the yoga combination vexing.

So here’s what I recommend: a little couples private yoga to get them going and build confidence. Whether they are coming off a long career of corporate work at screens and travel or construction and repetitive motion, chances are it has taken a toll on their bodies and their minds. Yoga teaches us the mind can’t truly relax when the body is full of “resting tension” that never goes away–even during sleep.

The idea is not to do couples private yoga forever, but just to get going.¬†¬†A duet class is convenient in that, even if one person can’t make it, the other likely can resulting in both students getting to zero-in on their individual issues and concerns separately from time to time.¬† Eventually, the spouse may start to inquire about group classes and here’s the interesting part: it may not necessarily be your group class–he/she may want to venture out and have their own “space.”¬† No problem!¬† The sense of community will be good either way; and, you will share a common interest as a couple that will lead to some interesting discussions and even some inside jokes!

I hope this paints a better picture of how “aging” can be. In the West, we assume that old age brings reduced mobility–not so in many of the Eastern cultures.¬† And remember, in helping your spouse, you’re helping yourself while becoming a healthier couple on many levels.

What’s Wrong with Senior Yoga?

It was never my intention to teach senior yoga… or to grow old for that matter!¬† However, when I heard reports (often from my Mom) of what was passing for “senior yoga” at the local Y, fitness center, health club, community ed,¬† etc., I knew I had to get involved and rethink the whole genre.

Perhaps the most egregious violation of my yoga sensibilities was the practice of referring people of a certain age to “chair yoga.”¬† I couldn’t believe all the fully mobile and even active seniors that were doing “chair yoga.”¬† Now, if you are in a wheelchair, or use a walker, then yes, perhaps chair yoga is your jam.¬† However, if you’re as able as the folks I saw who were taking it, then the only people being served by chairs are lawyers and inexperienced teachers.¬† These groups love chairs because the chance of anyone getting hurt (in spite of iffy teaching credentials) is small — even smaller than the likelihood of getting any measurable, meaningful results!

Next on the list of grievances are the number of young, inexperienced instructors teaching a gentler form of their regular vinyasa class and calling it “senior yoga.”¬† Seniors have all kinds of special issues and until you’ve experienced inflammation, joint pain, vertigo, chronic illness, heart trouble, etc., you haven’t a clue what your students are going through.¬† While sympathy is great, empathy matters as does the instructor’s ability to teach to bodies of different proportions with different ranges of motion and fitness levels. What inexperienced instructors (fond of chirping, “You can just modify.”) don’t realize is: the whole approach to stretching has to be altered to protect the joints at all costs. Moreover, the attachment to aesthetics in the poses has to be dropped–this is not yoga for Instagram!¬†

Finally, on the list is the lack of meditative and breathing practices:¬†American yoga in general loves to liberally cut these corners, yet in yoga philosophy, both of them trump asana/ posture practice and are higher up the hierarchy of importance.¬† In places where yoga is a lifetime practice, pranayama (breathing) and mediation practices are meant to grow as we age so that when the body inevitably starts to deteriorate, the “higher practices” take over and create a rich, immune boosting, mind clearing, relaxing practice that could even be done in a hospital bed.¬† To not teach these keeps one’s practice in the physical realm at a time when we should be trying to transcend it.

The previous grievance shouldn’t imply that there isn’t a strong physical component to the YogaHotDish approach for this population.¬† I find many teachers underestimate how much the 50-90 crowd can actually do, as long as students are committed.¬† Sure, we do planks, dogs, pilates inspired core, and loads of balancing. It’s the way we do it:¬† long holds, a selection of poses offered with easy transitions and the freedom to pick and choose what works,¬† Moreover, poses where the “risk” doesn’t justify the “return” have been carefully weeded out over time. I suppose it could also be said that some students are weeded out over time.¬† Commitment to the small group environment is key.¬† The non-committal don’t last as they grow increasingly frustrated when those around them continuously improve.¬† Sure, the hands-on assisting and individual help can make up for a lot, but, it’s not fair to turn the class into one’s own private yoga session either! As an experienced teacher of 20+ years, I know that 12 is about the right number. Be skeptical of large group fitness senior classes–there’s no way the teacher is going to remember your knee replacement, torn rotator cuff etc.

If you’re over 50, you know that there’s not way to make up for experience. I can’t just train anyone to teach this class, as it has been evolving over 20 years.¬† There is no one else in the area teaching a class like this. When I go out of town, I have to cancel the class–there’s no sub.¬† Also, there is no “senior rate.”¬† Why? Because this class takes every ounce of energy and experience I have to execute.¬† I leave nothing on the mat looking after a dozen people with illness, injury, challenges and assorted issues–I often log around 2000 steps!¬† In fact, this class is priced at the top of my range at $15/ class.¬† Sure, you can get those next-to-nothing classes with your “silver sneakers”program but you will get precisely that for which you pay.¬† There is no comparison which is why though many of my students belong to LifeTime, Shoreview Community, the YMCA, and do Community Ed they still show up every week.¬† Many students have been with me for decades; in fact, we joke there’s only one way out of this class!

To keep the environment small and inviting, I am delighted to add a new FIt & Feisty 50+ class on Thursdays, 3-4:30 pm in North Oaks.¬† 90 minutes?¬† That’s how long real yoga takes. Never trust a one-hour yoga class and don’t trust what “big yoga” is marketing as “senior yoga!”¬† ¬†Please check the class out here¬†if you’re ready to be Fit…and a wee bit Feisty!

 

 

 

 

Angry Yogini: does rage really become her?

Anger is like water. No matter how hard a person tries to dam, divert, or deny it, it will find a way, usually along the path of least resistance.¬† As I will discuss in this book, women often ‚Äúfeel‚ÄĚ their anger in their bodies.¬† Unprocessed, anger threads itself through our appearances, bodies, eating habits, and relationships, fueling low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and actual physical illness.

From the book,  Rage Becomes Her,  by Soraya Chemaly

 

Did you know that studies show men and women have about the same amount of anger?  Yet why, in the 21st Century is it still so risky for women to show anger?  Why  are we so likely to hide it, putting other people’s feelings of comfort and ease ahead of our own?  Because we know if we express it, there will be consequences. While anger is the weapon of choice for alpha males everywhere, when displayed  by females, it’s perceived not as strength but as irrational, emotional and weak.

Continuing from Rage Becomes Her:

“Anger has a bad rap, but it‚Äôs actually one of the most forward thinking of all our emotions.¬† It begets transformation¬† ¬†manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world.¬† It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‚Äúis‚ÄĚ and what ‚Äúought‚ÄĚ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.¬† Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat and insult.”

Author¬†Soraya Chemaly goes on to point out that people who express anger are even more optimistic –perhaps because they feel an empowering energy to change things for the better.

You don‚Äôt have to know much about yoga to know that ‚Äúauthenticity‚ÄĚ is a buzz word. ‚ÄúLive authentically‚ÄĚ implore numerous ads in Yoga Journal, as if you could be ‚Äúauthentic‚ÄĚ by using a bamboo water bottle or taking a ‚ÄúYoga Journey‚ÄĚ to Nepal. Most of these ads are targeted at women. ¬†I contend, however, that regardless of what kind of water bottle you wield, if authenticity is what you‚Äôre shooting for, then sister, learn how to express yourself in a way that leverages your anger, propels your forward and keeps you from succumbing to the depression/ anxiety quagmire.

Not so sure, are you?  Gee, but people might get offended; you might lose friendships, or even a job.  What’s the downside of not expressing anger adeptly?  As mentioned above: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and a host of physical diseases. Those are high prices to pay.  I wonder how many women seeking treatment for these conditions are able to connect the dots back to the likely origin: unexpressed anger.  My guess is very few.

In the yoga world, we often view emotions in energetic terms. Anger is energy, energy that can be harnessed and directed toward ‚Äúunstructured,‚ÄĚ creative thinking and problem solving.¬† Heck, this very post came to me moments after hanging up the phone from my battle-royale with Alamo Car Rental. The trick is in leveraging the energy boost into something productive, not kicking the dog or driving 50 in a 30.

In reflection, I think I have typically expressed anger in a more masculine way. ¬†I pity the fools who poached my brand new pink tennis balls I received for my birthday, around age 10. ¬†I chased the pair of boys down and beat the crap out of them w/ my shiny metal tennis racket.¬† I remember my Dad beaming when one of the Father‚Äôs phoned and my own father replied, ‚ÄúMy recommendation to your child is not to steal tennis balls.‚Ä̬† They never bothered me again!

Later, when working in a male dominated field in a male-dominated culture, I deliberately took note of how men expressed anger.¬† I realized that to be taken seriously, I was going to have to raise my voice, throw around some coarse language and, ideally, beat them at sports –at the risk of making them mad, as opposed to the typical feminine role of putting men “at ease.”¬† ¬†I quickly ¬†realized that expressing anger wasn‚Äôt that big a deal in the wolf pack; what was probably more harmful was holding a grudge, an area in which many of my female colleagues exceled.¬† I deliberately avoided that age-old, passive-aggressive play.¬† Amends are fairly easy to make in Man World ‚Äďusually a beer does the trick in keeping future collaborations on the table/bar.

But what does this have to do with yoga? It has dawned on me that perhaps what drew me to the practice in the late 90‚Äôs was the way it helped me manage the anger that was ‚Äútrapped inside my body‚ÄĚ as mentioned above. Years of working in sexist countries in IT, plus a health condition dismissed by male doctors took its toll.

Anger is energy that needs to be processed productively, and ideally, in ‚Äúreal time.‚Ä̬† That can take many forms, from taking a long walk to chatting with a sympathetic friend. However, sometimes those things aren‚Äôt available.¬† But, there‚Äôs always a floor. There‚Äôs always 10 minutes.¬† There‚Äôs always the breath.

As a teacher I have numerous female students confide in me that they‚Äôre on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.¬† But maybe they‚Äôre not sad, maybe their Sad + Mad =SMAD.¬† They‚Äôre bottling up years of ill-processed anger and it‚Äôs fermenting into sadness and ‚Äúunexplained‚ÄĚ anxiety.¬† Yoga meditation trains us to feel feelings with subtlety and skill; so much so, I often compare it to wine tasting.¬† We move well beyond defining things as red or white, ¬†noticing layers, complexity and even ‚Äúnotes‚ÄĚ of emotions‚ÄĒIt‚Äôs how I came up w/ ‚ÄúSMAD.‚Ä̬† I could hold anger and sadness together, but crying seemed more socially acceptable than punching someone in the nose or shouting them down in a crowd.

Meditation, yin, self-study (avidya), breathing exercises for controlling energy‚ÄĒYoga offers us a wide array of time-tested techniques. The issues are in the tissues. If you‚Äôre a woman living in a #metoo world, get real, get angry and get to your yoga mat!

Finally, have you ever noticed, a lot of old ladies aren‚Äôt exactly ‚Äúsweet‚ÄĚ? I‚Äôm thinking of the ones who outlive their husbands by decades, continue to live independently, managing their own affairs.¬† In my experience, the longevity bet is on fit and feisty, stubborn and assertive!

PS.¬† Some of you reading this, male and female, will be tempted to dismiss me as a ball buster, feminazi, or worse. You are living in the past, and maybe that works for you. Yoga, however, challenges us relentlessly to be here, in the present.¬† And, for me to care what you think would mean putting your feelings (a complete stranger) ¬†ahead of my own, which is another way women end up miserable.¬† Please don‚Äôt feel like you need to share your thoughts with me on the subject. This post is meant only to encourage and validate those who are wanting to break out of typically ‚Äúfeminine‚ÄĚ ways for expressing anger that aren‚Äôt working for them. ¬†¬†If this isn‚Äôt you, then kindly run along! Namaste.