Musings from a life learning yogini
Yoga is about letting go and finding YOU in the middle of chaos.
A centred, grounded, curious and beautiful you.
Yoga is about letting go and finding YOU in the middle of chaos.
A centred, grounded, curious and beautiful you.
Most people don’t know this about me because I was too ashamed to talk about it for a long time. Now, the people close to me know about it, but I’ve never shared this publicly. However, after hearing about one mom I know develop postpartum psychosis, another with postpartum depression and then hearing about the woman from New Westminster with a 2-month old baby who went missing with suspected postpartum depression, I’m speaking out.
After my third child Sadie was born, I experienced some form postpartum depression. It was never diagnosed, but I didn’t know how to make it to the next moment let alone the next minute. I had suicidal thoughts but felt too stuck to act on them because I could not abandon my kids, I felt helpless, and all of this led to 5 years of alcohol and sleeping pills to quell my fear of sleep.
I say all this because there seems to be this idea out there that having babies is easy. It is not. There is a reason for the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Having a baby is incredible- from ecstasy to despair, but the ecstasy side of the spectrum (the good stuff) only happens if you have the support you need to experience it, and I do not believe our culture as a whole supports new moms even close to well enough. We seem to be particularly “villageless”, us and our nuclear families… Moms with new babies here are expected to go back to work, to get back in shape, to cook, to have a clean and tidy house, to look after their other children, to get back to their previous life, basically to get back to doing it all (by themselves), within days or weeks of having a baby. The expectations and pressures are completely unrealistic. Add this to our tendency to push away and hide uncomfortable feelings AND social media which makes it seem like everyone else has it together and we’re the only ones failing (5 minutes before we posted that cute baby photo on Facebook and Instagram, we were sobbing on the floor. Really), and it’s a recipe for disaster.
When disaster strikes like it did for me after Sadie was born, no one took me seriously, or at least not seriously enough. I’m not sure if the people who knew what was going on knew what to do, or how to help, or that it was as serious as it was? In my mind, I felt (and still feel) like people thought: “This is what having babies is like. Yes, it’s hard, but it will end and everyone does it and you just have to get through it and suck it up.” It’s been like this for other women I know too (and PS. I don’t want to just have to “get through it”. I wanted this baby, I want to love having a baby!!). They had to be hospitalized or do something drastic (like disappear) to get heard.
The thing was, I couldn’t suck it up or work harder. I had been pushed under the water and was drowning. I needed someone to pull me up and there was no one there. Which is where the drugs and alcohol came in. If you’re wondering why this blog is on my yoga website, it was yoga and meditation that helped me quit the drugs and alcohol- I knew that my mind and it’s stories would run endless circles to scare me and that I had my breathe to bring me back to the here and now and stop that cyclic thinking.
With my fourth child, I got prepared. I knew my limits, I knew what I was scared of, and I set myself up with the tools and supports I needed to help me. I also consciously let go of cultural ideas about how quickly I needed to “get back at it” after having a baby and I let go of the “super mom” ideal that I should be able to do it all, by myself. Without external pressures, I didn’t have to worry about getting back to my “pre-pregnancy shape” (insert barf emoticon. I birthed a freaking human, my body will never be the same!) or somehow watch one child at gymnastics for 5-hours because she is having a hard time adjusting to the new sibling in the house, while making dinner, while picking up two other kids from school, while breastfeeding, while doing laundry- you get the idea.
My hope in writing this blog is that our awareness surrounding the postnatal period and our support of new moms and new babies will grow so that as a culture we can recognize and respect how life altering having a baby is (even if it’s your 4th). So, I am writing this is for all mothers. For all mothers who have gone through some form of postpartum depression or psychosis in silence and isolation. For all mothers who are still tackling fear as a result of postpartum depression or psychosis. For all mothers to be and for all babies to come. Find or build your village and lean on them for support. Ask them questions. Ask for help. Call them to sob and to celebrate! If you are or wind up in complete darkness, know there is light at the end of the tunnel. I couldn’t see it with Sadie- I was completely surrounded and saw no way out- but now that I have come through it, I know it is there. I am also writing this for all families and communities bringing babies into their fold. Moms need you. Probably more than they will say. Having a baby is not easy, but it will be incredible and it CAN be amazing if you have or get the support you need. If you think you’re alone, you’re not. You are not crazy and you are not a horrible mother. You are one of us.
I started standing on my hands when I was a kid. I was a competitive gymnast. I wasn’t an excellent gymnast, my strength could not tame my flexibility (working on that in my yoga practice…), but it did make asana easier when I started practicing yoga.
Many judge my practice. I’ve been told I’m intimidating. When I first started practicing yoga, I usually came to my mat and cried for the duration of the 60, 75 or 90minute class. In 2006, my son Trey was diagnosed with MPS II or Hunter Syndrome- a rare and progressive disease, and I was told he would either live with some physical challenges or like two thirds of kids with the diagnosis, decline mentally until he reached a vegetative state and die in his teens, and we didn’t know which type he had. I was struggling to breathe, to put it mildly.
The only times I stopped crying in class were when I was upside down or on my hands because I was concentrating on not falling instead of thinking about how scared I was for the future. Falling out the open door in the summer or tumbling off my mat to gaze up at my neighbor in down dog while I was flat on my back made me laugh. It was the only time I did laugh. It was funny when the rest of life was so serious.
For the most part, I kept to myself at the yoga studio and in class because meeting people with puffy eyes and emotional instability wasn’t my thing. I did talk to teachers, but usually wound up crying in front of them too (surprising that studio ended up hiring me as a teacher years later ;-)).
Slowly, I started to meet a few people and I began to hear what other people thought of my practice. When I first heard I was intimidating, I got angry. I wasn’t there to impress or perform, I was showing up on my mat to process and let go. It didn’t even occur to me to think about what others thought of me, I was just doing my own thing. I was angry because my safe space had become a place of judgment. It didn’t feel safe anymore. I couldn’t process or let go because I knew people were watching. During a conversation with an insightful teacher friend of mine, she told me that people’s judgment isn’t about me, it’s about them. I can’t control what other people think or do. It is in my control and my work to let go of what other people think. I’m starting to realize that everything is about letting go! Her message stuck with me and I was able to find my safe space again.
I’m teaching a workshop on Handstands at YYoga Northshore Elements on Saturday, December 13, 2014 and I’m jazzed. I’m jazzed because I know many people who want to learn variations of handstand and I HOPE that what I know and will share will help them find it! I’m jazzed because I want to create an atmosphere where handstands aren’t a destination or a pinnacle (or better than any other posture), but a journey. I’m jazzed because handstands and arm balances- the FUN stuff in yoga- is what helped me find those good moments in life again. The handstands and arm balances are what inspire laughter and lightness in my practice. I hope even more that I can help people find that. The fun. The laughter. The lightness. The freedom. On our mats AND in the rest of our lives.
The summer after I first began meditating, I recall sitting at my grandma’s cabin, watching the world around me. I watched an eagle soaring above the lake, dive and catch a fish. I watched my one son rip a leaf off a tree while another was whacking another tree with a stick. I watched an ant carrying another injured ant… all of this happening concurrently, silently.
It was then I realized I am loud. If I were that leaf, that ant, that bird, that tree, I would be making such a big deal out of it all. I would be screaming in pain, in anger, in unfairness, in sadness, in all kinds of emotion. The world would be so loud. But it wasn’t. All of this life and death was happening around me, silently. It just was. It just is.
These thoughts came to me again, later, at home. At the time, my family was in the middle of chaos. I don’t recall what was going on, but my family was fighting, crying, hitting, yelling. I could feel my emotion, my anger and frustration, rising. Fortunately, before I did anything about it, my partner asked me if I could move our van from the garage to the street. I walked outside to move the van. It was a beautiful, sunny day. And it was silent. No hint of the chaos reigning inside.
It also brought me back to the day my son Trey was diagnosed with a progressive and rare disease MPS II, Hunter Syndrome. While my entire world and existence and reason for being came crashing down around me, people were in line at Starbucks ordering coffee, chatting, on lunch break, completely unaware that the world had just ended. I can honestly tell you, not that it felt like the world had ended, but that it did in fact end. I can still feel the end of the world, almost nine years later. Only it didn’t. I just thought that it had.
Time and time again, in the midst of my loud and big mind, I am reminded of the idea I works towards through meditation of finding that deep sense of calm and peace inside while chaos is going on around us, like the calm depths of an ocean when a storm is raging up above.
The catch is being able to notice and then step outside of the raging storm while we are in the middle of it. Life happens. It’s up to us how we respond. Ultimately, it’s up to me how loud I want my life to be.
I’ve been mulling over the connection between music and yoga since I started teaching. In my yoga experience, in the vast majority of classes I’ve taken, teachers play calming music. This makes sense, since yoga is moving meditation. Why then, am I drawn to play different music?
It finally occurred to me while working on playlists last week. Ever since I was little, I’ve been drawn to music. My earliest pictures are of me sitting in front of my parents’ stereo with big ole headphones on, listening to music. As I grew, I turned to gymnastics and dance.
Within my body and mind, music has the ability to clear everything else out. No matter what I was thinking about before the music came on, no matter what was happening, if the song is powerful enough, everything outside the music falls away. All that exists is the song and me.
When I used to teach dance, my favourite group to teach was beginner teens. They were in this place of discovering themselves, both as human beings, and as dancers. They were unsure and awkward, but genuine and down to earth. They still had this inner knowledge and awareness that often gets dimmed or lost through acculturation into adulthood. My goal for these classes was to help them grow both as dancers and as people. I wanted to them learn to dance and live like nobody is watching, which is a challenging feat for anybody, let alone a teenager in high school. But for those girls who were able to, they soared.
As a mom, I have the same goal. I want to help my kids follow their hearts, their passion, and their dreams, despite what anyone else (myself included- gulp!) is doing or saying. We have a lot of dance parties at our house.
When I practice yoga, when I feel the clearest, the most amazing, is when nothing else exists, but me and my mat. Yoga with no music can have this effect on me. I get into a rhythm with my breath and body, so that everything and everyone around me falls away. However, music has the power to drop me into that state when I wasn’t already on my way there. It facilitates my ability to release and brings me clarity when my mind is muck. It also challenges me when I think I can’t hold Warrior II or Chair pose any longer and empowers me when I think I don’t have the energy or ability to go for that arm balance.
The Buddha described everyone as enlightened. We all contain Buddha nature, this jewel, deep within us. We are all enlightened beings, it’s just that most of our jewels are covered with some level of (or buried in) mud. Meditation and yoga work to wash away, layer by layer, that mud.
For me, music blasts away the mud like a fire hose. That song comes on and I go straight to the source. There’s no ego or lack there of, there is only the here and now. And it is beautiful. So, the next time you come to my class and hear an unconventional song in my playlist, Yoga like nobody’s watching.
Life as of late has been hitting hard. During the last week of August I told my neighbors that if I could make it to September 19, I would be having a party that weekend to celebrate. Well, September 19 came, and instead of going home and being able to relax and let go of an intense few weeks, life stepped up further. I look back and laugh. On September 19, after my son Trey’s monthly general anesthetic and lumbar puncture as part of an intrathecal (IT) clinical trial that puts the enzyme he is missing into his central nervous system, Trey lost the ability to walk (it was unrelated to the procedure and he did get back to walking with a limp after about four days). September 20 we spent in Emergency at BC Children’s Hospital, which led to a number of last minute and emergent appointments at BC Children’s Hospital over the next weeks, in addition to the regular checkups at Children’s and another trip to ENT after Trey shoved Playdoh in his ear.
A few weeks later, one of my nightmare’s finally came true when Trey came down with the flu less than 12 hours before his October life-saving IT dose which resulted in the cancellation of the procedure. Fortunately (this was the first time this has happened), they were able to reschedule the dose for the following week, which was last Thursday, October 24. A week ago we also got a call that Trey’s knee surgery (the cause for his sudden inability to walk), was scheduled for this past Monday, October 28.
This doesn’t acknowledge Trey’s meltdowns in the middle of the OR refusing to go under general, or what it’s like to sit in the waiting room imagining what the surgeon is doing to your sleeping child, the last minute need to find sitters and drivers for my other children Avery and Sadie, me wondering how and why in the world I ever thought I could teach yoga when I am mother to a child with a progressive disease, and the feelings of unfairness, fear and overwhelming emotion of it all. How do I mother two children who are dedicated to and passionate about their activities, when I have another child with dire medical needs and whose medical needs trump the other kids’ activities every time? How do I look after myself and my well-being amidst all of this? And what the heck about my partner Ryan?
Trey’s knee surgery was Monday. Surprisingly, he went to sleep well, which was a relief. My good friend Melissa called moments after Trey went back to see how surgery was going, so I went into the lobby to speak with her. While I was speaking to her, I saw a friend. It was strange because he had no reason to be at Children’s, so once I got off the phone, I walked over to see him.
It is almost indescribable what he looked like. He looked like a zombie: inhuman, pale, almost not in existence. Looking back, I wonder if that’s what I looked like after Trey was diagnosed. Without sharing too much of his story, his son had a sudden and unexpected medical emergency that landed him in the hospital Saturday night. When we saw him Monday, his son had no brain activity. Tuesday night, they said goodbye to him.
For the first time, I saw the other side. I saw me in someone else. I saw such devastation that there is nothing to say. I saw the lack of eye contact that Ryan and I had right before Trey was diagnosed because eye contact would acknowledge the fear and hell and end of the world that was in front of us. I saw the sobbing from such extreme sadness that the entire body was ravaged. I saw the helplessness of the grandparents. There was nothing left. I’ve been there. No pride, no dignity, no ego, nothing but existence.
After Trey was diagnosed, it didn’t register in my mind that I was still alive. I didn’t feel alive. But here I am today. Then I think about this family. Right now, all they are doing is existing. The rest of the world is holding them up. The earth, their family, their friends. I think about them and I feel such deep sadness. There is no out. There is no end to the hell. There is no hope. This is it.
In most parts of life, we can find a ray of hope: a better day tomorrow, a better job next time, a worse situation than your own. But in those moments when there isn’t anything better, not even the potential for better, all you can do is be. In my past couple of months of overwhelmingness, I have thought a lot about just being. I have thought a lot about my tendency to resist feeling overwhelmed, to resist extreme sadness, to resist fear. I want it to end. I push it away so I don’t have to feel it.
One of the reasons I practice yoga is because it works on ‘being.’ It works on being here now, following and focusing on the breath. I can sit in chair pose and watch my thoughts as I sit in the posture longer and the sensations get increasingly intense. What does my mind do when I think my body can’t stay there any longer? What happens when I’m holding dancer’s pose and it’s getting tough and instead of waiting for the teacher to say ‘release’, what happens if instead I breathe into the intensity, I breathe into what I feel (in life I noticed that as soon as I gave up my end dates, such as September 19, and let go of my history of challenges and treated each moment as new, life got easier)? I like yoga because it gives me a way to focus on my breath and an opportunity get to know my mind, when it’s not a matter of life and death. When it doesn’t really matter.
What I have learned through my life and yoga is that sometimes, when life is too much, all you can do is be.
I have spent a lot of time recently sitting with emotions that are not happy or positive, and I get the impression that it makes some people uncomfortable. It seems like human nature to want to make things ‘okay’ or to look for the positive in any situation. Sure, you could say I’m fortunate that Trey’s alive even if he has MPS or that my friend’s child would not have been able to lead a full life even if he had gained some brain function back, so it’s better that he passed… but does that help in times of grief and utter devastation? No.
As hard as it’s been to let go and just sit with really deep and intense emotions, I am enjoying getting to know myself. It’s interesting watching my mind when it says ‘I deserve’ to watch TV or pick up some chocolate, or ‘I need’ a glass of wine or ‘I can’t take anymore,’ and instead, just sit with whatever comes up.
Instead of pushing feelings away, I’m allowing them, which is beginning to feel cathartic (at first it was terrifying). As a parent to a child with a progressive disease, my friends or I, at any given time, receive a lot of scary news and are faced with tough decisions about the lives of our children. Children in our MPS community pass away regularly. It is not a road for the faint of heart. My life is raw. There is often anger, bitterness, helplessness, and sadness. More than all of that though, is love. There is so much love.
What I am learning is that instead of fighting my emotions and bottling them up, which is exhausting, and they always come up eventually anyways, is to allow my feelings to exist. I am learning to give them the space that they need, and then when I am ready, I breathe into them and let them go. I’m learning that sometimes all we can do is breathe and let go. Breathe and let go. Breathe and let go.