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.
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.
I have three kids. Enough said? Just kidding… there’s a bit more to the story. Back in 2006, when my first child Trey was 23 months old, he began the diagnosis process for a progressive and rare difference (I dislike the word disease… it makes Trey seem like someone you want to avoid, instead of the fabulous and friendly life lover I know) called MPS II or Hunter Syndrome. One moment we had Trey, our perfect typical toddler, and the next moment we had something foreign and incomprehensible that apparently was part of Trey? We were told Trey’s hands would curl, his facial features would coarsen, his joints would stiffen, his airways would narrow, his heart would begin to fail, possible cognitive decline leading to a vegetative state, definitive early death. We were blindsided and I didn’t know how to move on, how to live. I kept having these visions of buying a cabin deep in the woods and huddling with Trey in the corner of the cabin until he died.
But somehow, life went on. It still feels like a disconnect. I don’t really know how I went on aside from the fact that my heart kept pumping and my body kept breathing. Trey and his 3-month old brother Avery still needed to eat, go to the playground, wrestle, read, LIVE, but I wasn’t really there. For years I felt compelled to take photos and video of EVERYTHING Trey did so that Avery would remember what his brother was like before he regressed and couldn’t talk or walk or eat or sleep or smile or live anymore. I was tortured.
Life also went on with LOADS of tests (which leads to test results and sometimes paralyzing, nauseating and convulsive anxiety and fear). Cardiology, otolaryngology, rheumatology, ophthalmology, orthopedic, plastic, general and neurosurgery, genetics, sleep clinics, biochemical disease, and I know I’m forgetting some department. That’s in addition to weekly intravenous enzyme replacement therapy infusions, monthly intrathecal infusions in North Carolina (Trey’s part of a clinical trial down there), and weekly speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and therapeutic horse back riding. When the news was good, I recovered quicker from the anticipation that comes with every test, but when the news was bad, my mind ran away and I lived up in my head for days to weeks before I could find enough solid ground to come back to earth again.
I come from a glass-half full family and like to think of myself as a positive person. Even when the news was bad, I worked to find the positive, I worked my way from the terror in my mind back to the here and now, which was usually watching my kids dig in the dirt, feed squirrels, get smoothie all over their faces, splash in the bath, or ride their bikes. The problem with a progressive disease though, is you don’t get much of a break. There wouldn’t be much time between one test result and another, so I spent most of my life processing bad news. I didn’t spend much time living.
When I first found yoga in 2010, it was a break from my life. I knew I could go there and let go. Either I was following my breath, feeling the burn in my thighs as I sat in warrior II or chair pose, or concentrating on not falling out of my arm balance. It was a break from my mind, from the intensity of life. It was my escape.
Almost two years ago Trey qualified for a clinical trial at the University of North Carolina that puts the enzyme he is missing directly into his central nervous system and brain. Almost instantly, life got a heck of a lot easier. It’s still a lot more intense and different than families who don’t live with a progressive disease, but Trey basically stopped dying. I still don’t take anything for granted, Trey is relying on all sorts of factors to stay alive and I’ve learned that we never know what tomorrow will bring, but right now I’m breathing a little easier.
With this newfound ability to take deep breaths and face my demons, which aren’t nearly as scary as they were before Trey qualified for this trial, I am learning to live with impermanence.
When I first began to meditate and I learned about the Buddha and enlightenment (freedom from suffering), I learned that one of the reasons we suffer is because of attachment. We are attached thing things or beings that are impermanent. Trey. Avery. Sadie. Yes, I’m attached. No, I cannot let go. Therefore, I will never be enlightened. I wondered and still wonder if any mother’s have ever been enlightened?
When I brought this up with my teachers, they suggested baby steps. Don’t jump in the deep end when you don’t know how to swim. They also suggested practicing now, when life is easier, so that when life gets hard, as it most definitely will, I will have some skills- mind control skills. So that’s what I’m doing. While I’ve given up on enlightenment because I will always be attached to my kids, I meditate. And I practice yoga. Those two practices together have given me the ability to catch my mind when it’s playing on repeat or getting anxious/frustrated/envious/judgemental about something or someone. It feels really good. I am less angry, I am more patient, I have more compassion, I make better decisions. I am much calmer. Life isn’t as overwhelming anymore. It’s not as much of a rollercoaster. Given that change is the only constant in life, I figure I better start learning to work with that reality instead of fighting it. That’s the extended version of why yoga for me.
If you want to learn more about Trey, MPS II Hunter Syndrome and our journey, you can visit his website: www.treypurcell.com.