Transformation Part 1

Tree of Transformation by HeavenonEarthSilks

Tree of Transformation by HeavenonEarthSilks

If you approach your yoga (asana) practice as a mind-body connecting activity — that’s to say as more than an aerobic workout — it has the power to transform.  And I don’t mean just by improving physical flexibility and strength.  It can change the way you relate to yourself and the world around you.  Your mat/chair becomes your personal laboratory where you can watch and learn about your patterns of thought, belief and behavior. A common yogi-ism is that “the way we react on the mat is often a reflection of how we react off it.” For example:

  • Let’s say there’s a pose you dislike — maybe its uncomfortable or maybe you feel awkward when attempting it.  You can tell when the teacher is building up to it and lo and behold, just before the class moves into it, you suddenly find you are in need of a bathroom break.  A break that, by the way, lasts only as long as you estimate the class will stay in the pose.  Realizing you’ve got your bladder on speed dial for the purpose of escaping a situation where you feel uncomfortable, tells you something about how you probably deal with similar situations in life.
  • Or, maybe rather than running off to the bathroom, you stay in class, attempt the pose “unsuccessfully” and then berate yourself for not being able to do it “as good as the person next to you.”  Were you truly unsuccessful, or was that just your judgement of your effort? How often do you berate yourself off the mat, rather than giving yourself props for trying something, even if the outcome isn’t “perfect” (in reality or in your mind)? Did you feel unsuccessful because your version of the pose didn’t compare well with your neighbor’s?

When you observe with self-compassion and non-judgement, you begin to notice the internal chain of events that, in this example, lead to fleeing discomfort.  You will also begin to understand the source of your inner critic. According to vipassana meditation teacher, Phillip Moffet, , “It’s quite common for the voice of judgment in your head to not be your own, but someone’s from your past, like a parent or teacher. Sometimes, this voice of judgment doesn’t even reflect your current values.” Awareness gives you the opportunity to begin to make changes, or to at least, pause and respond, rather than just reacting.

As regular readers know, I became a consistent practitioner of the physical part of yoga to stretch tight, aching, somewhat spastic muscles.  What I’ve barely written about is that my long-term commitment to yoga began the day my true internal voice appeared and told the critical voice of my mother to “shut up.”  I was on my mat, in the midst of practice and struggling with feelings of unworthiness.  Until that moment I hadn’t realized the inner critic I’d accepted as my own voice, was actually my mother’s.

paradigm-shift-cartoonMy mother was often abusive — physically, mentally and emotionally.  Something she denies to this day.  I learned early how to avoid much of the physical abuse.  But, the price I paid was swallowing my own needs, thoughts and desires.  I became a Pleaser, thinking that if I could just do everything “right” she wouldn’t get mad.  There was no way for a child to understand that abuse is about the abuser, not the victim. The abuse wasn’t 24/7. There were times she was very loving and a lot of fun.  But, I never knew “how the wind would blow.”  So, I became good at blending into the woodwork until I knew what mood she was in and trying to guess what she would want, need or think, before she did.  I accepted that everything she said about me, my father and the way the world worked was true. Though my values and beliefs about the world shifted as I became an adult, I continued to carry the self-image she’d created and to unknowingly operate from a place of self-protection — with behaviors and coping skills that had kept me safe as a child, but weren’t very helpful in forming healthy relationships or a healthy self-view.

I didn’t meet my true voice the first time I stepped onto my mat or even the third or fourth.  I had been practicing for months — probably 3 times a week — and had begun seeing a therapist because I was struggling with MS-related cognitive impairment. I knew that yoga was  helping my body and reducing sensations of stress.  But, I’d had no idea that all the mindfulness and paying attention I’d been doing on my mat was leading to that moment.

The moment didn’t immediately make life perfect (spoiler alert: yoga doesn’t ever make life perfect).  I continued to struggle with the inner critic and other patterns that growing up with an abusive parent creates.  But, each time I returned to my mat, I knew it was an opportunity to work with these feelings and thought patterns.  To develop a relationship with my true inner voice.  To get to know myself from a perspective that didn’t begin with my mom. And that, my friends, is transformational.

However, transformation isn’t always sunshine and light with ah-ha moments that suddenly make everything better. As the quote that introduces this post says, the process can involve moments of darkness.  That’s something I’ll be addressing in my next post.

Be good to yourselves today.  If you liked the “Tree of Transformation” image above, please check out HeavenonEarthSilks on Etsy.  There are many beautiful pieces there.

Namaste,
Deb

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My Personal History with MS and Cognition

In my last post I shared my discovery that the current MS exacerbation was effecting not only my legs, but also some of my cognition functions.  In it I promised to use the opportunity to explore/do field research on how yoga might help with the cognition aspect. I kept that promise and I will share what I learned.  But, I think telling a bit about my previous encounters with MS-related cognition issues can provide important perspective. To keep this post from becoming even longer , I’m making this Part 1 of a 2-parter.

I was diagnosed with MS in January 2005 and that June began to have trouble with many of my executive functions (planning, problem-solving, switching tasks, verbal reasoning, working memory, etc..).  I was working in fund development, an area I’d been in for 10 years. The work was highly dependent on executive functioning skills and required the ability to juggle several projects at once. One day I found myself having trouble reconnecting with my train of thought when switching between projects.  Another day I’d read guidelines and information material from a potential funding source and discover I couldn’t translate what “We” did into language that matched what “They” were interested in.  I also began to struggle with pulling information I knew from my brain to my lips.  Then there was the day I sat down at my desk and had no idea where to start.  I was so frustrated.  Many of my drives home were made in tears.

No one had told me MS could affect my ability to think.  Back then, cognition problems weren’t on most lists of potential MS-symptoms.  I thought I was losing my mind.  I have always been labeled as “smart.”  In school I ran with the “smart kids” and always gravitated towards people with a quick wit.  Multi-tasking was second nature and the field of fund development had fit me like a glove.  Now, my gloves had holes and I had no idea why.

I developed coping skills that, for the most part, kept my struggles hidden at work.  (In writing this I’ve realized that these coping skills also kept my neurologist from seeing how bad the problems were.) I confided in the receptionist and my assistant, and will be forever grateful for their help during the summer of 2005.  Still, staying on top of things required an extraordinary amount of mental and physical energy.  I had struggled with fatigue from the start and these added challenges drained me.

When I spoke to my step-mom about what was going on, she told me that my uncle (who’d had MS and passed the year before I was diagnosed) experienced cognitive difficulties.  It was something my parents had chosen not to tell me because (1) they didn’t want to scare me, and (2) they hadn’t been sure it was MS-related.  Afterall, he lived most of his life during a time when it was thought MS couldn’t effect cognition. A viewpoint that had only begun to be called into serious question a few years before my diagnosis.  It wasn’t until reading Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis by Jeffrey Gingold in mid 2006 that I even came across another whose experiences mirrored some of mine.

The cognitive problems began to subside by the end of summer. But other non-health circumstances arose and I resigned in October.  I tried doing some consulting work in early 2006, but cognitive problems resurfaced that spring. That’s when I put my fund development career on the shelf.

Of all the MS-related symptoms I’ve experienced, none has messed with my sense of self and identity like the cognition problems did.  During those times I didn’t feel smart.  The wit wasn’t there — well, not at the speed I was used to.  I’d been a talker, a communicator.  I’d always said that I’d rather ask someone for a $1,000 donation than plan a special event. During these “phases” my ability to get my point across was compromised. Conversations with me became a guessing game for my husband as I substituted “thingy,thing-a-ma-bob, whatcha-ma-call-it” and other expressions for words I couldn’t find in my mental dictionary.

If I wasn’t the Smart Girl, the Witty Girl….  If I couldn’t drive the freeway or read a map due to spatial relationship problems….. couldn’t read a book without constantly re-reading passages to remember what was going on…. couldn’t make quick decisions, even on something as simple as “paper or plastic”…… wasn’t able to convince people and institutions to invest in the work my organization was doing… then WHO WAS I????

I didn’t rediscover yoga until January 2006. My understanding of it as more than “just stretching” was still in the future when the cognition problems resurfaced that spring. It hadn’t yet become a sustaining practice in my life.  I hadn’t yet learned I was more than what I did to earn a living; more than my hobbies and interests; more than my brain and sarcastic wit.

The “About” section alludes to the fact that I grew up in an abusive situation. I won’t elaborate here except to say that growing up with an abusive parent, especially when there is significant mental and emotional abuse,does a number on your sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  I saw a therapist earlier in the decade and thought I had worked through all that.  But, this identity crisis brought the old wounds and doubts to the surface.

Though it didn’t seem so at the time, this was a good thing.  I went back into therapy with a different counselor — one who understood both the dynamics of abuse and the challenges of living with a chronic illness.  The question of “Who am I?” required me to look at the stories I’d been told — stories I’d believed about not being lovable and “less than.” It was during this time that my yoga practice shifted from stretching to something much more; something healing.  And because of this shift and my practice for the last seven years, I was better prepared when cognitive problems arose this past July.

Until next time (when I really will share what I learned this time around)…..

Namaste,
Deb