Dukkha, Sukha, and a Pain in the Gut

My initial approach to grieving was to tighten the reigns on my health and fitness habits, the idea being that if I was feeling like crap mentally at least I could feel good physically. You’d think that as a yoga teacher I would know better and realize that the mental state inherently affects the physical state but being told something 100 times pales in comparison to going through it yourself. Experience is the best teacher and, for better or worse, I keep learning the same lesson over and over. It all started last week on the day Eve would have turned 6 months old. It was one of the many tough days that have come out of nowhere and hit my unsuspecting psyche like a ton of bricks. Upon returning home from work I saw that Jed’s car was not in the driveway and since I expected him to be at home I gave him a call. He was at the cemetery, visiting Eve, the same ton of bricks had hit him too. I turned the car around and drove to him. As I knelt down at her grave I felt something shift, the familiar pang in my heart, the lump in my throat…every time I leave her there feels like that long drive home from the hospital after delivery. All I want is to take my baby home.

In the hours and days following I was determined to keep on keeping on. I wanted to have a “normal” 4th of July weekend and not fall down the rabbit hole of grief that I’ve ducked into and out of (mostly into) during the last 6 months. As it turned out my body had other plans and after a quick Friday morning run I was doubled over with stomach pain. My stomach is always the first area to be affected by stress, not uncommon since physiologically it is known as the second brain. Usually I can control things pretty well with diet and exercise but even after spending the majority of the weekend practicing restorative yoga and concocting stomach friendly recipes it took me many days to get relief.  When the pain finally let up it was a glorious feeling.

In yoga the sanskrit word dukkha is used to describe the uncomfortable parts of the practice. It is commonly translated as “suffering”. In a yoga class the dukkha poses are difficult to sustain.  They make your muscles burn and ache.  Some good examples would be isometric holds such as plank and chair or deep hip openers like pigeon and cow face. They are the poses you can’t wait to get out of. When experiencing dukkha the breath becomes particularly important. Where you might grunt in weight lifting you breathe in yoga. It’s good training for the body but even better training for the mind. It teaches students how to stay calm during times of distress, to not only endure but to relax into discomfort.

On the flip side is sukha. Sukha is the calm after the storm, the moment when tension is released. It is commonly translated as “bliss”. The sukha poses are restorative and comfortable like child’s pose and savasana.  They are the poses you can’t wait to get into.  In these poses deep, slow breathing comes easily.

It seems that in yoga, as in life, we need both. We need dukkha to appreciate sukha. Though unpleasant, dukkha calls attention to areas of weakness and allows us to make them stronger. It puts us to the test and gives us confidence when we come out on the other side. Sukha is the other side. It’s that place we keep trying to get to and where we wish we could always remain.

Fitness, even aside from yoga, is built on dukkha and sukkha. Pushing through a high intensity cardio interval is dukkha. Getting to the rest period is sukkha. Getting out of bed for an early morning run is dukkha. Having a refreshing glass of water afterwards is sukkha. Finishing any workout is sukkha! The ultimate goal of any fitness program is to experience more sukkha. We work out to experience more bliss day to day, everyday. Having a healthy body affords us a better life experience overall, but this is where it gets a bit more complicated. Focusing only on fitness of the body only takes us so far. Sometimes we can do everything possible to be “fit” but to be truly “well” we have to pay attention to the emotional state.  In this way exercise becomes a tonic for both the body and the mind. For me last weekend this meant trading in my usual upbeat running station on Pandora for one with slow, sad songs. It meant opting for restorative yoga at home alone instead of a more rigorous practice at the gym. I may have burned a few less calories but it allowed me to connect with my daughter and heal a part of me that, due to lack of attention, I hadn’t even realized was broken.

The past 6 months have been full of “dukkha”. I want to fast forward to a better time but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way. The best we can do during tough times is appreciate little moments of “sukha” and breathe through all the rest.  Whether we practice in a gym, a park, or a quiet space within our own home, a good fitness routine can help train the body and mind to tend towards resilience and an overall better quality of life.

Heavy and Light

Less than a week from today would be Eve’s half-birthday had she survived. It feels like it’s been forever since life pre-Eve but at the same time it feels like I delivered her yesterday. It was actually yesterday that J and I visited a high-risk ob gyn to find out what it would look like to try again. The thought of this is part exciting and part terrifying. Given that the autopsy showed cord compression as probable cause I am not technically high risk but thankfully to this doctor losing a child past full term is reason enough to be considered so. I can’t imagine going through another pregnancy without more monitoring than I had before.
Part of my motivation for getting back to exercise post-delivery (aside from the aforementioned coping with grief and the obvious fact that it is part of my job) has been to get to a place were I am comfortable enough with my body to go through another pregnancy. I’m not saying I am totally ready to jump on board right now but should my mind and heart decide it’s time I’d like my body to be in sync. I wish I could say that what I’ve gone through has given me complete release from any concerns regarding body image. Yes, losing Eve has down-graded many of my former worries to minor concerns but the unfortunate truth is you can still lose a child and be saddled with the frustration of postpartum bodily changes. My softer belly still bugs me and I swear my hips have widened, among other things.
That said, exercising throughout my pregnancy has helped me bounce back quicker than I thought I could. I feel pretty good physically considering the current situation and have finally been more comfortable in form-fitting clothing. I feel petty caring about such things. I am still in awe that my body created my beautiful Eve but still can’t let go of the search for more comfort in my own skin. The difference is that now I know this comfort can’t come from diet and exercise alone, my mind plays a bigger part in all this than I have ever given it credit for.
After the visit to the doctor my sleep was full of strange dreams. I kept dreaming that I couldn’t feel any movement from my baby. Then I would wake up and realize with half relief and half disappointment that there was no baby in there. At times it feels good to have my body back but it still doesn’t feel right. I may have a waist again but I don’t have my baby, I still can’t wrap my head around this fact.
When I think about putting my body through another pregnancy I worry that I won’t be able to maintain the level of fitness I did the last time. They say every pregnancy is different and up until the very last days my pregnancy was a good one. It seems like my only option is to work to be as fit as possible and let the rest go. Before I had a baby a flat stomach was always part of my idea of a fit physique. One of the plus sides to pregnancy is that it shifts your focus to what the body can do rather than what it looks like.
It makes me uncomfortable to think about being pregnant again but the idea of holding a living baby trumps the fear. After going through labor I long to experience a different outcome. The white rose on the door, the deafening silence of Eve’s arrival, the chaplain praying over her in the bassinet…all these things will never be erased from my memory and I would never want them to be. This was Eve’s story and I am grateful for the brief time I spent with her. At the same time I wonder what it would be like to mother a living child, to leave the hospital crying tears of joy instead of grief.
During morning runs lately I’ve been thinking about how during pregnancy I couldn’t wait to get back to where I am now. Physically I do feel much lighter and faster but emotionally there is a heaviness that wasn’t there before. Though it can’t be seen it changes the way I move and the way I move changes it. It’s ironic that my next pregnancy, if I am blessed to have one, might make me feel a little lighter.

Stuck In Bed, Thoughts Running Through My Head

I have no idea what is going on with my body right now.  Yes, this is an odd start to a imageimagepost on a fitness blog but it’s the truth. As I lie here in bed where I’ve held my position since Tuesday evening with a stomach virus I vaguely recall a woman who rarely had to use a sick day, never mind two in a row.  I type with one finger on my iPad in an attempt to be somewhat productive during this very unproductive time.  I am frustrated but remember a time when I would have been more frustrated.  When I would have expected to have much more control over this body of mine.  Before January 1st, before Eve.

The pictures above were taken on Eve’s last day.  It was New Year’s Day morning.  I put on my running gear and waddled downstairs to the guest room where my husband had retired to the night before (we found it was best for the both of us if we slept apart once I hit 40 weeks and my belly took up most of the bed).  I wanted him to take pictures to send to a few friends of me telling Eve to come out.  She was 3 days overdue and I was getting impatient.  Sometimes I look at those pictures and get angry at the woman in them. Why was I in such a hurry, why didn’t I relish those last moments with my baby girl?  I then think of a quote by the recently deceased Maya Angelou “I did what I knew how to do, now that I know better, I do better”.  Maybe being open to the lessons life is teaching us is all we can do.  The rest is doing the best we can with the knowledge we have.
I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out the healthiest way to cope with Eve’s death but have also realized there is no panacea for the pain. I’ve found many things that help but still nothing that cures. And that is ok. Instead of telling my body what it should do I am thinking it’s about time to let my body tell me what it needs and if sometimes that is to lie here and let it heal so be it. When faced with the fragility of life it doesn’t make sense to compromise health for the sake of what we think we should be doing, how we think we should feel, or what we think we should look like. The bottom line of any health and fitness program is to allow one to lead a happier and more productive life. There will be ups and downs but healthful habits can help us negotiate our way through them.
Yes it is frustrating that all the super foods I’ve been consuming have not turned me into superwoman and sticking to my workout routine did not protect me from picking up a virus I can only assume was waiting for me on one of the four planes I was on this weekend. At the same time it doesn’t frustrate me as much as it would have before that fatal day of January 1st. Maybe that is the gift that Eve has given me, to place more emphasis on what is than what should be. To take what comes and be able to work from there. To recognize that true health goes way beyond the physical. To appreciate that even when things are far from perfect just lying here breathing, something Eve never got to do, is a gift.

The Potential of Energy

A few days ago I went on a walk with a very wise woman.  She is a lifelong dancer and yoga teacher who is very in touch with her body.   She is training to become a personal trainer and was relaying that she would like to teach clients how to work with their own energy in order to produce positive physical results.  She mentioned how she used to beat up on her body to maintain a certain fitness level but realized she could achieve even better results by being kind to it.  As former dancers we are both too aware of how perfectionist ideals of how the body should look can get in the way of health, both physical and mental (Black Swan anyone?) and as fellow “babyloss moms” we’ve both experienced losing a child and the rigors of physically healing a postpartum body while simultaneously working on mental healing in the throes of grief.

Everyday I work with people who are coming to terms with where they are at, both physically and mentally. How do we know and then, once we know, accept and work with the fluctuations of energy and health?  I’ve worked with people with degenerative diseases, those rebounding after overcoming serious illness or injury, people going through major life changes, and everything in between.  In my years as a trainer I can’t recall a single client that has come to me free and clear of physical or mental strain and struggle.  I also can’t recall a client feeling or performing the same way, every session, day after day (maybe because I have never worked with a robot?  I have however choreographed a dance show with life-size puppets but that’s another story for another post…..)

Since life is anything but static I suppose it makes sense that our bodies and energies are so variable.  The most important aspect of any fitness program is to maintain relative flexibility and not just with the physical body.  We have to be flexible with what we do and how we do it, day after day, month after month, year after year (and hopefully decade after decade if we are doing it right!). By listening to what our bodies are telling us and consequently working from there we will always be training the right way.

By no means does this equate to letting ourselves off easy.  In fact it is much easier to perform the same routine day after day, running through the motions like a hamster on a wheel.  It takes work to learn to recognize the bodies cues and even more work to act on them.  As much as it might seem at surface level no ones body is telling them to sit on the couch everyday.  We are wired to move, though maybe not in the same way everyday or in the way the fitness magazines say we have to.  There is not one specific form of movement that “works”.  There are many different forms of movement that work in many different ways.  There is something for everyone no matter what place or point you are at in life.

By working with instead of against our energy we can find ease in the most vigorous workout and challenge in the most gentle one.  We can move in a way that feeds our life rather than detracts from it.  We can burn of excess energy when it needs to be drained and increase energy when our fire needs a little stoking.  We can work with the body to come to a place of physical balance that leaves us better able to find peace mentally, emotionally, and generally in life.

I often get asked if I miss dancing,  in some ways I do but the way I see it I am dancing all the time.  I learned in college that “dancing” and “movement” are not very far apart.  Movement feels so much better when it comes from the inside out rather than the outside in.  A choreographer once told me to “choreograph my life”, I took this to mean figure out what moves you and create a life around it.  I hope to on my best days help others do the same.  Lately I’ve gotten a serious amount of feedback from my body and often it’s been hard to decipher.  Some days my energy leads me to my yoga mat, other days I hit the weights or the road, and often times I do all three.  It’s been a crazy dance and I am still learning the steps.  Hopefully it works out to something beautiful in the end but for now I will just settle in for the ride.

Making it Over the Mountain

It is widely known that a difficult life situation can have a profound effect on health. I’ve had a crash course in dealing with difficult situations during the past year and consequently have found some tools to make things more manageable. With my birthday and Mother’s Day so close to each other the first part of May has been a particularly rough time. The following are some tools I’ve used to maintain relative health during a difficult time:

-Impaired Digestion- When stressed our bodies tend to shut down unnecessary functions so we can fight or flee. Unfortunately digestion suffers and stomach pain results. Eating a healthy and easily digestible diet can help. For extra assistance add a good probiotic or experiment with the ayurvedic remedy Triphala. You can read more about the effect of stress on the enteric nervous system here.

-Interrupted Sleep- Insomnia is a common problem related to stress. Whether the problem is getting to sleep or staying asleep yoga and meditation can prove helpful in reminding our bodies how to relax. The deep breathing associated with yoga and meditation combined with calming movement and poses can help shut down the stress response and allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. Styles such as yin or restorative yoga are ideal before sleep. If waking up in the middle of the night is the problem keep a guided sleep meditation by your bed and to play when you wake during the night. You can read more how yoga and meditation can help with sleep here.

-Increased anxiety- When times are difficult the world tends to feel like an unfriendly place. In an effort to keep us safe our sympathetic nervous system remains in a heightened state to protect us from threat. Decreasing stimulants such as caffeine can be helpful, along with fortifying the nervous system with important nutrients. Reminding the body to relax by adding moments of stillness and deep breathing during the day is important while burning off excess energy through exercise promotes emotional balance and helps to strengthen the immune system. Click here to read about nutrients that help ward off anxiety.

-Low energy- Times of stress and grief in particular tend to wear us down. While getting extra rest is a great idea too much time on the couch can drain energy further. Balancing rest with movement that you enjoy (a relaxing walk, bike ride, swim, etc.) can help raise energy levels. Making sure meals and snacks are well balanced can help provide a steady stream of vitality. Read more about how exercise enhances overall energy here.

If life is a marathon then working through tragedy is like running up a mountain. While the only way to truly heal during a difficult time is to experience and move through it taking care of the body can make the process more bearable.

An Exercise in Karuna

Back in the fall of 2012 I completed 200 hours of yoga teacher training. The course was called the Karuna Teacher Training program and when it randomly came up in a google search I only clicked on it because it sounded like something out of Hawaii involving surf boards. Upon further inspection I learned that karuna is a Sanskrit word meaning “compassionate action”. The basis of this program was compassionate action towards self and others (and in the Buddhist philosophy where all are one it is quite impossible to have one without the other). This seemed like a good fit at the time mostly because I figured a program of this nature would not involve boatloads of stress or mean teachers. After embarking on this journey through yoga I started to apply this idea to other areas of health and fitness. In an industry where one of the most popular phrases is “no pain, no gain” is there room for compassion and if so how can it be applied? The closer I examine this relationship the more I realize that compassion is indispensable to overall wellness.
The idea of being fit is often attached to that of perfection: a fit body looks perfect, performs perfectly, and feels perfect all of the time. Lacking in one of these areas equates to being unfit. Living with this assumption makes the attainment of fitness an especially drudging task. Why even consider reaching for something so utterly unattainable? Failure is inevitable so why even begin? This is where many people simultaneously start and end on their fitness journey. I see many clients get frustrated with themselves for not performing an exercise perfectly even though their body may not have moved in that way for 20 years. Their body may have been through illness, injury, childbirth, but to them this has no bearing: they should be able to perform the task just as they could 20 years ago, in an almost completely different body. Facing every challenge with this mentality can make a workout seem like an exercise in beating yourself up and unless you are trying to recreate Fight Club what is the point? Life does a fine job of kicking our ass, why spend any more time kicking our own? Approaching exercise without judgement allows it to become what it truly is: an opportunity to improve our overall quality of life by being able to move through the world with more comfort and ease. Entering a workout with compassion allows us to be where we are and end up a little better off than we were before. Knowing that compassion is part of the process makes it easier to come back time and time again and make changes when our body asks for them, an inevitable part of the fitness process since our bodies are constantly in flux.
Now I know I may sound like I am up on my high horse preaching away but I assure you the main reason this post came to mind is because it’s something I have struggled with myself lately. In becoming a member of the baby-loss community I’ve taken solace in online forums where other mothers are trying to come to terms with the sudden and random loss of their babies. A phrase I keep seeing over and over is “be gentle with yourself”. It reminds me of yoga teacher training when things were blessedly simple although I may not have realized it at the time. I struggled with having self-compassion back then and it seems even harder to have it now. Time now is divided into before Eve died and after. It is a challenge to be compassionate towards a body that I am angry at for betraying me and worst of all my daughter. It is also a challenge to be compassionate in accepting that no matter how well I eat or hard I work I will not look, perform, or feel 100 percent anytime in the near future and possibly not ever again. Most days I have so much anger and sadness that a years worth of runners highs wouldn’t completely alleviate the pain. I am learning to meet myself where I am at and work from there and though things are far from perfect exercise seems to be doing something. I try to believe that the fact that I am able to keep moving means there is a glimmer of hope somewhere inside me even if it is buried so deep that it is barely visible.
I am starting to realize that compassion is an exercise all its own. Though it would be nice to always enter a workout feeling full of energy and on top of the world for most people that is a rare state of affairs. We need to be able to work from were we are.
The other translation of karuna means “any action that diminishes suffering”. When we exercise we diminish our own suffering by becoming healthier physically and feeling better mentally. When we feel better physically and mentally we tend to more pleasant and productive individuals who are better able to reduce the suffering of those around us. It might be a stretch to say that exercise can make the world a better place but looking at it from the principle of karuna that statement might not be too far off.

Live, Love, Dance

Dance is often overlooked as a valid form of exercise, possibly because when we are dancing we tend to forget that we are exercising.  The inspiration for dance more often than not comes from inside and it’s only after we’ve quelled that urge that we notice how it shapes our bodies on the outside.  I haven’t always felt this way about dance.  When I first started dancing as a child I only ever thought about how it felt and it always felt really good.  Somewhere along the way I got lost in an aesthetic and became more concerned with looking like a dancer than actually being one.  Over the years, and after leaving dance for a while to focus on other forms of movement, I gradually relearned how to enjoy movement for movement’s sake and it has once again become a passion instead of a duty.

Dancing is the ultimate life-affirming expression and this has never been more clear to me than recently when faced with so much death.  After losing Eve in January my husband lost several relatives in quick succession.  His cousin, grandfather, step-grandfather, and grandmother all passed away within a matter of weeks leaving many heavy hearts in their wake.  Expressions of grief have been outnumbered by expressions of love by surviving family members who are moving through this tough time together.

Yesterday my husband and I attended a service in honor of his grandparents.  There were many beautiful stories to be told by their children and one in particular that they kept coming back to; the memory of their parents at home dancing together.  Though many tears were shed this mention made everyone smile.  In a world where we all have to die dancing is a great confirmation that we have lived.

When I was pregnant with Eve I often imagined teaching her how to dance.  I pictured the two of us dancing around the house, doggie Dee joining in the mix, and my husband laughing at all three of us.  It saddens me to think that this will never be but in more optimistic moments I am able to see that it already was.  I was able to imagine this scene so clearly because I’d participated in it many times before with Eve dancing inside my womb instead of out in the world.  If there is anything I know about Eve it is that she was a mover until the day she died, a great confirmation that she did indeed live.

There was a study in the New England Journal of medicine a while back that among its many positive health benefits dancing lowers the risk of dementia by 76 percent.  Though all exercise positively affects the brain in some way, dancing is the only form with this great an impact.  Maybe it is the fact that it is not repetitive and literally keeps us on our toes.  More likely it is because we remember the times we danced not only with our brain but also our heart.

A favorite memory I have with my husband is dancing around the Chatham bandstand on a trip to Cape Cod.  We had just taken a ballroom dance class at home in Chicago and were excited to put our new found knowledge to good use.  We danced for the entirety of the performance and though I couldn’t tell you how many calories we burned I can tell you how it felt.  It was like we were in a scene from an old time movie: giddy from spinning underneath the stars, hearts filled with love for each other, and, most definitely, alive.