My Health Hero(es)

When Oscar Insurance Corporation asked me to write a post about my health hero I had a hard time picking just one.  In the end I decided that writing about multiple people would be fitting since Oscar, a provider serving New York and New Jersey, is all about promoting health through community.  As a fitness professional I spend my days trying to be a health hero for other people but really these people are the ones who inspire me.  You see, when I moved to Charlottesville, VA after working in New York City and Chicago I had a bit of a paradigm shift.  Charlottesville is a beautiful town as well as one of the most popular places to retire in the country.  Moving here at the ripe old age of 29 I had previously worked with mostly young professionals.  Nowadays the majority of my clientele are between the ages of 55 and 87.  These folks have no interest in 6 pack abs or 30 inch biceps.  In fact, I rarely focus on numbers at all these days.  They come to me with one common goal: to feel better.

My clients give new meaning to the phrase 70 is the new 50.  Due to Charlottesville’s proximity to Washington D.C. many are retired lawyers, doctors, and government officials.  One would think after living such fast paced lives they would be inclined to slow down but this is not the case.  They are well versed in working hard to overcome obstacles and this is apparent in the way they relate to their bodies.

I used to think my work was to make people look better in order to be more comfortable in their own skin.  I now know that being comfortable in one’s own skin is less about an aesthetic and more about a feeling, a confidence that comes with knowing that you are doing your best even when things are far from ideal.

My clients have not had it easy.  More than a few have fought and won their battles with cancer.  Some have lost.  Several live with multiple sclerosis.  I’ve written programs for clients with all manner of frustrating symptoms.  Whether due to a degenerative disease or the aftermath of valiant military service they do not see their struggles as a reason to give up.  They know that the road to better health is paved with commitment.

My clients have encouraged me to look at my own health in a new light.  My struggles used to make me feel like a fraud in the fitness world.  I used to think I should be effortlessly thin, glowing, a beacon of health.  Now I see that through my own struggles I am better able to relate to their struggles.   I am not a fraud, I am human.

Through working with this dynamic group I’ve come to know the importance of community support when it comes to individual health.  I’ve watched them cheer one another on and have received the benefit of their enthusiasm.  When I was pregnant with my daughter Eve they supported me through 40 weeks of training and teaching.  When my daughter tragically died due to a cord compression 3 days after her due date I didn’t think I would be able to continue working in the same capacity.  How could I go on preaching the benefits of a healthy lifestyle when my own body had betrayed me so egregiously after all my hard work?

During the days and weeks that followed delivery I received countless cards filled with kind words from clients that had accepted, long before I did, that try as we may some things in this life are beyond our control.  I soon went back to work and though every day is a challenge I know that my experience strengthens my connection to others who wrestle daily with their demons.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my littlest health hero, my daughter Eve.  As soon as I found out I would be having a daughter I knew it was time to start giving my own body more respect.  Like many women my body is far from the ideal I hold in my mind.  I didn’t want Eve to take on my insecurities so throughout pregnancy I began trading in the idea of exercise as self-punishment for one of self-care.  I focused less on calories and more on nourishment.  I focused more on exercising to feel good and less on the size of my thighs.  Though Eve is no longer with me her influence is still strong.  I want to live a life she would be proud of, one that honors her memory.  My body was her home and because of this it is sacred.  Every movement, every breath, every beat of my heart connects me to her and all those who seek greater health for a life well-lived.

Find Your Edge

What is going on in your body right now? Where are you holding tension? Is your breathing shallow or deep? Don’t forget to look for positive feelings as well, what parts of you feel at ease? Taking a moment, or several moments, to check in on the body is an essential part of any health and wellness routine. The more attuned we are to what is going on, the less chance we get to the point where the body has to scream for our attention.  This is precisely where stretching comes into play.

A few years ago there was a study that proclaimed stretching before a workout was not as valuable as once thought.  Most of my clients read the headline of the article in the New York Times but few went further than that. For those who didn’t like stretching, here was proof they didn’t have to do it!  The caveat was the stretching they studied was static (holding a stretch for 30 seconds or longer) and the impact it had when practiced before a workout. Performance was not improved because static stretching inhibits muscular response. The muscle is essentially in a relaxed state which causes it to fire more slowly . Therefore, if you want to warm up before a workout, you are better off performing an active stretch (moving through different ranges of motion without load on the muscle, mimicking the movement you plan on performing later in the workout). So where does static stretching fall into place in the overall health and wellness picture and is it worth the time and effort?  If static stretching “weakens” the muscle and temporarily inhibits intramuscular response it makes sense that we might perform it when we want the muscles to be more relaxed.

There is a saying in yin yoga that we store “issues in our tissues”. Physical tension is tied to mental tension and vice versa. Just as positive emotion can have a relaxing effect on the physical body, releasing tension in the muscles can have a positive effect on our mental state. I look at stretching as a time to “check in” on the body and emotional state.  After a workout it is more of the former (especially if you are in a crowded gym when doing so!), during a yoga practice it is more of the latter.

I remember being a little afraid to practice yoga or even take a walk by myself in the first few days after I lost Eve. Instinctively I knew that getting back to my body meant delving deeper into what was going on internally.  As humans our initial response is to back away from discomfort, which works quite well when we mistakenly touch a hot burner on the stove but less well when we repress, distract, or numb ourselves to our emotions.  Diversions have their place but it isn’t possible to turn away from uncomfortable feelings forever.  They will need to be dealt with sooner or later, and better during downward facing dog than during a meeting at work.

The internal aspect of yoga can seem daunting but it is really not so. Sure, there will be uncomfortable points but by staying with the discomfort we learn some key things about ourselves.  Notice what arises.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “My hips are really tight from all the running I’ve been doing lately”. Sometimes it’s “I hate this feeling, I hate sitting with this feeling, oh, wait, it’s starting to lift.”  The lifting and lightening is something that still takes me by surprise.  I always knew that if I held a stretch or a pose for any length of time my muscles would eventually relax and release.  For some reason it took me until recently to realize the same was true for emotions.  I used to think that negative emotions must be acted upon but in the face of Eve’s death there is nothing I can do to right the wrong.  When difficult emotions rise, as they often do now during my daily yoga practice, I acknowledge them, experience them, and watch them pass.  It takes as much, if not more work, than the physical practice but seems to help strengthen and repair whatever it is that is broken in there.

“Finding the edge” is a phrase that often gets repeated in yoga class.  The edge is the point of a stretch that is deep without going too deep, just this side of comfortable.  Everyone’s edge is different and you can’t find your own without testing the waters.  It’s the place where you are accomplishing without forcing, moving forward without pushing.  It’s the balance between letting things be as they are and warming to the possibility of growth.  What keeps things interesting is that our edge is constantly changing.  Even if you are someone who likes to perform the same stretching routine or yoga practice day after day it will never truly be the same.  The edge and the ease are rarely in the same places you found them yesterday.

What is the difference between a “yoga stretch” and a “fitness stretch”?  Yoga stretches are performed with the intention of noticing what is going on internally.  Fitness stretches are performed without this intention but may lead one down the same road by default.  Releasing, relaxing, and moving with more ease…seems worth it to me.

Results are Typical (Though they may be different than what you were expecting….)

As a trainer there is always one question that I hesitate to answer when taking on a new client: “How long will it take me to see results?”.  I hesitate to answer this because to answer would imply there is a finish line on the road to health.  As much as infomercials would like to have us believe there is no end game in the pursuit of fitness .  Yes, exercising can dramatically change your body, lift your spirit, and make you a more intelligent, well-focused individual.  I believe that with every cell of my being.  But, as with anything else in life, to really reap the benefits one must focus on the process rather than the end result.  I say this by no means to discount the importance of having goals.  If exercise didn’t assist in things like weight loss, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, elevated mood, increased strength, better bone density, and the like very few would see any point in doing it.  As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”.  It is great to have a goal and nine times out of ten you will reach that very goal.  Ten times out of ten you will discover things you never had the prior ability to visualize along the way and it will be these things that truly inspire change.

Maybe you start eating a cleaner diet with the initial goal of losing weight.  You start adding more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables and struggle for the first few days,  As you continue on this path you gradually notice changes that are not connected with weight loss at all.  Your energy soars to new heights, those irritating headaches have suddenly dissipated, you no longer need that 3:00 pm cup of coffee to get you through the work day.  Soon you start to lose taste for the convenience foods you once survived on, your body has had a taste of true nourishment and never wants to go back.  Your clothes are looser, your body is stronger, and you are amazed to find that the weight you were trying to get rid of has fallen off.  You haven’t been cranky or hungry or felt that sense of frustration you felt while on “diets” in the past.  It seems so natural now to live this way and you are enjoying and appreciating food more than ever.  The road to weight loss has been enjoyable and the outcome is now a nice side benefit.

B.K.S. Iyengar, who recently passed away at the age of 95, said this of yoga:  “Penetration of our mind is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.”   Maybe, like eating a cleaner diet, you began an exercise program with the initial goal of losing weight.  You begin moving more, lifting weights, and for the first few days it is uncomfortable and you are not sure you want to continue.  Just when you are considering quitting the gym you have a really tough day at work.  You consider going to happy hour to drink your cares away but decide to give the gym one last shot. You jump into a kick boxing class and find a release that is much more powerful than anything you have experienced on a bar stool.  After a few weeks of increased activity you are sleeping better, are better able to handle the stress life throws your way, and feel stronger both mentally and physically.  And yes, you’ve lost weight.  Your looser pants feel that much better paired with your new-found peace of mind.

Why does anyone ever want to lose weight?  The reasons are many but they all fall under the same umbrella: to feel better. But maybe we are barking up the wrong tree.  Maybe it’s the healthy habits themselves that we are truly craving.   It is unhelpful to put all our hopes and dreams on a desired outcome because, in fitness as in life, there is very little we can control.  As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”  Our bodies, our lives, and ourselves are constantly changing.  While keeping anchored to our highest goal can keep us on the right path it is more important (and ultimately more rewarding) to be fully committed and present to the journey.  

Running Right

“Laura, stop running like a bimbo!” This is the phrase that popped into my head on my Saturday morning run.  These exact words were yelled by a choreographer during the first modern dance piece I performed in college and 14 years later (no need to do the math people) they still make me giggle.  It was the first and last time I have been called a bimbo, at least to my face.  Ever since then I’ve wondered, is there a right way to run?

The jury is still out on proper running technique.  Are runners better off with a more cushioned shoe, less cushioned shoe, or no shoes at all?  Is it preferable to strike the ground with the heel or the forefoot?  The studies are mixed and though according to Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory I might be a fitness expert I don’t consider myself an expert on running.  I do, however, enjoy it very much, or at least enough to hit the road most days of the week.  I am, like many people, a late convert to running and don’t do it competitively but rather because I like the way it makes me feel.  Coming from the flatlands of Chicago to the mountain town of Charlottesville my runs became more challenging but also more frequent.  Despite its hilly terrain I’ve grown to love running this town.  This is partially due its more temperate climate, partially due to its inherent beauty, and partially due to time of life.  The following is my personal recipe for a delicious run:

1 part inspiring music: The ideal running tempo is 180 bpm but concentrating less on the beat and more on choosing music that suits your mood makes for a much more satisfying run.  Sometimes “workout” music is just the thing but other times it will drive you crazy.  If you aren’t in the mood for base-pumping club beats put on something you are in the mood for.  Listening to music is a powerful way to validate even the most difficult feelings and in this way it can act as a kind of therapy.  If you run to work through difficult emotions adding an emotionally poignant playlist can be very powerful.

1 part solitude: Running alone and uninterrupted can turn a tedious bout of cardio into a moving meditation.  Finding a time if day when the roads are quiet, such as a weekend morning, can contribute to a more peaceful session.  If you live in an area where the roads are never quiet finding an out of the way trail route is another option.

1 part adversity: Stress by its very nature is fuel for action.  Running is a great way to burn off excess energy whether you’re going through major emotional turmoil or going stir-crazy from sitting at a desk for too long.

1 part nourishment: After burning off all that excess energy refueling is essential.  Along with rehydrating, refueling with the appropriate amount of carbohydrate and protein will leave your body happy and energized.  Since there is a 60 minute post-workout window during which the body is primed for glycogen production it makes sense to consume something within the first hour of returning home from your run.  My favorite post-run treat as of late has been a protein smoothie with one or two tablespoons of raw cacao powder.  The mood boosting properties of raw cacao compliment a runner’s high nicely.

I am pretty sure I’ve stopped running like a bimbo but whether I am running the right way is still up for debate.  When I was working out during pregnancy Jed would always joke that I had the power of two.  I loved this idea because in a way having Eve did make me feel stronger instead of weaker.  The pain of losing her is largely what fuels my runs but I like to think the motivation goes deeper than that.  Einstein famously said “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”  Judging from her formidable punches and kicks I know that my daughter had a great deal of energy and it is this energy that remains inside me, somewhere, propelling me forward.

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.

Wide Awake

I think we can all agree that sleep is essential for overall health. There is nothing like a good night’s sleep to make you feel like you are on top of the world. It is during sleep that our muscles recover from an intense workout, the brain files away information and integrates it into memory, and skin cells regenerate and repair (hence the phrase “beauty sleep”). In recent years I’ve struggled with insomnia. It began with a fitness job that required me to reset my entire sleep cycle in order to be at work at 4:45 am each morning. I was frequently nervous that I would oversleep leaving 4 clients locked out of the studio and standing outside on a cold Chicago morning. This fear continued even after I moved on to a different job with more normal hours. When I was pregnant, worries about becoming a mother and general discomforts made it hard to sleep. Now that Eve is gone my brain seems to be trying to come to terms with reality and since I don’t have much time to figure things out in the light of day I find myself waking up at night trying to make sense of the whys, hows, and what nows. I thought I’d be spending sleepless nights with a baby, now I spend sleepless nights trying to come to terms with my baby’s death. These years of insomnia have made me somewhat of lab rat in my own clinical trials of sleep aids. Though every body is different and I am by no means a medical expert I thought I’d share my personal findings in case they are helpful:

-Forget About Eight Hours- As you might have guessed from my choice of career, I can be a total nut somewhat obsessive about trying to maintain healthful habits. I used to be obsessed with getting 8 hours of sleep, anything less was failing. Consequently, I would try going to bed before I was tired and often insomnia would result. Now I try to listen to my body’s cues. Since sleep is an act of letting go trying to force the act will only make matters worse.

-Natural Is Best- Again, I am not a medical expert and I know some people have issues that do require OTC or prescription sleep meds but right now, for me, natural remedies have proved to be the best. I’ve tried a number of OTC remedies that have left me wide awake and feeling like hell in the morning. I also had a short stint with doctor prescribed Ambien and though effective for getting to sleep my short-term memory was significantly affected (which is not ideal when teaching choreographed fitness classes). Used as directed melatonin and valerian can be helpful. If you are a fan of aromatherapy you may want to try keeping a spray bottle of lavender essential oil and water to spray on your sheets prior to getting into bed. Recently my husband’s cousin sent me a wonderful sleep serum that she makes which has helped quite a bit. You can find this sleep serum as well as a variety of other high quality, homemade products at

-Tap Into the Parasympathetic Nervous System- I know I sound like a broken record but yoga and meditation have proved very helpful in my quest for sleep. We spend so much of our day tapping into the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system that the body can forget how to transition to the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system required for sleep. Yin or restorative yoga when practiced directly before bed can assist in this transition. A long practice isn’t necessary, even 5 minutes in “legs up the wall” can be helpful. If you would prefer to practice under the covers consider downloading a guided yoga nidra for sleep.

When all else fails and a poor night’s sleep leaves you needing an extra boost in the morning try this smoothie for some extra energy: Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie with Raw Cacao I came up with this recipe after a poor sleep followed by an early morning. It is light on the stomach and offers a needed boost along with a host of antioxidants and nutrients. 1 frozen banana 1 1/2 cups almond milk (or milk of choice) 2 tbls raw cacao 2 tbls PB2 powdered peanut butter (or nut butter of choice) 2-4 drops vanilla creme liquid stevia (maybe omitted or replaced with sweetener of choice) 1 scoop protein powder of choice (I like Growing Naturals Raw Yellow Pea Protein Powder) Blend all ingredients and serve.

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.