On the Mat: Establishing an Imperfect Yoga Practice

Yoga for Perfectionism

My new yoga practice is both consciously and unconsciously challenging my perfectionism. Especially as a beginner in quarantine, without an instructor to show or help me with proper poses, pretty much everything I do is imperfect. And despite knowing this, I still choose to show up on my mat every day and try…I think that’s what yoga is all about…showing up, even when it’s messy or imperfect.

I’ve been struggling with meditation recently because I found I’m not great at the concept of “noticing your thoughts as clouds passing by, without holding onto or judging them.” In the last week I told a friend that rather than observing my thoughts as clouds, I cause a storm of clouds that hover above me and drench me in rain. I’ve been encouraged to treat meditation like a skill that requires practice, just like photography or writing.

On the mat the other day, I was in the middle of a particularly challenging yoga practice that woke up a lot of muscles I don’t normally use. After I transitioned out of a difficult pose back into downward dog, it took me a few breaths to realize I wasn’t holding proper form of this resting pose and was sort of collapsing in on myself because of my tired muscles. When I became aware of my improper form, I simply readjusted, pushing away from the earth and dropping my shoulders. Upon reflection later that day, I realized I had unconsciously done what I always tell myself I’m so bad at in meditation: I noticed my form was wrong, and, without judging myself for getting it wrong, I just readjusted and moved on with the practice. There wasn’t time to linger on my “mistake,” because I breathed into the next pose and was so grounded that I stayed in the present.

Yoga for Body Positivity

Yoga is helping me see my body differently, more than I’ve ever been able to before, and in an entirely new way. We discussed body positivity in my ED treatment program, but it wasn’t until I continued to show up on my mat that I fully grasped the concept.

When my lungs expand and contract, I am grateful that my body is able to keep me alive, most of the time without me even being conscious of it. When I stand in tadasana, or mountain pose, I am grateful that my bones support me as I stand, sit, walk, and go about my life. When I move through different poses, I am grateful to my muscles for allowing me to do the things I love and even the things I don’t, usually with ease and obliviousness. When I lay in savasana, or corpse pose, I am grateful to my body as a whole, for performing so many simultaneous complex functions that allow me to breathe, walk, talk, and think, let alone feel, emote, create, and do the million other things that make me me.

Yoga has given me the beautiful chance to stop criticizing my body for what I perceive as “faults,” and be grateful for just how many things it can do, that I normally never acknowledge.

Yoga for Willfulness

Listen…I am stubborn. My willpower is sub par. When I have a bad day, it is easy for me to pass on the difficult tasks. Lately, I’ve found that the days when I really don’t want to show up on my mat are the days that I notice the most improvement in my mood from the beginning to the end of my practice. And knowing that helps me push past my stubbornness. To show up, even when I desperately do not want to. Because the feeling at the end always trumps the feeling at the beginning. Feeling proud. Accomplished. Inspired.

Yoga for High Sensitivity

One of the benefits of yoga, I’ve found, is its ability to safely and gently connect the body and the mind. One of the skills I am currently developing is interoception, or the ability to sense what is happening inside the body at any given time, and acting on that awareness.

Lately, my HSP trait has felt like a foghorn, glaringly obvious and isolating me from everyone around me. On a regular basis people point out my self-awareness or my natural ability to self-reflect, and I’m left thinking Does nobody else think about themselves this way? When I asked this question to my therapist this week she smiled and shook her head, “Nope.” It’s funny how much I continue to learn about this trait and how it separates me from everyone else, as I’ve always felt like an outcast, and now I’m finally understanding why.

However, my natural tendency to be self-reflective has helped me in my yoga practice. Yoga is all about inner-awareness and this interoception, so as I allow my breathe to lead my movement on my mat, I feel more attuned to my body and its needs than I’ve ever been before. This practice helped me be honest with myself about my meal plan; being more aware of what my body was telling me helped me recognize hunger cues I may not have otherwise been aware of. With a slight adjustment, I now feel back on track and my body thanks me!

Yoga for Radical Acceptance

I am a highly sensitive person with multiple chronic and mental illnesses. I am in recovery from a painful, consuming eating disorder. I experience PTSD from my chronic illness and subsequent anxiety. All of these facets are a part of what makes me me. Denying them or being angry with them won’t make them any less true. I am in a period of transition and acceptance of the shitty things that have happened to me. I’ve realized that holding onto anger or resentment about these things only cripples me further and keeps me in a place of stuckness. If I can’t embrace my body for all of its intricacies, talents, and flaws, how can I embrace a true yoga practice? Radical Acceptance is a skill I learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and it’s never made more sense to me than it does when I’m sitting on my yoga mat, grateful for what my body can do for me.

Resources that Helped Me:

  • “I Am Maris” — a documentary on Netflix about a teenager who uses yoga as a part of recovery from an eating disorder
  • Eat Breathe Thrive — a nonprofit founded to prevent and help individuals overcome eating disorders through community, mindfulness, and yoga
    • Eat Breathe Thrive’s “Yoga for Eating Disorder Recovery” course
  • Yoga with Adriene — a YouTube Yogi whose channel offers yoga videos for everyone and everything
  • Perfectly Imperfect: The Art and Soul of Yoga Practice — a book by Baron Baptiste that offers up excellent tools to help yogis show up, both on and off the mat

What Frozen II Taught Me About Being Highly Sensitive

Who wants to talk about Frozen?! I know I do. I’m sincerely hoping you all have seen both the original and the sequel of this beloved Disney film because I will be discussing SPOILERS! If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now, I’ll sit right here and wait…

….wasn’t it awesome?! Okay, moving forward:

In my last therapy session, I learned something new about myself (which I’m always a fan of). I learned that I am what you would call an “HSP,” or, a Highly Sensitive Person. This means that I have a highly sensitive nervous system— a nervous system designed to notice subtleties in the environment— and as a result am more sensitive, empathic, and impressionable than most people. According to Elaine Aron, the psychotherapist and author who pioneered our understanding of high sensitivity, being an HSP is a genetic personality trait (rather than a disorder that can be diagnosed and treated or cured) that affects 20% of the population. HSPs process information differently than most, and we are more easily overwhelmed by intense levels of stimulation.

When I first heard that I am highly sensitive, I was disheartened. Wasn’t being labeled as “sensitive” a bad thing? I was familiar with criticisms like “Stop being so sensitive,” or “You’re too emotional,” or “What are you so afraid of?” In situations with heavy sensory stimulation (such as the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, watching a TV show with loud music and strobing lights, or smelling really strong scents) I had experienced anxiety or panic attacks. Watching horror movies (which didn’t happen often) made me physically ill. And if a friend of mine (even if they lived clear across the country) told me they weren’t feeling well, suddenly I started experiencing similar symptoms. All of these things told me that being highly sensitive was nothing to celebrate.

Do you remember in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa is taught to stifle her magic so that she wouldn’t hurt anyone? That “conceal don’t feel” mentality is exactly how I viewed my high sensitivity. It either seemed to make people uncomfortable or it was implied that I was wrong somehow for feeling things more largely than everyone else. So, I put my metaphorical gloves on and only expressed myself in my art or to the people I felt safe with.

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As I meandered through life, my anxiety continued to grow and fester inside of me, much like Elsa’s magic. When my high sensitivity inevitably made itself known, usually through my anxiety, I was reminded of the reaction Elsa gets when her magic scares the residents of her kingdom, forcing her to flee into the wilderness. There, she is free to use her gift freely, and we see that she has exceptional, and beautiful power; building an ice castle for herself and transforming her physical appearance into the gorgeous Ice Queen that we have come to love.

My “Let it Go” moment came in my last therapy session, when I learned that stifling my high sensitivity is only doing more harm than good. Any time I felt my body giving my a cue that I was being too overstimulated, I shoved it down. I told myself that I would be seen as weak or a failure if I paused that loud, strobing movie, or put down that triggering book, or chose something else to eat that didn’t taste or smell so strong. My therapist assured me that by embracing my sensitivity, and listening to the cues my body is giving me, my anxiety will decrease and my quality of life will improve tremendously. When I mentioned that acting on these cues makes me feel like a failure, she asked “Do people who are failures work to decrease their anxiety and take care of themselves?” What do you think my answer was? She then gave me resources to explore so that I may continue learning about what it means to be an HSP, and how I can repurpose the word “sensitive” so that it does not have a negative connotation.

Since then, I have learned that being an HSP is not a choice or an illness, but rather a genetic trait, just like having blue eyes or being tall. Sound familiar? No matter how much Elsa tries, she can’t will away her magic; it is a part of her, and trying to contain it is useless. When I look at my sensitivity that way, I realize that being an HSP may seem negative to outsiders, but it is, in fact, a gift that, when understood, helps me approach the world in a beautiful way.

Now that I have these resources, I’ve started digging into what it means to be an HSP, and how I can find purpose and beauty in it. Each book or website I visited seem to call out to me, like the voice that calls to Elsa in Frozen II. I learned that high sensitivity is not the same as shyness or introversion; in fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverted! (I am a part of that 30%!) I learned that HSPs who try to live by the same operating system of non-HSPs, are more likely to develop chronic illnesses. If you’ve read the blog before, you know that I have dealt with chronic illnesses since I was young. Also, an important fact: highly sensitive nervous systems affect both men and women equally, but because of our heavily dominant culture, men are discouraged from expressing their sensitivity. (These facts I’ve listed came from Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook.”) Every fact or anecdote brought me closer and closer to my own Ahtohallan; the river of truth that Elsa searches for throughout most of the sequel.

Along the way, I met some other HSPs— friends and strangers alike, that shared in my feelings and experiences— much like how Elsa meets the other four spirits (Wind, Fire, Water, and Earth) on her journey of self-discovery.

My journey is far from over, but in learning all of this, Elsa’s final song “Show Yourself” started to resonate deeply with me. This is the moment in the movie where Elsa learns that she had the ability to be an unstoppable force of nature inside her all along. It took learning about herself and the past to unlock the full extent of her magic inside her. She always knew she was special, but didn’t know she could use the special part of herself for good, because in the past, it’s always exposed itself negatively.

To any reader out there who has seen themselves in this post, I hope what you take away, if nothing else, is the idea that being highly sensitive may seem negative to outsiders, but it is actually a beautiful gift. I am still learning about the facets of this gift, but I know that— just like the spirit, Elsa— there is purpose to being highly sensitive. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a trait that continues to be passed down (that affects 20% of our current population).

Show yourself. It’s time.

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Did this article resonate with you? Do you think you might be an HSP? Check out this Facebook group for Highly Sensitive People, founded by the website “Highly Sensitive Refuge,” found here. I’d also love to hear from you, if you feel like sharing your own story! Drop me a line on my Contact page…perhaps this site can provide a sense of community to the HSPs I’m sure I already know.

Hospitalization During a Global Pandemic

I realized recently that I have not updated this blog with the craziness that has ensued since my second-to-last post, “I Am Not Okay.” I was inspired to write about my recovery, but kept butting heads with writer’s block and just could not figure out why I couldn’t get a finished thought onto the page. Then I realized my readers will not have a clue what I am talking about without providing them with some context, and poof! My writer’s block was no more. So, consider this post the preface to the next.

(I will say, this hospital stay will go down as probably one of the most difficult times in my life, so stay tuned for forthcoming posts that go more in depth into what I was experiencing then.)

A week after the aforementioned blog post I was flown into the ER by a close friend, who I had called abruptly after the onset of another panic attack– my second that day. Though I was glad I was not alone in the emergency room, my friend (bless his sweet soul) had to run back and forth between the lobby/waiting area and the nurses station for me: “My friend needs a wheelchair!” “My friend needs a barf bag!” “My friend is going to faint, I need a nurse!” (Hey, at least there was a free valet who knew how to drive stick, right Rob?) It was chaotic, and soon I was whisked away from him and was swallowed by the hospital.

I am going to write a separate post solely dedicated to my incredible nurses. I owe my doctors bigtime for handing me my life back, and I owe my nurses a hell of a lot more for handing me my sanity back. From the moment I was wheeled into triage, I knew I was finally in good hands. My health had been so bad, and I hadn’t acknowledged just how bad it was. (At this point I was fainting just by sitting on the toilet for an extended period of time, and hadn’t been able to keep solid food in days.)

When I was admitted to the hospital, the doctors informed me that I was so malnourished and dehydrated, my body was in starvation mode. Makes sense, I kept thinking to myself, as hunger pangs ripped through me. I was positively empty, my body at war with itself. When I laid down, my body rocked with every beat of my heart, which my anxiety interpreted as me dying, and panic would inevitably set in. Three days into my stay I learned this was due to my severe dehydration, and from that moment on was hooked up to constant IV fluids and magnesium. My body now stays still as my heart beats.

The worst part about this hospital stay (and, ya know, it already wasn’t great) was that we were now in a global pandemic, and Vanderbilt had started seeing patients with COVID-19. (I later learned that the first two confirmed cases in the state of Tennessee were patients at the very hospital I was in, at the same time I was there.)

It was terrifying. I wouldn’t allow myself to go on social media much at all, because any news about the virus scared me into an anxiety attack. And the last thing you want to hear during a panic attack is the monitor on your pulse and oxygen beeping bloody murder. Which, of course, wouldn’t get turned off, because the nurses were busy dealing with potential COVID-19 patients. At one point, on my first full day in the ER, I pressed my nurse call button 16 times within 45 minutes before someone came into my room to help me through a panic attack/colon spasm. I had also tried screaming in the direction of the door, hoping someone in the hallway would hear me, but the halls were also full of patients and bustling nurses. Yelling was no use in a busy ER room with its door closed. I couldn’t get myself to a bathroom on my own, so I had to let the pain wreak havoc on my body while I hyperventilated.

It turned out, my ER nurse was assigned to a patient who may have been in contact with the virus, so she had to suit up anytime she needed to go into that room. It was a lengthy process, which meant I had to wait longer than I normally would have. To say it was frustrating was an understatement. But my nurse was absolutely incredible, and somehow managed to handle all of my needs as quickly as possible, never forgetting a thing. (It’s also humbling to need someone wipe your ass for you. Never will I ever think poorly of nurses. They are the real heroes.)

I wound up staying in the hospital longer than I should have, partially because of the day of my arrival, and partially because one of my tests ended up needing to be redone. I was admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital’s Emergency Department on a Thursday night, and was admitted to hospital itself on Friday afternoon. Because of the tests I needed, there wasn’t time to complete it on that Friday, and they didn’t do these particular procedures on the weekend, so I had to wait until Monday to have my tests done. They were going to kill two birds with one stone so that I wouldn’t have to be anesthetized twice.

I remember waking up from the anesthesia on Monday afternoon to hear my mom telling my nurse that they couldn’t complete the second procedure. I was heartbroken. The prep for these procedures was not easy, and having to do it three days in a row (I started on Saturday, with my second test happening on that Tuesday afternoon) was like being thrown into hell over and over. I’ve written a lot of poetry about that Tuesday. I was as empty as I’ll probably ever be, and just completely disheartened. I cried most of that day. Or stared at the walls. Or tried to let my mom help me feel better.

It’s moments like those that I look back on to mark my resilience.

While I was in the hospital, there was a “one visitor per patient” rule, and on the day I discharged they announced no more visitors were being allowed into Vanderbilt Hospital. It was horrifying. I have never felt so isolated and lonely than I did during the gaps between visitors at the hospital. Often, my parents and my partner’s schedules would overlap, so I had to choose between seeing my boyfriend or seeing my mom or dad. (Also at this time, our cat had developed a post-op infection after being spayed, so my partner was having to choose between taking care of the cat or visiting me in the hospital.)

But as hard as all of this was, it all became worth it once my new gastroenterologist came into my room, sat next to my bed, and explained in detail what was going on with my body. She discussed what she saw when she sent her little video camera through my intestines, and helped me visualize why my body was causing me so much pain. Better yet, she told me how I can fix it.

She gave me her undivided attention for over an hour (unprecedented in hospital history!), answering all of the pages of questions I had written for her. What happened next? She signed my discharge papers.

I left the hospital on Wednesday, March 18th. The Nashville Safer at Home order began Monday, March 23rd. What has happened since has been a blur of ups and downs, in dealing with recovery of a chronic illness during a global pandemic, due to a virus I am considered high risk of contracting.

However, as difficult as it has been, it has also been an incredible period of growth for myself and my body. I am experiencing relief for the first time in my life. My body is doing things I never thought it was capable of.

Maybe a month before I went to the hospital, I told my therapist that I just wanted a break. A break from this battle with my body, a break from feeling overwhelmed by work and a lack of creativity. Next thing I know I spend a week in the hospital and am gift-wrapped a forced break: I am in the “high risk of catching coronavirus” category, and am not allowed to return to work until the world becomes a bit safer.

While, of course, I wish it were due to different circumstances, this time in quarantine has allowed me to come back to myself, my values, and my creativity. My mind has all this free space now that it’s not occupied with pain or anxiety, and it is being filled to the brim with creativity, hobbies, passion projects, and stronger relationships. I cannot wait to see what I can do as my body continues to heal and recover.

I hope everyone is staying safe in this difficult time. I am immensely grateful for all of the medical professionals that were on my case, and that I am sure have been putting themselves at risk every day since to care for their patients. The world cannot possibly offer these selfless professionals the gratitude they deserve, but we can certainly try. Thank you to both of my teams of doctors, and the amazing nurses who took care of me from start to finish. You are all my heroes.

Please stay tuned for future posts about my journey through recovery, and my time in the hospital.