Yoga as a Journey, Lifestyle, and Healing Practice

Stumbling onto a Comprehensive Yoga Experience

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll. I met Tom at a West Coast Swing lesson, then bumped into him again when I walked into his Mind and Body Yoga class at Advocate BroMenn’s Health and Fitness Center.

I have been to many yoga classes over the years. I typically don’t know what style of yoga I’m participating in, which can make it more difficult to find classes I’d like. In general, I enjoy sessions that begin with taking a few breaths to become grounded. I prefer to spend time in each pose, noticing how tiny tweaks affect my balance, posture, and what muscles are being activated. I also enjoy hearing tips and having insights provided to me that I might miss while using a book or YouTube, as a guide.

Through the years, learning about the history, thoughts, values, and viewpoints behind the practice has fostered my connection to the larger yoga community. This connection has led to an incorporation of yoga into my identity, something that influences who I am, rather than just being something I engage in.

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Perhaps my favorite moment in a session is when the instructor asks you, near the end, to lie down for a guided meditation. When I have attended sessions that do not include a final meditation, or closing salutation (for example, Namaste), I feel robbed. It’s akin to the feeling I have after watching a movie that left too many loose ends.

It’s rare to find all of the elements I appreciate most in a single yoga class. I was surprised and incredibly grateful to stumble upon everything I enjoy most in Tom Carroll’s session.

Tom has a calm and peaceful demeanor, and as an outside observer, it’s obvious to me that he’s living what he’s teaching. He is approachable, and his ability to convey knowledge effectively has made his class on of the most diverse I’ve attended. People of all ages, levels of ability, and experience leave feeling it was an hour (and five minutes) well spent.

I wanted to uncover some of the secrets behind Tom’s teaching style and relaxed disposition.

Lifelong Journeys Begin with a Single Step

Tom Carroll currently teaches yoga and meditation, part time, at various locations around Bloomington, Illinois. He also runs a leadership academy at the Mennonite College of Nursing.

We spent some time talking about his yoga journey, which began following a back injury, in his 30s. Tom was attempting to come to terms with his medical diagnosis and the accompanying news that he would need steroid injections… indefinitely. He was still struggling with that realization while attending a men’s retreat in Chicago.

Also in attendance was Gabriel Halpern, who, according to Yoga Journal’s article “10 Influential Teachers Who Have Shaped Yoga in America” has:

“influenced nearly every single major teacher at Chicago’s yogic strongholds…”

Attending Gabriel’s classes brought significant improvement in Tom’s back. As the pain and tightness were disappearing, he was learning the underlying philosophy of yoga. Gabriel’s classes were in the Iyengar tradition, named after B.K.S. Iyengar, who saw yoga as a lifestyle, philosophy, and practice. 

“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life.” 

B.K.S. Iyengar

Tom enjoyed Gabriel’s precision, his focus on adaptation, and his incorporation of yogic principles.

Transition & Immersion

Twenty years later, Tom had experienced many styles of yoga, and was also participating in, or had participated in, “a bazillion” other types of physical training. Currently, because he desires joint longevity, Tom is practicing yoga nearly exclusively. He is doing very well physically, never having needed a second set of steroid injections.

Tom left a corporate position after his wife passed away suddenly, following a heart attack, in 2016. He was left questioning what he really wanted to do with the remainder of his time. Well aware of how precious life is, and how quickly it passes, he wanted to devote his energy to doing more of those things he loved most. With his whole world flipped upside down, there would never be a better time for an overhaul.

In January of 2018, Tom hopped on a plane to Costa Rica, where he completed his 200 hours of yoga teacher training. Although he didn’t know it when he signed up for the program, the woman who taught the certification course was trained in Iyengar yoga, just like Gabriel Halpern.

Tom loves what he does and it shows. When we met, he lit up every time he talked about yoga, watching his grandchild, working with students in his leadership course, or traveling. Although he had previously traveled extensively, it hadn’t been for pleasure.

Today, yoga as a mindset, perspective, and lifestyle is evident in every aspect of Tom’s life.

Beyond the Mat: Fostering Yogic Principles and Practices

The Eight Limbs of Yoga sums up much of Yogic Philosophy.

  • Yamas are ethical guidelines, such as: be honest, avoid violence, do not envy or take what is not yours, be true to your word, have compassion for yourself and others
  • Niyamas are practices, which include: willpower, self-awareness, belief in something greater than oneself, respect for people and property
  • Asana refers to yoga poses, which are meant to be used as mental preparation for meditation, but the term also refers to a mindset. The Asana mindset is that of a novice student: ready to learn, eager, curious
  • Pranayama is the “cultivation of our vital life force” or the use of breathing techniques to: increase concentration, quite our thoughts, invite inspiration, and ground ourselves
  • Pratyahara is the practice of turning our attention inward, to see beyond the limitations of self, to step outside of (and move beyond) our thoughts
  • Dharana allows us to hone our minds and learn to attain a singular focus
  • Dhyana is also referred to as flow. When we are in this state, we feel: connected to everything yet attached to nothing, hyper aware yet relaxed, blissful and content, completely unaware of the passage of time
  • Samadhi is ecstasy, transcendence, enlightenment

Beneath the Surface

Tom and I discussed the ethics, breathing practices, postures, and three levels of meditation articulated through the eight limbs. He explained that all of these elements are present in every lineage of yoga, even though some lineages have focused more on specific aspects over others. They may be present “behind the scenes”, something a teacher considers but may not share with students.  

The principles represented by the eight limbs separates yoga, a holistic, comprehensive approach to wellness, from other physical fitness activities.

The Mat as a Mirror

When Tom decided to become certified as a yoga instructor, he wanted to ensure that the safety of his students was a high priority, and that anyone (no matter their level of fitness or experience with the practice) would find his classes accessible. He also wanted his students to know that yoga involves mind, body, spirit, and emotion.

“The physical postures themselves can be insights… “

Tom Carroll

If a physical posture is difficult, for example, our response might reveal insights into how we handle difficult situations in other areas of our lives.

Tom understands that students who judge themselves harshly “on the mat” are likely hyper-critical of themselves “off the mat”. He also has seen the potential for yoga to allow people to discover their true selves. Yoga reflects back our habitual negative thought patterns, which were previously outside of our conscious awareness or careful consideration.

Yoga can help us learn to decenter, to detach from our thoughts, to become an observer of our own minds. We learn to watch our thoughts as they float on by. This new awareness brings insights that allow us to become intentional about the ideas we want to entertain versus those we want to let go.

Embracing the “Rumble”

Tom talked about students’ attempts to achieve challenging poses. He can usually tell when participants are pushing themselves toward achievement, or past their limit (edge), because they become tense and begin holding their breath. Of course, both of these reactions are counter-productive to moving into or holding a posture.

Over time we become more mindful of our boundaries, tensions, and breathing. This newfound awareness, acceptance of ourselves as we are, where we are, can be brought back into our lives, work, and relationships.

Our increased awareness can reveal emotional states.

  • Do we feel like we’re good enough?
  • How do we approach relationships?
  • How do we address conflicts?

When we become patient, calm, and still, we realize suffering is temporary. We understand that good times, as well as tough times, will ebb and flow. As we quiet our minds, we pave the way to connect to our internal power to heal.

Eventually, we learn to remain with the poses, to stay in the present and have mindful awareness of what we are engaged in. Tom still feels challenged, from time to time, as any human being would, on days when he is less focused and he feels less grounded.

There are multiple layers of complexity within yoga. On the one hand, there are poses that are physically challenging to any yogi. On the other hand, the holding of poses for longer periods of time can be mentally and emotionally challenging. Poses may be physically difficult because they require a great deal of strength, balance, flexibility, or quick movements from pose to pose. The faster a participant moves through a sequence, the more demanding it is.

Healing through Yoga

Yoga has been a source of healing and recovery for people suffering from, amongst other things:

Medical Yoga is a term for yoga practices utilized in the prevention and treatment of illness, diseases, or disorders.

“The burden due to stress-related illness is quite concerning. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that … about 75% of all physician visits, and up to 80% of all visits to primary care providers are for stress-related complaints. These involve a wide spectrum of complaints, including headache, back pain, hypertension, arrhythmias, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, depression, anxiety, skin problems, fatigue, obesity, migraines, hyperlipidemia, and accidents.”

Stephens, Ina. “Medical Yoga Therapy” 

Time (and Life) Orientations

According to Tom, one of the key reasons people find yoga healing, particularly for those with anxiety or depression, is that it allows us to step back and gain insight into where our minds are wondering off to. As we start to step back from and observe our thoughts during yoga practice, we realize that our thinking gravitates toward one of two directions. Most people either focus on, are living in, the future or the past.

Those who have a future orientation are prone to getting caught up in preparation. They can become so fixated on planning or list making that they begin to live in the future, worrying about things that haven’t occurred yet. Although nothing is wrong in the present, the stress felt over what may become is very real. In the end, they often fail to meet unrealistic expectations and demands, which they themselves have put into place. Additionally, some are overwhelmed with concern about all of the unknowns that lie ahead. This can lead to anxiety or apprehension.

When people orient toward the past, they can get caught up in what could have been, what they should have said, or wish they had done. This can lead to regrets about the present, or how they ended up there. Sometimes the result is a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, sorrow, or depression.

Understanding where our mind goes when it’s wandering can be extremely insightful. Learning to stay in the present allows for greater connection to others, authenticity, and appreciation for our experience of the moment.

“Think about how much our world honors: future, future, future, future. Rarely are we completely attentive to someone. It’s almost a gift when you’re really present with someone, and there is no electronic media involved. You’re just listening, conversing, and sharing with one another. Think about how rare that’s becoming.”

Tom Carroll

I thoroughly enjoyed being “really present” with Tom, the other day. It was energizing and thought-provoking. He had so much wisdom to impart, I couldn’t possibly cover it all in a single post.

Continue with

On the Fence About Yoga?

Yoga isn’t, as sometimes perceived, “just an hour of stretching”. It builds strength, improves posture, aids in digestion, and yes, it will improve your range of motion. But that’s listing just a handful of the numerous physical benefits…

Until then, I hope you’ll join me in a Moon Salutation!

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The Art of Assertiveness

My default response used to be “Yes!”

When someone said, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

I would say, “Sure, what is it?”

Consequently, I was often overworked, overwhelmed, and my relationships were strained.

Think about the level of generosity offered in that statement. Notice, also, the lack of assertiveness, appropriate boundary setting, and self-care. I was committing to something before even hearing the request (a truly cringeworthy habit)!

One day, I stumbled across an idea – if you’re not willing to say “no” when you want to, you’re not really choosing to say “yes”, either. That was the beginning of a deep dive into the importance of asserting myself.

Misconceptions about Assertiveness

A common misconception is that outgoing, extroverted, or gregarious people are also assertive. Although they are often used, and perceived as synonymous, each of these terms has a different and distinct meaning. They may overlap, and then again, they may not.

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Introverts and Extroverts

Introverts are often presented and described as being quiet and shy, maybe even socially awkward or anti-social. Leaders are often presumed to be extroverted, as are class clowns, and the last one standing at a party. While I understood that introversion and extroversion were invisible to an onlooker, until recently, my definition was just as flawed.

I, like many, saw the distinction as related to where a person derives their energy. I’d been told that introverts’ batteries were drained by human interaction, particularly with large groups. Whereas, for extroverts, it was “the more the merrier”, or adding people adds voltage.

The reality is:

“It’s your sensitivity to stimulation. If you’re an introvert, you’re more prone to being overstimulated by intense or prolonged social interaction—and at that point, reflecting on your thoughts and feelings can help you recharge. But introversion-extroversion is about more than just social interaction. Extroverts crave stimulating activities like skydiving and stimulating beverages sold at Starbucks. Introverts are more likely to retreat to a quiet place, but they’re very happy to bring someone else with them.”

Adam Grant
5 Myths About Introverts and Extroverts

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Degrees of Assertiveness

Another common misconception is that people are either assertive, or they are not. Assertiveness is on a continuum, we all have it to some degree, and everyone (many of us, at least) could stand to develop our ability further.

Attitude & Behavior

Assertiveness is about thoughts, not just actions. In other words, assertiveness is a mindset, that is demonstrated through our behavior. It is also a skill, that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. For those who are low on the assertive continuum, attempts may be rough, unpolished. With practice, discomfort fades, asserting oneself becomes more natural, and assertions may even develop a certain elegance or finesse.

Persons, who are assertive, are able to:

  • Articulate their needs, desires, and rights
  • Stand up for themselves when necessary
  • Establish their boundaries, while respecting others’
  • Be honest even when it is difficult

Assertiveness is not about “getting what you want”, it’s about having your desires be a part of the conversation, alongside of and as valued as anyone else’s.

Being assertive does not mean being rude or aggressive toward other people. In fact, it’s not predominantly about other people at all. It is about self-control, self-respect, and healthy boundaries.

Express Yourself!

There is a correlation between lacking assertiveness and having low self-esteem or low self-worth. However, low self-esteem is not the only reason people fail to express their wants and needs. They may have learned to fear speaking up, or simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice expressing themselves.

Failing to express oneself or set boundaries can cause difficulty, both personally and professionally. When we hold in our emotions, letting them build up, we are more likely to explode as the result of a “last straw.” The inability to say “no” can lead to feeling used, manipulated, and resentful (toward others and yourself).

Whether or not we feel heard has a strong emotional impact. When we fail to assert ourselves, we risk leaving conversations feeling confused, sad, or irritated. Conversely, when we are effectively asserting ourselves, we feel positive and empowered.

Unsure how assertive you are? Take the inventory!

Looking Inward

Changes in attitude and behavior start with self-reflection and awareness. Begin by watching what you’re doing and saying, or aren’t doing and saying. Pay attention to others’ responses and reactions to you, as well as cultural messages received from the media.

Notice any assertive people in your life. Watch them, listen to them, ask them questions. If you’re lucky, you may find a mentor!

Is assertiveness encouraged in your family, at your workplace, and in your society? If so, is it nurtured and appreciated equally? Or, is it encouraged in some, but discouraged in others (perhaps based on age, gender, status, etc.)?

Check in with your thoughts, particularly critical or defeating internal voices.

  • Do you know where those ideas originated?
  • Are the negative thoughts you own? If not, are they the opinions of a sibling, parent, or high school coach?
  • Are your thoughts helping or hindering you?
  • Are they based on a past experience?
  • Are they based on logical fallacies? If so, what is an alternate perspective?

Know thyself! You cannot ask for what you are unaware that you require, just as you cannot implement a boundary you don’t realize you have.

Is Assertiveness Impolite?

I have trouble walking away from people selling things, in person or on the phone. I’ve taken many a detour to avoid someone peddling sea salt in the mall.

The cause of my dilemma stems from a desire, identity, and a definition. I want to be polite, and I like to see myself as a good person. There is nothing wrong with either of those two things. The problem lies in my definition of politeness. I want to connect to people, to hear what they have to say, to truly listen and attempt to understand. I can remember feeling dismissed or ignored, and would never want to cause someone else to feel that way. I see hearing someone out as an essential component of being polite.

There is an alternative interpretation of these situations. One where hearing the person out is actually rude and inconsiderate….

A salesperson is working. Their livelihood may depend on selling a certain number of products over the course of a day, week, or month. To listen to the entirety of what they have to say, with no intention of making a purchase (regardless of the benefits of the product or how good a deal being offered), is to waste their precious time. It is better to decline their offer quickly, but kindly, so they may direct their energy elsewhere.

I had to process and internalize that shift in perspective before I could change my behavior in those types of situations.

Becoming Assertive

The book, Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships, by Robert Alberti, PhD and Michael Emmons, PhD, outlines these key components of assertive behavior:

  • Making eye contact increases directness and, typically, perceived sincerity
  • Good posture and facing your entire body toward the person you are speaking to conveys confidence and may invite more personal conversation
  • Communications are clearer and more effective when facial expressions align with what is being said
  • Vocal tone, inflection, and volume can influence how persuasive we are or whether we come across as credible
  • Fluency, the flow of our speech, when broken can convey lack of sincerity or seriousness
  • As they say, “timing is everything”! But it is better to interject after the perfect moment than not at all
  • Although it may seem counterintuitive, improving listening skills increases our ability to be assertive
  • Becoming aware, as mentioned earlier, of our thoughts and feelings is a vital part of creating and sustaining behavioral changes
  • Persistence pays off! No one is a natural at anything on their first attempt. Stick with it, muddle through, don’t give up!
  • Content and context matter. People are more receptive to information presented through “I” statements. Showing interest in and concern for others will, most of the time, leave them more receptive to hearing you out

Being assertive won’t always change outcomes, but it can shift your attitude and feelings about, or how you approach, challenging situations.

Effectively asserting yourself has the potential to transform all of your relationships for the better. Most importantly, your relationship with yourself!

Meditation: Focusing Attention

When you hear the term meditation, what do you picture?

Many people picture someone sitting on the floor, with their legs in full lotus, their eyes closed, and their mind (presumably) completely free of thought, experiencing a feeling of oneness with the universe. This is one variation of meditation. One that is depicted frequently in the media. But there are numerous ways to meditate.  

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What Does Meditation Look Like?

Meditation can occur while sitting on the floor, on a cushion, or on a chair. It may be a silent activity, or involve speaking, singing, or chanting. During practice sessions, some people are still, like statues, whereas others are moving. People also meditate while standing, kneeling, lying down, walking, doing yoga, running, etc.

I have been involved with groups, or attended retreats, that led meditations through labyrinth walking, as well as mindful eating, writing, and painting. Other moving meditation options include Tai Chi and Qigong.

Meditation is a State of Mind & a State of Being

The mind can become more calm and still without being void of thoughts. In fact, there are many meditation techniques that involve focusing on specific thoughts, or noting thoughts but not getting tangled up in them.

“[Meditation is] the experience of the limitless nature of the mind when it ceases to be dominated by its usual mental chatter…

To experience the mind in this unclouded way is to experience the sense of being fully and vitally alive, yet at the same time deeply at peace with ourselves.”

– David Fontana, PhD
Learn to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Self-Discovery and Fulfillment

Creating a single focus for the mind can take different forms. Perhaps the most commonly used focal point is the breath. Breathing is one of the few involuntary functions of the body which can be controlled.

Breathing Techniques

Observing the Breath

The breath can be watched, or tracked. Try following your breath as it enters through the nose, flows down into the lungs, and leaves by way of the mouth. Then try focusing on just the inhale. How does your breath feel, moving into your body? Is it cool or warm, as it enters? Does the temperature change as it fills your lungs?

Reframing the Breathing Process

One of my favorite techniques involves changing the way we perceive breathing. Think of the exhale as being the first half of the process, and the inhale as a response. Try to slow down, extending your exhale, but just let the inhale happen naturally.

Compartmented Breathing

Think of your lungs as having three distinct parts: a top, middle, and bottom.

When you’re breathing into the top of your lungs, you can feel your chest rise. When you’re breathing into the middle of your lungs, your ribs expand outward. When you’re breathing into the bottom of your lungs, your belly rises.

Top Down
  • On each inhale, focus on filling the top, middle, then bottom of your lungs
  • As you exhale, keep the same order, emptying the top, middle, then bottom of your lungs
  • Optional variation: engage your muscles to press the air out of the bottom compartment
Bottom Up
  • On each inhale, focus on filling the bottom, middle, then top of your lungs
  • As you exhale, keep the same order, emptying the bottom, middle, then top of your lungs
Top Down Wave
  • On each inhale, focus on filling the top, middle, then bottom of your lungs
  • As you exhale, reverse the order, emptying the bottom, middle, then top of your lungs
Bottom Up Wave
  • On each inhale, focus on filling the bottom, middle, then top of your lungs
  • As you exhale, reverse the order, emptying the top, middle, then bottom of your lungs
  • Optional variation: engage your muscles to press the air out of the bottom compartment

Box Breathing

  • Breathe in for a count of 4, or whatever number feels comfortable
  • Hold for the same amount of time
  • Exhale for your chosen count
  • Hold again
  • Repeat the entire process
  • Over time, you may increase the count to 5 or 6

4-7-8 Breathing, or Relaxing Breath

  • Inhale for 4 counts
  • Hold for 7 counts
  • Exhale, slowly, for 8 counts
  • Repeat the entire process

Mantras

A mantra is a sacred utterance in the form of a sound, word, or phrase repeated during a meditation session. Mantras provide a focus, while also revealing spiritual truths.

OM, which expands to ah-oo-mm is a popular mantra.

Another traditional mantras is:

Om Mani Padme Hum, which has been translated to “Behold! The jewel in the lotus!” or “Praise to the jewel in the lotus.”

The word “One” is also popular in meditation, it can be elongated, much like OM.

Some practitioners use statements about the desired result of the practice

  • “I am relaxed”
  • “My mind is quiet and peaceful”

Affirmations are used as a tool of empowerment, as well as a focus for concentration during meditation.

  • “I am strong”
  • “I have limitless potential”

Secular Words & Phrases

Phrases may be used to motivate and encourage.

  • “Difficult is not impossible”
  • “Discipline is freedom”

Others focus on famous quotes:

Where there is love there is life.

– Mahatma Gandhi

It’s not uncommon to say, or think, about one word or phrase while inhaling and another during the exhale.

When meditating, I may start with full phrases and then drop down to a single word after a few breaths.

For Example:

I feel peaceful and content… My body is calm and relaxed…
I feel peaceful and content… My body is calm and relaxed…

Becomes:

Content… relaxed…
Content… relaxed…

Sensory Awareness

Although we may think of meditation as a turning into ourselves, and focusing less on our surroundings, one way to meditate is to raise awareness of and be present with what is occurring in our environment.

What do you hear? Birds, running water, the floor creaking as people walk across it

What do you feel? A cool breeze, the warmth of the sun’s rays, a drop of rain

What do you smell? Flowers, the cologne of the person sitting next to you, coffee

What do you see? A leaf blowing down the street, light dancing on the wall, the flicker of the candle flame

Frequency Matters

All of these techniques fall under focused attention, or single focus meditation. These types of meditations are often less intimidating and more “beginner friendly”.

Find your favorite techniques and practice them. Frequency matters more than duration. You don’t have to start with an hour, start with one deep breath!

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Taken more broadly, self-care is a collection of behaviors that reflect someone’s sense of worthiness. Making time to care for yourself is evidence of a desire to develop, strengthen, support, discover, and cherish your truest self.  Knowing how to take care of yourself in each moment, and through time, depends on an awareness and acceptance of yourself as you have been, are, and could be…

IBS: Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil

I only grasped how lousy I’d been feeling when I had something to compare it with. By the time the symptoms had eased or disappeared completely, I’d been suffering so consistently, for so long, that I no longer realized there was another possible reality. My symptoms were just – part of who I was…

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IBS: Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil

Early Childhood

When we are young, we may think whatever we experience is the norm (we continue to make these types of assumptions in adulthood). I don’t know when I became irregular, perhaps I always was. I do, on the other hand, know exactly when I became The Irregular Girl – 20 October 2019!

When we took our family dog, Abby, to the vet, they always asked us to point to a picture on a stool chart. We were being asked to select the photograph which most closely indicated the consistency of her poop. Sometimes, we even brought in samples for the lab. In all my years of receiving medical care, I don’t remember seeing a chart like that for humans.

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FYI: There is a chart! Poop and You does an amazing job of breaking it down. They talk, not just about consistency, but also color, size, and the range of time it is appropriate to spend on the commode.

The Teen Years

By the time I was in high school, I imagine the last significant conversation I had around bowel movements was when my parents deemed me officially potty trained. Unfortunately, I don’t personally remember the auspicious occasion.

The first time I do remember contemplating how my – movements – compared to others was my junior-ish year of high school. I had a friend, let’s call him Josh, who was going home sick one day, following lunch. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, he made quite a habit of it. I was curious, perhaps even a little concerned, and asked him what was wrong.

It turned out, he went home “sick” whenever he had to “do a number two”.

Shocked, I blurted out, “But you go home after lunch almost every day!”

It was more a question than a statement (I don’t always phrase questions in obvious ways). He likely thought my shock was in response to his overly lackadaisical attitude towards his education.

The truth is that I was, for the first time, realizing people were pooping daily!

Enter Early Adulthood

I’ve told a handful of people that in my twenties, for about three years, I went to the bathroom at a gas station down the street, rather than at home. I usually explain to them that I didn’t want my roommate to realize I did that kind of thing.

Sometimes, half-jokingly, I’ve brought gender into the story – women aren’t supposed to do that… It’s just not ladylike (anyone who knew me in high school sees the irony in that statement).

It is true, I don’t want people to hear, or smell, what goes on behind closed bathroom doors. Does anyone?

What I always left out (just between you and I) is that I also went to a gas station because I required an industrial grade flush.

I want to pause and say…

I truly hope that sharing my history is helpful to others. This topic is exceptionally taboo. It is difficult for me to write about, and I’m an extremely open person.

I’m deliberately trying not to contemplate possible ramifications of putting my story out into the world (wide web).

I digress…

The point is, I didn’t wake up one day and say,
“I want people to associate me with digestive issues.”

I did wake up one day and think,
“Would my struggle have been easier if people were more willing to talk openly about digestive processes?”

Thankfully, in the last few years, groups have been created on Facebook, Reddit, etc. where someone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can find others with similar issues, ask questions, and share their stories.

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go in raising public awareness.

Thirty, but not Exactly Thriving

One morning, when I was in my thirties (great decade), I woke up in pain. Many years earlier, I’d developed hemorrhoids while delivering my first child.

My hemorrhoids had flared up occasionally, ever since, due to heavy pushing, which often coincided with toilet plunging. I even had slight amounts of blood, now and then.

Unfortunately, this time was different, the pain was unbearable. It was so excruciating that I debated heading to the emergency room. Instead, I drew a hot bath to sit in. I was up most of the night, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid by not visiting the emergency room…

I may have dozed off a few times, hanging over the side of the tub. Luckily, I had drained and refilled the water so many times, I started settling for only an inch or so (barely enough to drown in). Each time I turned the faucet on, I braced for cold water, but thankfully it never came to that.

If I did doze off a few times, you would not know it by how exhausted I was when 8 am rolled around. At the time, I was a community college instructor and it was finals week. I was positive that nothing in the world would prevent me from attending my 10 o’clock class.

Frantic, and desperately in need of some relief, I called my primary care provider, who referred me to a specialist. She had me come in for an appointment at 9 am.

I’ll never forget the doctor’s reaction when she looked at my rear end. It was something like “Holy Crap! That is the worst thrombosed hemorrhoid I have ever seen!” (I used quotes here to indicate she was speaking, but I’m pretty sure those weren’t her exact words). 

I responded by saying something like, “So can I get some medicine? I have to be at work soon.”

She actually laughed at me. Then she told me I would be in surgery within the hour.

My students might cringe if they knew I was grading papers on my phone, right up to the point of unconsciousness (I was clearly not prioritizing self-care at that time).

Post-surgery, I was given instructions, the gist of which was:

  • Be better at going to the bathroom!
  • Try to do it (poop) more frequently
  • Have softer stools
  • Whatever you do – never ever, ever push!

Not pushing was difficult to imagine. Previously, I had been using birthing techniques to bring my poop into the world.

After surgery I went back to work, and I spent most of the spring semester trying not to pass gas while I was lecturing. I started a high-fiber diet in an attempt to soften my stools. On the toilet, I practiced deep breathing while twisting, turning, and lifting my legs – basically chair yoga with Lamaze breathing.

I did quit pushing! But my constipation, bloating, and gas issues grew worse, year after year. I tried many diets, with little to no success. I gave up drinking through straws and chewing bubble gum. I was slowly drowning in a sea of seemingly good advice.

I could ramble on endlessly about all of the things I tried (unsuccessfully), but I feel it would be more helpful to jump ahead a decade.

Forty and Fabulous, but Still Farting

I finally discussed my digestive issues with my primary doctor. Looking back, I’m not sure why it took so long to make that leap. I suppose there were many reasons. I usually went to the doctor when I was sick, and we discussed my illness. Perhaps I didn’t feel the symptoms were severe enough to warrant medical advice. Perhaps I didn’t see bloating as a medical issue. I do have a tendency to push on until something interferes with my ability to work, to be productive.

I was relieved when my provider said I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Technically IBS-C, which denotes the direction of my digestive issues (some people go too much rather than too little, and others bounce back and forth between the two extremes).

You Have to Name It to Tame It!

IBS symptoms can be controlled through:

  • Diet
  • Fitness
  • Hydration
  • Medication
  • Relaxation, meditation and stress management

Although stress and anxiety don’t cause IBS, they often exacerbate symptoms.

Medication is my least favorite way to manage anything (although I do take an antihistamine many, if not most, days). My life experience has brought me to view medication as more likely to create constipation than relieve it.

When I left my provider’s office, without a prescription, I felt empowered by having a new term to research. And, as a back-up (plan B), I grabbed some MiraLAX Laxative Powder.

That doctor, and many health care providers since, have assured me that MiraLAX is a laxative I can take daily without fear of harmful side effects or otherwise damaging my body. So, for a while, that is what I did.

One day, during the daily laxative phase, I was at the store with my son. Among other things, I needed to pick up more MiraLAX. When we arrived in the “tummy issue isle”, we were confronted with an empty shelf. There were, minimally, seven (seriously seven) empty rows where powder laxatives had been displayed – it looked like the bread isle before a winter blizzard.

My son, shocked and alarmed, looked at me and asked, “Are there any adults that can digest their food?”

I didn’t know how common digestive issues were, so I did what people do these days when they don’t know something, I asked Google…

According to Facts about IBS, created by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, Inc.

IBS effects:

  • Between 25 and 45 million people in the U.S.
  • 10-15% of the population (globally)

Additionally:

  • Many of those affected do not seek medical care
  • Symptoms can impact every area of a person’s life
  • The stigma which prevents open discussion of digestive processes is a HUGE barrier to seeking support and care

There are many other digestive issues, some produce symptoms nearly indistinguishable from IBS. People suffer from: Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, heartburn, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), to name a few. It is important to have a medical provider diagnose what is causing your symptoms.

Although knowledge is power, the struggle has continued. Here are two conversations I have had that illustrate:

Scenario #1: What’s in Your Closet?

SO: Why do you own so many pants?

TIG: I don’t know what size I’ll be tomorrow. I’m prepared for every waistline from bikini model to delivery day.

Scenario #2: In the Danger Zone

SO: Hey! I’m right behind you!

TIG: Sorry, I didn’t know that was going to happen… (cute, apologetic face)

SO: Don’t you know when you’re going to fart?

TIG: I’m always holding back a fart (like the hulk is always mad), sometimes one just slips out…

Forty (something), and Figuring It Out

I believe I was at a weekend dance event (if you have not attended a dance workshop, I highly recommend it). Wherever I was, I was talking to a friend, who in addition to being an amazing dancer, is a dietician working with the Veterans Health Administration. For whatever reason, my digestive issues had come up in conversation, possibly in response to finding out about her profession.

She listened, then asked if I had ever tried the Low FODMAP Diet, developed by researchers at Monash University. I hadn’t, but did shortly thereafter.

The diet was helpful for a couple of reasons. Most notably – IT WORKED! But also, it was confusing and counterintuitive, which forced me to become proactive.

Once I’d become proactive, I started to make a variety of changes in my life, beyond diet. Most notably, my approach to fitness, relaxation, and (begrudgingly) hydration has shifted.

Sometimes Things Have to be Experienced to be Understood

It is an understatement to say that these changes were life-changing!

I only grasped how lousy I’d been feeling when I had something to compare it with. By the time the symptoms had eased or disappeared completely, I’d been suffering so consistently, for so long, that I no longer realized there was another possible reality. My symptoms were just – part of who I was. The potential for feeling different was not even on my radar.

Barely a week into my new lifestyle, I was – a different person. I may never be regular, but I do feel (minimally) 10 years younger!

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Self-Care: an Attitude, Priority, and Practice

Self-Care as an Attitude

Not to downplay pampering, but self-care is more than taking bubble baths and drinking hot tea. We often take a narrow view of self-care, seeing it as spoiling oneself or indulgence, perhaps even in ways that are counter to long term health. Culturally, self-care is linked to products and consumption, available to those with a lot of time and money.

Taken more broadly, self-care is a collection of behaviors that reflect someone’s sense of worthiness. Making time to care for yourself is evidence of a desire to develop, strengthen, support, discover, and cherish your truest self.  Knowing how to take care of yourself in each moment, and through time, depends on an awareness and acceptance of yourself as you have been, are, and could be. 

Self-care requires taking accountability for your own well-being.  In many ways, our culture celebrates self-sacrifice. Putting others’ needs above your own is a disservice, not only to yourself, but also to those you are giving to at your own expense.

Caring for yourself first is an act of generosity to those you care about.

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Self-Care as a Priority

It is easy, in our fast-paced world, to stretch oneself too thin. We can end up dry, depleted, exhausted. At times we have nothing left to give to ourselves, much less others.

We feel pulled in all directions: family, work, and school commitments; friends; and romantic or sexual partners. The list goes on.

Technology allows us to stay constantly connected. We are checking texts, reading e-mails, updating our social media status, and reading (just the headlines) of what sounds like good articles. Culturally, we have learned to maintain relationships in, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out, sips rather than gulps.

Most of us rarely disconnect. When we do, it is often because we were explicitly asked to during a meeting, or before a movie starts at the theater (does that even count as disconnection…).

Although we spend time alone, we don’t really ever have to just be with ourselves.

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Self-Care as a Practice

Caring and kindness toward oneself can take many forms. Because we are unique, self-care is understood and implemented vastly differently from person to person.

Self-care involves finding your inner child and your inner critic, identifying and being willing to feel all of your emotions. It invites you to forgive yourself for making mistakes, failing to achieve goals, and being a beautifully imperfect human being.  

It is a branching out, a stretching of oneself, but it also involves letting go. We may need to rid ourselves of outdated habits, ideas of who we are, who we should be, and our limiting beliefs.

“Sometimes self-care involves forgiving ourselves for past mistakes, setting boundaries in relationships, making that medical or dental appointment you’ve been putting off, saying no to a fun night out because you’re sleep deprived, or choosing to walk away from a job or relationship you have outgrown.”

Robyn L. Gobin, PhD

The Self Care Prescription: Powerful Solutions to Manage Stress, Reduce Anxiety & Increase Wellbeing

In practice, self-care involves:

  • Cultivating skills and abilities
  • Forming or breaking habits
  • Engaging in, or disengaging from, activities

Skills & Abilities

Cultivated skills and abilities may include:

“When loving-kindness bumps into suffering and stays loving,
it becomes compassion. Both are expressions of goodwill.”

Kristen Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive

Habits

Habits formed may include:

“Touch your inner space, which is nothingness, as silent and empty as the sky; it is your inner sky. Once you settle down in your inner sky, you have come home, and a great maturity arises in your actions, in your behavior. Then whatever you do has grace in it. Then whatever you do is a poetry in itself. You live poetry; your walking becomes dancing, your silence becomes music.”

Osho Akash

Maturity: The Responsibility of Being Oneself (Osho Insights for a New Way of Living)

Habits that hinder you may include:

“We’ve all learned how to go online Sunday night to [read] email and work from home. But very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.”

Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco Partners

How to run a company with (almost) no rules

Activities

Rediscovering or engaging in new activities:

  • biking
  • dancing
  • drawing
  • journaling
  • kickboxing
  • photography

Disengaging from activities which:

  • are interfering with health or happiness
  • are too time consuming
  • have become more obligation than enjoyment

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

 Abraham Lincoln, former U.S. President

On a personal note…

For much of my life, I allowed self-care to ebb and flow. I focused on it when I was in pain, if my body gave out, if I became completely overwhelmed, when I was hitting a new low in some area, or when I was just too sick to ignore my needs.

When I started to manage and seek relief from my symptoms associated with IBS, I realized self-care was no longer optional. In some ways, IBS was a blessing in the form of a wakeup call. There was a time when I could do well in some areas, while neglecting others. Today, if I want to feel good (and I do) I have to maintain a fairly high level of self-awareness and actively engage in self-care.

I wish I had put more effort into self-care sooner. I’ve had to take a tough look at some parts of myself and my personality, accepting that they do more harm than good. I wouldn’t hold myself up as a self-care guru (maybe some days I would), but I have intentionally practiced it enough to appreciate the process. Because I now understand how much time and effort change requires, I celebrate even the smallest successes.

Investing in caring for myself has had a profound impact on my life. I intend to continue focusing on self-care until it becomes as natural as breathing!

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