Talking Stalking

In 2004, January was designated National Stalking Awareness Month.

Stalking is a pattern of behavior, directed at a specific individual, that causes fear or severe emotional distress. This pattern of intimidation and control, two or more instances, can involve any of a wide range of behaviors, including:

  • Continuing to send unwanted communications, or leave gifts for someone after being asked not to
  • Following someone in person, or tracking them using technology
  • Hiring or recruiting someone to track or monitor the targeted individual
  • Using mutual acquaintances as a source of information or research
  • Invading someone’s privacy or stealing their personal belongings
  • Reading someone’s emails, texts, or other communications without their knowledge or consent
  • Showing up or waiting at someone’s home, workplace, or classes
  • Spreading rumors intended to ruin someone’s reputation or call their character into question
  • Threatening to hurt oneself in order to control another’s behavior
  • Threatening the target, their loved ones, or their pets
  • Trespassing on or damaging someone’s property
  • Watching, monitoring, or spying on someone in person or through the use of technology

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Some of the behaviors listed above are crimes on their own. Others are only criminal in conjunction with other behaviors. Because of this, it’s vital for victims to maintain a Stalking Incident and Behavior Log that documents every known incident, and keeps all evidence of communication.

“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that [people] can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means [they’re] troubled.”

Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

Stalkers may be acquaintances, current or former intimate partners, or someone unknown to the target of the unwanted attention. Stalkers have been classified into types based on their relationship to the victim.

It is important to consider the relationship, because victims of stalking by a current or former intimate partner have a higher risk of being seriously assaulted or killed than other domestic violence victims.

Stalkers can also be classified based on the rationale for stalking or the stalkers intentions.

The article “Types of Stalking” outlines five types based on rationale:

  • A Rejected Stalker is unable, or unwilling, to accept the end of a relationship. They either hope to resolve the conflict to “fix” the relationship, or they are seeking payback for the pain they feel has been wrongfully inflicted by their target.
  • An Intimacy Seeker is lonely and desires a relationship. This type of stalker may have delusional beliefs about the person they are targeting.
  • The Incompetent Suitor would like a date, relationship, or to be sexual intimate with thier target. They stalk because they are unaware of or indifferent to the victim’s distress, possibly as the result of an inability to understand and interpret social signals.
  • Predatory Stalkers derive sexual gratification from the sense of power and control they feel while they are pursuing, harassing, and intimidating victims.  

Depending on the medium through which unwanted communication is received, a victim may not know the identity of a stalker. Stalking behaviors that utilize technology and do not involve direct communication can go unnoticed and undetected for long periods of time.

According to “Stalking Facts Infographic” at the Stalking Prevention and Awareness Center (SPARC)

  • The overwhelming majority of those who experience stalking are stalked by someone they know
  • More than 50% of stalking incidents involve current or former intimate partners
  • 1 in 7 victims relocate their residence as a result of the victimization
  • Most stalkers pursue their victims once a week or more

Concerns around this issue should be taken seriously. There are precautions and safety measures that can be implemented if you, or someone you know, fears they are the target of this type of behavior:

  • Report incidents to the police; also consider filing for a Stalking Order of Protection
  • Keep track of every incident, no matter how minor, on a Stalking Incident and Behavior Log
  • Tell your friends, colleagues, and people with authority about your situation
  • If possible, show others a picture of the person who is engaged in stalking behavior
  • Maintain all evidence, or photographs of evidence, including all unwanted communications
  • Change your routes and daily routines
  • Change all of your passwords and phone numbers
  • Disable location services on your devices
  • Block the person on your devices and social media accounts
  • Engage in safety planning
  • Refrain from, or immediately terminate, any contact with the person
  • Do not post plans or your location on social media
  • Take personal information off of websites and social media
  • Do not assume the behavior will diminish over time or stop on its own

It’s tempting to dismiss those things that we find odd, suspicious, or uncomfortable. We tend to rationalize or justify the behavior of others.

“Believing that others will react as we would is the single most dangerous myth of intervention.”

Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

With cases of potential stalking, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. Reach out for help immediately, seek the expertise of those with more experience. Safety is the first and top priority!

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Do I Have the Will to Become The Person I Want to Be?

I, like most people, have visions of who I would like to be. There are things I wish I did more of, and less of, skills I hope to improve, and habits I would like to break.

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She has written many books that introduce practical strategies drawn from scientific research to increase resilience, improve health, and promote wellbeing.

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Reading McGonigal’s book about willpower challenged quite a few of my misconceptions, shedding light on my struggle to reach certain goals.

I doubt I had ever taken the time to define willpower. I am acutely aware that it’s something I possess more of at some points in time than others. It’s clearly visible to me when it’s absent.

“I didn’t have the will to resist the tray of cupcakes in the breakroom at work.”

“I lacked the willpower to make it to the gym.”

“I was waking up early every morning to jog before work, until yesterday. I woke up to the sound of rain washing my willpower away.”

So, What is Willpower?

McGonigal explains that challenges to willpower are actually conflicts between what we want now (for our present self) and what we want later (for our future self). These types of conflicts can’t be avoided, but we can expect them, prepare for them, and be compassionate toward ourselves when our present self prevails.

Not All Goals Are Equal

We have more willpower available to us when we are motivated and determined. We are more committed when what we’re striving for is tied to our ideal identity, who we would like our future self to be. It’s important to ask whether our goals are actually ours. At times, we get caught up in what we feel we “should” want, or what others want for us.

We also want to be realistic. This isn’t to say we can’t have lofty goals, definitely reach for the stars, but we must also acknowledge what it will take to get there.

There are Three Types of Goals

Outcome goals focus on desired results.

“I’d like to be more fit.”

Performance goals set standards by defining the limits we’ll work within.

“I’ll go to the gym for at least an hour, minimally three days a week. When I’m at the gym, I’ll do burpees. I’ll start with 10 per day, then add 5 more each week, until I’ve reached 50 per day.”

Procedural goals focus on the behaviors and strategies needed to reach an outcome.

“I’ll join a gym, set up sessions with an athletic trainer, and record my progress in my journal.”

Strategies and processes are catalysts for meeting performance standards, which pave the way to desired results.

Caving In is a Form of Muscle Failure

Willpower works like a muscle. It can be strengthened through practice, but it also becomes exhausted through overuse. The good news is that we can workout our willpower to increase its strength and endurance. Once you select a goal, break it down into bite size pieces.

I decided a few months ago to work on handstands. My ultimate goal is to press into the handstand and be stable enough, for long enough, to walk on my hands once I’m upside down. This goal would have been unachievable if I’d not started with individual movements to build the skills I need for success.

So far, my quest for the perfect handstand has taken me through the:

  • Pike pushup
  • Plank
  • Dead bug
  • Hollow body hold
  • Core lifts
  • Tiptoe tucks
  • Tripod and traditional headstand
  • Forearmstand
  • Handstand against the wall

My progress is slow but steady, and each step I take forward increases my will to reach my goal.

According to research discussed in McGonigal’s presentation:

Kelly McGonigal: “The Willpower Instinct” | Talks at Google

Learning to do a handstand might improve my ability to eat healthy, procrastinate less, wake up earlier, or put more money in savings. Once I strengthen my willpower, I can apply it to other areas of my life.

What Strengthens Willpower?

Sleep

“Sleep is the best meditation.”
Dalai Lama

No matter what you hope to accomplish, you have a better chance after a good night’s sleep! At McGonigal’s presentation, she shared some of her favorite willpower experiments; studies where small interventions led to significant lifestyle and behavioral changes in participants.

In the first experiment she discussed, half of the people in a substance abuse recovery program were asked to take a mindfulness meditation training to improve their sleep. The breath focused meditation, on average, increased the recovering addicts’ sleep by roughly one hour a night. Those who slept more were far less likely to relapse. Additionally, those who meditated for longer were even less likely to relapse.

Meditation

Meditation is helpful, both on its own, and because it can improve sleep. According to McGonigal, meditating for 10 minutes a day produces better connectivity in the brain after just a few months.

Meditation Shown to Alter Gray Matter in Brain

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise helps to reduce stress, which can drastically weaken our will. Findings from a study at the Macquarie University in Sydney, which investigated the relationship between exercise and self-control, are discussed in the article The Incredible Effect of Exercise On Your Willpower. After two months of fitness, participants were compared in both temptation resistance and perseverance. Those who were exercising regularly not only performed better in those two dimensions, they had less junk food, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. They saw improvements in diet and emotional regulation. They were even more punctual.

Healthy Eating

Nutritious food strengthens our willpower. Following a more plant based diet changes the way our brain uses energy by reducing spikes in sugar levels that interfere with our mind’s functioning.

The Power of a Plant-Based Diet for Good Health

Focus on Failure

When you relapse or fail to meet a performance measure, how do you feel? If you feel guilty, are critical of yourself, or regret what has happened, you are more likely to cave in, or miss the target the next time around. Contrary to popular belief, shaming ourselves is not a good motivational tool.

It’s better to see failure as part of the process of progress, console yourself with comforting words and support, and use what has happened as a valuable learning tool.

We’re often told to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, receiving a medal, and achieving the dream. It’s important to visualize success, but if that’s all we do, we’re left overly optimistic and unprepared to recognize trouble heading our way. Seeing obstacles before we reach them is crucial in avoiding or overcoming them.

McGonigal addressed an unfortunate finding that tracking success can lead to slacking off. She explained that when our future self is being celebratory and feels satisfied, our present self has an opportunity to slip into the driver’s seat.

I have experienced this firsthand. After completing my first 5k (there was some combination of walking and running involved), I went to a local coffee shop, where I was debating what to order. I was leaning toward eating something healthy to maintain the benefits of the morning.

The person behind me, who was a much more seasoned runner, pointed out that just after a 5k is the perfect time to splurge. He encouraged me to have whatever I wanted. He subscribed to an “earn the cheat” philosophy. Since I was on the fence already, it didn’t take much to sway me toward my immediate desires. Just a tiny little nudge…

The solution: as you imagine and track success, also spend time imaging and tracking failure. Imagine every single thing that could go wrong, interfere, get in your way, or prevent success. Then think about how you will move past those roadblocks. Track your failures to see what they share in common.

I’m most likely to go to the gym when I’m going with someone else (willpower is contagious). I’m less likely to go to the gym in the afternoon than the morning, and even less likely to make it if I plan to go in the evening (willpower is spent, and therefore wanes throughout the day).

Employ These Willpower Strategies

According to McGonigal’s book, those who are able to exert self-control, when faced with challenges to willpower, are using one or more mental strategies: I won’t, I want, I will.

“I won’t” is the ability to completely disregard the desire of the body and walk away from cravings, or anything else that’s enticing us. It’s likely what you think of when you hear the term willpower.

“I want” is about knowing and focusing on the end goal. Lifestyle changes begin with becoming aware of our inner desires. Once we know where we hope to go, we can compare that to where we are. The end result must be appealing enough to override inertia, resistance to change, etc.

When we are contemplating a change, we carefully weigh the costs of the activities involved (waking up early, time investment, financial investment) against the benefits of achieving our ultimate goal (feeling better, getting sick less, learning a new skill). Once it has been determined something is worth the effort, we have incentive to delay gratification.

 “I will” allows us to do something we would prefer not to, even things that make us uncomfortable, to reach our long-term goals. Success depends on remembering those goals during moments of temptation.

As mentioned earlier, stress and sleep deprivation are willpower killers. Sometimes we can reorganize our lives to increase sleep and reduce stress, but there are times when we cannot. Or, because of our current priorities, we may chose not to.

Are those times predictable? I can predict that I will not sleep well the evening of New Year’s Eve. I can also predict that I will feel added stress on the first day of every month, when I am paying bills. I anticipate reduced willpower on these occasions. I also expect to completely exhaust my willpower from time to time.

When something is predictable, it is designable.
Nate Silver

If we know when our present self is most likely to take the wheel, we can be sure to plot a course that will have fewer detours. We can modify our schedule to ensure we’re coming in to challenging times with a solid night sleep. We can eat a hearty meal in preparation for our energy needs, enlist external support, and go in knowing that we are human beings who steer off course now and then. Perhaps most importantly, we must find a balance between spending all of our time focused on a self that does not yet exist and appreciating our self as we are here and now.

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On the Fence About Yoga?

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll, who leads a Mind and Body Yoga class at Advocate BroMenn’s Health and Fitness Center. That conversation spanned many topics, from his journey into yoga and the positive ways the practice has influenced his life to raising children with technology, both as a tool and a distraction.

Near the end of our conversation, we looked at the questions we had intended to discuss (for the first time) to ensure we didn’t miss anything. We both agreed our discussion wouldn’t be complete until we talked about the greatest challenges that beginners face.

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You Don’t Have to Be “Stretchy” to Do Yoga!

Tom shared some of the most common rationale people have given him, over the years, about why they weren’t interested in yoga. Without a doubt, what he has heard most frequently is “I’m not stretchy.” I was surprised to hear this, because yoga is an integral part of the reason I’ve remained “stretchy” over time.

A quick Google search made it clear that Tom isn’t the only teacher hearing this excuse for avoidance. My search revealed an absurd (no exaggeration) number of videos targeting this audience. In my favorite clip, appropriately titled “Yoga for Inflexible People,” Brett Larkin opens by saying she made the video, by request, for the “flexibility impaired.”

Yoga Life’s blog post – once again appropriately titled, “I can’t do yoga – I’m not stretchy!” – details a wonderful conversation to illustrate the logical fallacy in this reasoning. The conversation begins with someone explaining that they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes. The teacher points out that they actually can, and do, when they put shoes on. The instructor goes on to set the record straight:

I’m going to let you into a little secret… *looks around to check no one’s listening* IT’S OK TO BEND YOUR KNEES IN YOGA!!!! Seriously, you can bend them so deep you’re practically squatting if that’s what it takes! The only things that matter in a yoga pose are that you’re there, you’re doing it safely, and that it feels good.

Yoga isn’t strictly about being, or becoming, flexible. And although it didn’t come up in my conversation with Tom, I feel the need to mention that 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, which brings me to another point that Tom felt was essential for novice yogis to realize: there are also a multitude of psychological benefits to the practice!

Your First Session

Tom suggested that if you’ve never attended a yoga class before, you should go straight up to the teacher to let them know it’s your first time.

Also, let them know if:

  • You’re nervous or uncomfortable
  • You’re concerned about limitations
  • You have recent injuries, or other medical conditions

The teacher should respond graciously and kindly to your introduction. Then they’ll let you know what props you need to grab and where to find them (mats, blocks, bolsters, straps, etc.). Due to the time required to choose a spot, get situated, and also out of respect, be sure to arrive early.

Go to the studio or gym website, or call ahead, to see if there’s anything they recommend you bring with you (maybe a water bottle). Note that some places will provide mats while others will not.

As is pointed out in Off the Couch and Onto the Mat: What to Expect from Your First Yoga Class, comfortable clothes are a must.

“Wear a tight-fitting top so that when you are in an inversion (like Downward Dog), your top doesn’t come down over your head.”

Comfortable shoes, on the other hand, are not needed. You’ll be removing your shoes, along with your socks, before you begin, possibly before you even enter the room.

Yoga Isn’t Just About Physical Postures

Yoga has an extensive history. Whether or not it’s discussed in individual sessions, it’s important to note that yoga is not strictly engaged in as a form of fitness. Among other things, it draws practitioners into the present moment.

As George M. Posi so eloquently stated, yoga truly is:

Meditation in Motion.”

Yoga Archives – Mindfulness Journey

In Sanskrit, the word “Yoga” is used to signify a connection or union. It encompasses the whole process of becoming more aware of who we are. This increased awareness fosters self-compassion. Because yoga heightens mindfulness, it also encourages inner growth. Personal development challenges our fixed mindsets and cultivates a growth mindset. Put another way, yoga increases conviction in the potential to develop our abilities.

“A growth mindset creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.”

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Resist Comparisons

To avoid injury we learn to respect our physical limitations. This stems from the recognition that everyone’s going at their own pace. We’re able to see that everyone’s on their own journey.

Tom mentioned that self-judgement often comes in the form of comparisons. People worry, for example, that they’re not as young as others in the class, that they’re not as good as they believe they should be, or that being incapable of doing some of the poses equates to failure. He points out that these kinds of thoughts are a mind game we play with ourselves.

We all have our unique gifts and abilities! Even the most experienced yogi finds some poses challenging. There are almost always poses that someone can’t do without modification, for a variety of reasons. A posture is done “perfectly”, not when it looks elegant to an outside observer, but when the person executing the posture is holding it at the edge of their ability. Yoga is achieved through appreciation of our body’s talents and respect for its limitations.

Go Back!

One possible barrier that Tom brought up was having the discipline to get to class and stay with it long enough to experience the benefits. It’s important to expect a learning curve. You won’t be able to do postures perfectly the first time out (or ever).

Selecting a Good Starting Style

Classes that advance through sequences of poses at the slower end of the speed continuum may be the best place for a beginner to start. They are more methodical, placing a greater emphasis on form. Having proper form reduces the likelihood of injury, later, when sequences are performed more quickly.

Slower, more beginner friendly classes include:

Some of the more advanced classes may be titled:

Also, if you see classes numbered, level 2 and 3 classes will be harder than those ranked level 1.

Again, from a safety standpoint, it’s best to become comfortable with form, first and foremost. Tom advises sticking with a more beginner friendly class for ten-ish sessions before branching out. This will give you time to become more confident and learn some yoga terminology. You’ll also have a chance to learn your strengths and limits.

Once you’re comfortable, try something new! What the heck, sample all the styles! Find classes that are a natural fit for you, and others that challenge you to stretch your comfort zone. There are so many different varieties, and there’s even more diversity in how they’re presented.

Bon Voyage!

Yoga is a beautiful journey, that for some will last a lifetime. So pack your bags (or in this case your comfy clothes) and set out on your new adventure!

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What the Heck are FODMAPs? And How Do I Avoid Them?

FODMAP stands for:

  • Fermentable
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Disaccharides
  • Monosaccharides
  • And
  • Polyols

It is a list of short chain carbohydrates. What FODMAPs have in common is that they can be difficult to digest.  They range from being inadequately absorbed in the small intestines to indigestible.

Some people have adverse reactions to consumption of short chain carbohydrates. These reactions include:

  • Abnormal bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Bloating or abdominal distention
  • Cramping
  • Excessive gas, flatulence
  • Nausea

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These adverse reactions are not a consequence of malabsorption of short chain carbohydrates. They result from the response of the body, in some people, to that malabsorption.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a chronic condition where someone fairly frequently experiences many, or most, of the aforementioned symptoms. IBS is one of more than a dozen functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

The collection of symptoms that fall under the umbrella of IBS are, at times, the result of a dysfunction of the gut–brain–microbiome axis. For this reason, those who suffer from IBS are often advised to take prebiotics and probiotics, engage in relaxation, and practice stress management techniques.

There is also a connection between IBS symptoms and our enteric nervous system (ENS), also called the “brain in the gut” or “second brain”. I prefer to think of it as the source of my gut feelings and instincts.

Because IBS has a variety of causes, what allows people to successfully reduce or eliminate symptoms varies, as well.

Breaking Down the Letters

The Low FODMAP Diet was the result of research conducted at Monash University. It is one way to tame symptoms associated with IBS.

Fermentable

The “F” in FODMAP, refers to the fermentation that happens when intestinal bacteria consume undigested carbohydrates. In other words, it describes a process that, for some, leads to digestive issues.

Oligosaccharides

The “O” in FODMAP refers to oligosaccharides, which are chains of sugars (fructans, galacto-ogliosaccharides, etc.). Some of the more commonly used foods containing oligosaccharides are:

  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cashews
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Soy milk
  • Wheat
Disaccharides (lactose, maltose, sucrose, etc.)

The “D” in FODMAP references disaccharides. They are formed when two monosaccharides link together. Among others, the following foods containing disaccharides:

  • Buttermilk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Custard
  • Hot chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Kefir
  • Milk
  • Milk chocolate
  • Processed or soft cheeses
  • Whipping cream
Monosaccharides

The “M” in FODMAP stands for monosaccharides, like fructose, which contain a single sugar molecule. Foods high in fructose include:

  • Agave
  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Cherries
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Mangoes
  • Molasses
And…

The “A” in FODMAP stands for and, apparently they needed to buy a vowel.

Polyols

Polyols are the “P” that completes FODMAP. They are sugar alcohols (erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, etc.). Some of the foods containing polyols are:

  • Apricot
  • Butternut squash
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Mushrooms
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches

Alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, and spicy foods may also trigger symptoms.

Following a Low FODMAP Diet

A low FODMAP diet begins with an elimination phase. For two to six weeks, all of the foods containing high FODMAPs are removed from your diet. Because this phase is so restrictive, many find it difficult to follow. Since restaurants are not yet classifying menu items as low FODMAP, or FODMAP friendly, you may need to make everything from scratch, at home.

The second phase involves the reintroduction of foods. It is very important to introduce them one at a time, or it becomes nearly impossible to identify the source of troubles, should they arise. Ideally, you will want to try including just one new ingredient each week. Begin with the foods that will give you the most “bang for your buck”, such as garlic. Alternatively, you may begin with those foods that you adore most. When you are able to handle one food, try a few others from the same category. It is possible that the entire group won’t affect you negatively. Note that some foods appear in more than one category. For example, apples contain both fructose and sorbitol. Therefore, your reactions to them may be less telling with respect to categorical sensitivities.

Phase three implements a personalization of dietary restrictions, or reductions, based on the results of your trial and error during phase two. For example, I should never consume an onion again. Some foods, like blueberries, I can handle in moderation. And I enjoy others once in a while, including pasta, when combined with plenty of hydration, regular exercise, and low levels of stress.

“The diet was helpful for a couple of reasons. Most notably – IT WORKED!”

IBS: Plunging My Way through Decades of Tummy Turmoil

When the third phase is complete, your newfound nutritional guidelines should be far more sustainable.

As awareness increases, sites and books full of recipes and tips are being published by chefs, dieticians, and those living with IBS, to ensure that following a low FODMAP diet doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor!

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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.

There are affiliate links on this site.  Read my disclosure policy to learn more.

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!

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!

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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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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 aisle 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 is a Reflection of Self-Worth

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:

  • asserting boundaries
  • calling loved ones regularly
  • going to bed early
  • healthy eating
  • laughing
  • making your bed
  • meditating each evening
  • only checking work emails during work hours
  • setting aside “me” time
  • Spending time outside
  • taking bubble baths (and drinking hot tea!)
  • getting up to walk every hour (or so)

“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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