Wednesday, March 24, 2010

EmBody Talk: Rachel Hawes, Yoga Teacher & Chronic Pain Sufferer

Rachel and I share some things in common: some degrees in Literature, a love of yoga and movement, a curved spine, a love of Paris and cats, chronic pain, and, I think, a very determined spirit.

It was the pain, though, that initially brought us together. People who don't suffer from chronic pain are odd to me. Like I always assume that if you don't wear glasses you must have contacts in! I never think that maybe you have great eyesight.

For example, when my partner can garden all day long and feel great the next day, for me, that feels like I am witnessing some sort of miracle.

Rachel and I are Chronic Pain sufferers, yes, but we are also the sort who Do It Anyway. Now, I am not saying we are "better" than people who sit on their heating pads. Oh, no! Actually, I think Rachel and I could use more of that, because we can tend to push too hard and too far.

For all of us who suffer from pain, it's about balance -- learning to push when we can and be kind when we can't.

Rachel has learned a lot about her kind of balance from yoga. You can find her blog here.

What is the first story that comes to mind when you are asked how you feel about your body?

I’ve always been in a lot of pain, you know? My physical body has pained me. And I’ve always been clumsy and somewhat uncoordinated. I have a really vivid memory of spending an entire weekend practicing backwards somersaults, because I didn’t want to be the laughing stock in gym class on Monday morning (I never really did master them!). I have terrible hand eye co-ordination too so I could never play tennis or badminton. All sports and gym classes always seemed a huge effort because of this and because of the pain, but I never really told anyone. It was a long time before I realised that it’s not normal to be in pain all the time!

My gym teacher despaired of me really. I’m not sure what she would think if she knew I was a qualified yoga instructor now!

It wasn’t until a few years ago (I’m 35 now) that I was diagnosed (thanks to a wonderful chiropractor and a series of equally wonderful yoga teachers) with a congenital C-shaped scoliosis and fibromyalgia. There isn’t a whole heap that can be done for either now, but I try my best to stay positive and keep going in spite of the pain – after all what other option is there!!

I guess I should have been diagnosed when I was much much younger. My mother is furious with our old family doctor, but I say, what’s the point in being angry? What’s done is done. And I have been told by several professional bodyworkers that my long term yoga practice (I have been doing yoga since I was very young) has helped me more than I can imagine. So really I’m just grateful for what I have!

Do you weigh yourself? Why or why not?

No. I don’t need to. If my clothes still fit fine then I’m doing OK! Besides I’ve got rocks in my feet or something because I weigh quite a bit more than I look like I weigh – which just goes to show they are only numbers!

How do you like shopping for bathing suits and/or jeans (or any article of clothing)? How do you feel during the experience and after? What do you typically do about the feelings that are brought up?

It’s so sad that, as women, we are so rarely completely happy with our bodies. I have been a UK size 8/10 most of my adult life (I think this is a US 4/6 but I’m not sure), but believe me, that brings with it its own issues. I have no hips and no boobs and always feel that clothes never hang right on me because of this. Over the last few years, I have developed a style of dressing that I think flatters what I have, and I have learned to work with what I’ve got rather than with the fickle world of seasonal fashion.

I also have a condition known as “funnel chest” that I was born with and is, in part, responsible for the scoliosis. The top of my breastbone protrudes and, being naturally flat chested anyway, has always prevented me (in my mind at least) from wearing any top remotely low cut. I still were tank tops over bikinis I’m afraid.

I always try to remember that there are many women who would love to be my dress size and I try not to covet hips and boobs too much (but curvy girls, you are sooo beautiful, I want you all to know that!).

What unattainable/unrealistic Rules do you have for your body? (For example, some women believe that only a certain size is acceptable or that certain foods are “bad.”)

I used to desperately want to perform yoga asana (postures) that were really not right for my body. I would push and push myself and have ended up injuring myself on more than one occasion. Luckily I found the yoga of Sri TKV Desikachar which works on the theory that each of our bodies is completely unique and therefore the way we practice should be too. I have found this yoga to be incredibly healing (as well as pretty hard work!), and I draw on it a lot in my teaching as well.

When have you felt best about your body? or When do you currently feel best about your body?

I have to say, that after many years of hard work both physically and emotionally, I do feel pretty good about my body (outside of a changing room mirror – I prefer to bring clothes home to try on, at least I have good lighting in my house!). I’m still in pain a lot of the time and some days the pain in my spine can drive me to distraction, but I always remember how I feel on my yoga mat because practicing yoga is definitely where I feel best about my body now I have accepted my own strengths and limitations. I work hard on carrying that feeling with me off the mat as well.

What kind of movement does your body crave or do you not notice this craving?

Yoga asana practice, without a shadow of doubt. I practice for between 30-75 minutes 5 times a week and my body certainly likes to let me know if I don’t keep this up. It’s not just about my physical body (although a few yoga stretches throughout the day when I’m stuck at my desk certainly make a huge difference), but my emotional attitude towards my body. Being on my mat puts everything into perspective.

What story would your body like to tell if you were able to listen?

I think my body is pretty proud of herself to be honest. I think she has overcome a lot of hurdles to get to the place she is today. I suppose my only wish is that I listened to my body telling me how well both she and I have done more often. Because even now, when I’m having a bad day or a fibromyalgia flare up or things just aren’t going right, even now with all this yoga training, with all my exercises in mindfulness, I still can be known to curse my amazing body. Meanwhile my body is yelling at me to listen!!!

Yes, even now, Rachel. I feel the same way, but I try to remember that pain -- bad, chronic pain -- changes who we are. It alters us. How can it not?

When I am able to remember that and be mindful of it, it soothes my Pain Beast just enough that I can notice that the real problem is that I am angry at the pain and not taking care of myself. As if I could punish the pain enough that it would go away!

Oh, the twisted patterns that our minds can make!

Our bodies are often yelling, as Rachel says. What about your body? Has it been yelling and you've not been listening?


suZen said...

Love this blog! Good questions/answers too. I have no chronic pain, per se, but am dealing with - and listening to - my body all the time. At my age, it isn't an option! There is always something aching somewhere or other! I seem to talk to my body a lot - I know it may sound weird - but being engaged and paying attention to whether it's really serious or not is key.
Thanks for a delightful read!

A Green Spell said...

GREAT interview!! I love Bliss Chick and love Rachel! This is a great post - I'm going to link to it from my business Facebook fan page.

Lisa (Mommy Mystic) said...

What a wonderful testament to the power of yoga. I had not heard of Sri TKV Desikachar, but I do think the best teachers recognize this truth that every body and practice is unique. Some can't see that, and sadly I have seen people get hurt that way:-(

Dealing with chronic pain the way you do, and helping others through it, makes both you and Rachel inspirations in my book, whether you want to be or not! I just re-read Carolyn Myss's Sacred Contracts, where she uses Jung's archetypes, and the highest expression of the 'wounded healer' came to mind while reading this interview - someone who uses the knowledge they have gained from healing their own wounds to heal others.