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The Power of Yoga in My Life

I’ve always loved the power of physical activity to transform my mood. Like most people of my generation, I grew up playing outdoors. Running around with the neighborhood kids playing soccer, softball, hide and seek, hopscotch, skipping or whatever else was going on that day. During my teen years, I dabbled in competitive swimming, running and lived for the thrill of skiing. I never consciously thought about how the activity benefited my health, I just knew that doing it made me feel alive, happy and confident. In university, there were a few years when I just stopped moving. Life got too busy with my school work, social life and part-time job. Looking back, those were my darkest moments. My moods and my weight fluctuated. I lost confidence and the light inside me dimmed. Once I graduated, I tried to bring exercise back into my life but there were times, as I continued with new beginnings – entering the workforce, marriage and becoming a mother – when my fitness activities faltered. But one day I decided that despite my busy life working fulltime and being a wife and a mother of three young children, I could no longer afford not to workout. So I joined a gym.

Within a few weeks of going to the gym, I remembered why I loved moving my body. It made me happy. I felt so much better about me, even days after the workout. While it was tough to get to the gym often, I tried to commit to at least two or three days a week. I threw myself into the high intensity classes – step, circuit and weight training. But when the club introduced its yoga classes, I resisted. I watched people flowing through poses and shifting into savasana from my perch outside the window as I waited for my next high octane class. From my limited vantage point, the unhurried, deliberate poses didn’t seem challenging enough for the kind of workout I craved.

Then priorities in my life shifted. I stepped off the treadmill of commuting downtown everyday for my full-time job, to assist my husband with his growing business and stay at home with our three children. As it often is with change, it becomes a catalyst to open the door to new experiences. So I thought: Yoga? Why not? I tried my first class with trepidation and became hooked from the first downward dog. And after an hour of sun salutations and a variety of challenging twists and turns, the peacefulness of savasana was the deal clincher. All of a sudden my mantra switched from: ‘I’m not so sure about yoga.’ to ‘Where has yoga been all my life?’

Of course, I threw myself into practicing yoga much like I did my other fitness classes. I chose a challenging Power yoga class. I celebrated my strength in poses like chaturanga dandasana (similar to a low push up) and Warrior and inwardly smiled at the thought of how the stretching would transform my body into longer and leaner limbs. Little did I realize at the time, that yoga is less about feeding the ego and more of a personal journey to discover who we can become, both on the mat and in our own lives. 

During the first few years of my yoga practice, I don’t think I fully understood its power to heal. I even stepped away from it for a short time when our son, Cameron, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. With all the trips back and forth to The Hospital for Sick Children and Princess Margaret for chemotherapy and radiation, I didn’t feel I had the time or emotional energy to spare for a yoga class. I tried to fit in a quiet walk whenever I could. This became my outlet, almost a form of meditation for me. But when Cameron emerged from his intense treatments cancer free, I found my way back to the mat. It was the comfort of coming home again. The experience of watching our son while he bravely conquered the disease had changed me. Suddenly, a profound sense of gratitude warmed my body as I flowed through the poses. My time on the mat healed my heart. Having experienced the powerful healing powers of yoga first hand, I began to research the physical health benefits of practicing.

As you can imagine, there are thousands of articles on the internet about the many benefits of practicing yoga. When practiced with proper alignment, yes yoga is good for you, in so many ways – for your heart, your circulation, your lymphatic system, your muscles and joints – the list goes on. And then there are the intangibles – peace of mind, a sense of community and, for some, a spiritual awakening. But the real story is how the power of yoga affects each journey.

Because of my son’s illness, I was drawn to articles on the benefits of yoga for cancer patients and survivors. According to an article in Yoga Journal, while yoga is not a cure for cancer, it does enhance physical and emotional wellness. So I asked Cameron if he wanted to try a class with me. I’m not sure if it was love at first class for him. But I do know that one class led to another and he soon found it helped with his flexibility in baseball. I’d like to say that yoga became a daily practice for mother and son. But it eased its way into our lives through a class here and a class there. We enjoyed our time together and on the mat whenever we could. While I yearned for more yoga, I found contentment in my practice. Just as I was establishing my balance once again, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Within a heartbeat, our lives changed and our schedules were consumed with driving back and forth to hospitals. Once again, yoga took a back seat. Although looking back now, I wish I had set aside time to slow down to ease my own suffering and worry through meditation and the asanas but my mind and body immediately ramped up to panic because this time the cure was less hopeful. We were racing against time. We lost my father within nine months, but as anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you, grief has no timeline. When I returned to my mat once again, a piece of my heart was missing. I moved more gingerly, as though I had aged or become ill. I looked for the meaning in the meditations at the end of the class. It was a gradual healing but the ache in my heart dimmed and the tears became less frequent.

Today, after practicing yoga for more than 10 years, I look back on the changes in my practice as I would reminisce on a longtime friendship. Despite the ups and downs, I think the most dramatic change has been within the last year when I finally left my gym and found a yoga studio. Much like I did before I began yoga, I resisted at first. But as my daughter, Katy, pointed out: “Mom. You love yoga. You want to practice more. You need to go to a yoga studio, not a gym.”  It took time for me to find a studio where I felt comfortable. I tried a few classes here and there. I had my heart set on a studio that was minutes from home, but the teacher and the energy didn’t suit me at all. Accustomed to the soothing flow of movement and gentle administrations, I recoiled at the boisterous guidance and an invasion of my personal space in adjustments. Needless to say, I didn’t return. I almost gave up hope, until I discovered Some Like It Hot in Oakville. The energy was positive and warm from the moment I walked through the doors. Even though it was further from home, I knew immediately that this was where I was meant to practice.
As I settled into a new routine, I tried out different classes. I can honestly say I loved every class.  While each instructor had their own style, each guided me so I began to practice with improved alignment as well as greater awareness that yoga is more than just your work on the mat. Now I find myself rushing less and breathing more mindfully. When I’m upset with a friend or family member, I try to step back and choose my words with care. (Sometimes this is a work progress! It’s so easy to let others actions or words stir our anger.) I also make healthier food choices. But probably the biggest change is that I found the courage to begin the Yoga Alliance Teacher Training Program.

While I am excited about this next step in my yoga journey, I also carry a bit of anxiety. Will I be good enough? Do I have the strength of body and spirit to properly guide students in their practice? I have decided to ignore the worry in the back of my head. I actually don’t have time, I’m too busy learning – about the anatomy and physiology of yoga, the chakras and the many philosophical yogic principles. After all, one of the most important principles in yoga is to “live in the present moment.” So as I take each step toward my inspired goal, I have decided to let go and truly trust the journey.


Breaking Old Habits

With the end of summer, many people look at the fall as a time for new beginnings. It’s the perfect time to break old habits. Many of our bad health habits are formed when we choose to regularly engage in behaviours such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or unhealthy eating that we know will damage our health. But if we know these behaviours are bad for us, why is it so difficult to stop them? Unfortunately, many of our habits become ingrained in our daily routines and we find them rewarding, even though we know they’re unhealthy. This is why it’s so difficult to change these behaviours. So much so, that many people fail after a first attempt and then often give up their goal completely. Although changing a bad health habit isn’t easy, it can be accomplished.

Before making any changes in your life, try to objectively look at the habit you wish to change. If it’s smoking, what triggers you to smoke? Do you turn to smoking to deal with the pressures at work or at home, or do you only smoke when you are on a lunch break with colleagues?  How is it problematic to your health?  Once you acknowledge that you want to change your behaviour, you may still have doubts of whether you are capable of following through. You may also weigh the benefits and costs of changing your behaviour. How does it make you feel? You may continue to find the behaviour enjoyable. Even though you could probably recite the negative aspects of smoking, like the risk of lung cancer, you may still enjoy the social aspect of smoking with friends over coffee or a drink. If you still have the desire and commitment to change the bad health habit after reviewing the impact of your habit on your life, then it’s time to begin the process of change.

1.    Preparation

Establish plans of action to help you reach your goal. Talk to your family, friends, kids, life coach or colleagues about your goal to change a bad health habit. Social support can provide you with the encouragement and resources to help increase your likelihood of achieving your goal. Keep in mind, that while most people will offer positive feedback, some people may be negative about your efforts to change. Probably the best approach would be to steer clear of anyone with a negative approach, but that’s not always possible. It might be a good idea to plan your new healthy behaviour and how you will engage in this behaviour in different situations and with different people. This should include plans on how to cope with temptations in situations that may cause you to feel the urge to engage in your old habit. You can also plan how you will fill the void and manage your feelings, such as anxiety that may be initially present when not engaged in your old habit.

2.    Action

Replace the old habit with a new healthy habit. When you feel the urge to engage in your old habits, whether you’re in a situation or with people that trigger your old behavior, incorporate your new healthy behavioral patterns. For example, if a friend invites you for coffee when you’re trying to eat healthy and exercise more, suggest you meet for a walk instead. That way you can socialize while engaging in a healthy activity. Making a change such as this will bolster your self-esteem and strengthen your motivation to continue to make permanent changes.With repetition, your new healthy behaviour will be easier to maintain as it becomes part of your weekly routine. It’s also important to remember that if you fall back into your old ways once, you should stop and take a moment to realize what caused you to return to your old behaviour and learn from the experience so that you don’t repeat it in the future. Don’t get discouraged by a setback. Try to continue with your new healthy behaviour.

3.    Maintenance

Remember why you engaged in your bad habit. What was the reward in the habit? Perhaps you had a drink at the end of the day to help you relax. Or maybe you treated yourself to a cookie to get over an energy slump in the middle of the day. It’s important to find new healthy behaviors that also provide rewards to replace the old one so you’ll be more likely to stick with your new habit. Instead of a drink or a cookie, try some relaxing yoga stretches after a stressful day or take a walk to renew energy in the middle of the day. Most experts agree that daily repetition of a behaviour for approximately 28 days will ingrain that behaviour so that it becomes a habit. So, if you are able to engage in your new healthy behavior for just 28 days, this behaviour will soon become automatic and a part of your new lifestyle. Finally, it's important to step back and take a moment to acknowledge that you have successfully changed your behaviour for a healthy new you!


My Children's Wish

Since starting to snowboard at age 7, it had always been a dream of mine to one day travel out west and ride the fresh powder on Banff Springs. As my mother had travelled out west to ski the mountains earlier in her life, I heard stories of how beautiful the mountains and wildlife are in this particular part of Alberta. A trip to Banff didn’t seem possible at the time. My parents were paying for me to follow my dream as a baseball player, and it would have been too much to ask for, to travel out west.

I don’t know how to put this lightly, but the truth is, when I began chemotherapy treatment for Stage 4b Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2005 I thought I was going to die. Being in a hospital bed for weeks, having an endless amount of tests done on me, and then being hooked up to an IV to inject a foreign chemical into my blood stream to kill cancer cells. I was terrified. My loving aunt, also a nurse, advised me to visualize something positive, and I can vividly remember doing just that. I laid there in the hospital bed with my eyes closed, as the chemotherapy slowly entered my blood stream. In my mind, I saw myself on a snowboard going down a beautiful mountain, full of untouched snow. As I went down the mountain, I would imagine myself doing tricks that I once saw in video games I played all my life. Back flips, 180s, grinding on massive rails, all the tricks that I couldn’t actually do in real life, but no one was telling me what I could imagine. My mind was at ease and I was able to fall asleep. When I woke up, chemo treatment 1 of 6 was done. It became a routine, and each time I was a little less frightened because I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

When a member of the Children’s Wish Foundation approached me, I couldn’t have been more excited about what I could possibly do. There were two main wishes that I had to decide between. Either spending a day with a professional baseball player who I idolized, or travelling out west and hitting the slopes in Banff, Alberta. It really wasn’t a difficult decision for me. I had my heart set on Banff. At the time, I thought my future was in baseball. I told myself that one day, I would be living the life of a Major League Baseball player. One day I would meet my idols. It was time to get away from everything, and experience something that I may never get the chance, or time to do again.

In January 2007, an article called Rowers with a cause had been published in the Toronto Star, about two brave and quite inspiring men named Glenn Edwards and John Williams.  At the time, they had a dream of becoming the first pair to row across the Indian Ocean, a 6,400-kilometre journey. This ocean voyage was named in my honour, as the proceeds would go to the Children’s Wish Foundation. I was interviewed for this article, and when they asked why I love to snowboard I said: “I like the adrenaline – it gets you pumped up and helps clear your head. You get caught up in the moment.” Looking back on this, that’s exactly why I chose the trip to Banff. As I stood on the mountaintops, looking around, I was filled with a feeling of complete bliss. What a beautiful site. Then I’d strap up my bindings, get up, and head for the bottom of the hill listening to some of my favourite tunes. All of my worries left behind. It’s ironic that when I began visualizing this dream of mine, I was filled with complete fear and worry that my life would be short lived. Then, when I was on this mountain, and my dreams became a reality, I knew that it was over. The fight against cancer, the fight for my life was over. Not only was I blessed to have this dream fulfilled, but also blessed to share the experience with my family. They fought the battle with me and I couldn’t have done it without them.

This is why I am so grateful that the Children’s Wish Foundation allowed me to fulfill this dream. In the midst of a nightmare, they provided me with something positive to look forward to. This is only my story of how they have touched my life. There are thousands of stories, sick children with their own dreams whose lives have been touched by this organization.

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