When Science, Spirituality & Real Life Collide
Emma Renee Usher, Registered Dietitian, Yoga Teacher, Mummy
Rediscovering Balance in a Chaotic World: My journey back to the mat & myself during the COVID chaos
March 23rd 2020; the day our world was turned upside down. My role as mum, Oncology Dietitian & yoga teacher was about to be challenged. It was hard to ignore the surreality of the situation. Most poignant for me was one Friday afternoon in work when the surgical floor of the hospital was cleared and the army brought in to teach us how to “don” and “doff” personal protective equipment (PPE). I spent that afternoon performing exercises in a big plastic hood and being “fit tested” for my respirator mask, whilst our military’s finest demonstrated the correct way to remove a haz-mat suit.
My beautiful friend & colleague Charlotte being
"fit tested" for her respirator mask
How could we possibly have had “coping strategies” in place to enable us to handle a situation such as this? Nobody could have predicted it. Usual coping mechanisms such as meeting friends and family, going to the gym and leisure time were to be no-more.
Up until March 23rd I was proficient in practising yoga daily. Waking at 5am for a mostly slow, restorative practice - bliss. I was eating a healthy diet and exercising several times a week. When COVID hit, my world was turned upside down. I was thrown into a ridiculous juggling act; going back into working within a clinical speciality I hadn’t worked in for 5 years (critical care), managing a case-load of cancer patients , making sure I was “getting it right” with the PPE, setting up online yoga teaching and then also developing a “home schooling” plan for my 5-year-old.
Like many people, I was exhausted by the situation and couldn’t face getting up and getting on my yoga mat everyday. I also slipped rather quickly back into comfort eating; something I had been stringent in avoiding for about 18 months after a ridiculous amount of weight gain. We had a kitty at work for “treats” to see us through this “tough time”… any excuse to scoff a Twix (or two…or three). But, I also continued this trend of turning to food for comfort at home with puddings, ice cream…… and gin. I also, despite some attempts, struggled to exercise; something which always lifts my mood and keeps my ever increasing weight in check.
Me hard at work on the high dependency unit.
Picture credit: www.careinacrisis.org (check out
Matt's extraordinary work)
Needless to say I did not feel good, and dwindling energy levels and mood did not help the rising pressures at work and at home. Yoga is my number one coping strategy, but I do find that when life gets really difficult I struggle to get on the mat. Over the following weeks I tried. I managed a few mornings but no consistent practice. This leads to a “wheel of shame”: you know you should be doing something, you try, you can’t do it, you end up being hard on yourself.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the importance of a regular daily yoga practice is discussed in Sutra 1.14: Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhadhumih”: Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break & in all earnestness”. Satchidananda, (2010) suggests approaching this with patience, devotion & faith. Iyengar (2005) relates the concept of “tapas” in yoga to discipline & regular practice. The ancient yoga texts & modern “gurus” all relay the same message; you must practice regularly. It’s just so darn hard when life gets tough! And did they ever live through a global pandemic?
At the start of June I had an epiphany. I sat down with my yoga books and really thought about what I needed from my daily practice. I developed a yoga flow that I could do quickly or slowly, that I felt I would look forward to. I thought about what chakras may be out of balance, I looked at yoga therapy for specific medical conditions, and I thought about what I enjoyed doing. I set a target to practice every day, any time. Just practice. I slowly built it up from there. I am lucky that my daughter is used to me practising yoga (or I have adapted to having her present), but having her at home full time was a challenge. I learned to find a level of acceptance with this: some days she required more of my attention and my practice was shorter or interrupted; other days she was content to entertain herself or join in. Either way, I got on my mat and I practised.
"Ceej" supta baddha konasana; supine cobblers
pose with the child in the middle.... & toast pjs!
I approached my issues with comfort eating with the same thought and kindness. Initially, I abstained from the “treats” at work or chose lower calorie options: popcorn and fruit juices instead of chocolate and cake. I still allowed myself a pudding on an evening and an alcoholic drink once or twice a week. I then slowly weaned my evening puddings down. I find “all or nothing” approaches rarely succeed. Start with a few small changes and take it from there. I feel I’m now back into a pattern of “normal” eating and enjoying sweeter/higher calorie foods a few times a week, rather than a few times a day, and alcohol on occasion.
With exercise I thought about what I enjoyed most. For me, it’s dance. I looked on YouTube for dance work outs (shout out to Dennis of “Werk dat dance fitness”- check it out ). Again, I started with small blocks of 10 minutes a few days a week and slowly built up. I also used to love Les Mills Body Combat and found the ”invincible” Body Combat program on YouTube, which helps build up over 28 days to completing a full class.
Overall, we have been through a crazy time and it is only natural that life has turned upside down. To find balance, firstly, be kind to yourself. What does your body, mind and spirit need right now and start from there. Build up slowly; “all or nothing” approaches rarely lead to long-term success. Finally, learn to adapt. It is unlikely that we will be able to do exactly what we were doing pre-COVID. Role with it; it might open some doors and lead to new possibilities.