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Trust Your Body
Trust your body.
It can do more than you think.
This is me enjoying a yoga class in London, around 2009.
And this is me enjoying a yoga class in Brisbane, much more recently.
Now guess which picture means the most to me?
You might think it’s the second picture – the one that depicts an expression of freedom, courage, strength and flexibility – compared to the first, where I seem to be lying on the floor not doing very much. But the answer is that first picture, and here’s why.
It was the first time I’d been on a yoga mat. At the time it was a big physical effort for me to even walk to class. It was the first time in a long time that, instead of trying to escape my body, I had allowed myself consciously to feel every muscle, cell and limb. It was the start of learning to Trust.
I have learned that, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest investment you can make in your body is Trust. How do I know that? Let me go back.
It’s the mid-90s. I had always been healthy and active. Not super sporty, but my body never gave me any real concerns. Suddenly though it began to be wayward and unpredictable, every single day.
When I tried to walk in a straight line, I would lurch like a drunk. When I gripped a cup or plate, it would fall through my fingers as if they weren’t there. My hands, feet and legs would feel like pins and needles or go absolutely numb. I would wake up exhausted, and after attempting any activity return with barely the energy to speak.
I was young, active. I had a social life. Then suddenly my social life disappeared – I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t feel young– I felt old. I napped all the time. I was frustrated: stupid body, why can’t you be normal? – it was a total breakdown in the relationship between my body and self.
Then one day I was playing tennis with my husband. I was usually a relatively good tennis player, but I couldn’t hit a single ball. I saw it coming, I aimed my racquet toward it… and missed every time. Something felt out of whack. I gave up the game in disgust. The next day I woke up feeling like I’d been punched in the side of my head. I could hardly see out of my left eye. Rounds of tests were done, from CT scans to MRIs, before finally, just before Christmas ‘94, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
MS is an auto-immune and inflammatory disease which affects the central nervous system. It’s a disease whose exact symptoms are unique to each individual – in some people it progresses quickly, whereas in others there are relapses and remissions.. One thing is true of all those with MS though – and that is that they experience symptoms every single day. These might include pain or numbness, but in almost every case it involves fatigue – MS is one of a group of illnesses in the classification CFS, or Chronic Fatigue syndrome.
When I was diagnosed there were no medications for MS, and the internet wasn’t the resource it now is to enable personal research. My neurologist’s only advice was to go away and enjoy my health while I had it and to come back when things got worse. He advised me to postpone starting a family until I knew how quickly the disease would progress.
In the space of the few minutes it took to receive my test results and hear my diagnosis, my whole world changed. Just moments before I had been a young woman with a positive future. I was at the start of a promising broadcasting career and had recently married. There was a certainty about my life. And now, in a moment, that certainty had gone. The only certainty doctors could give me was that my health would continue unpredictably at best and, at worst, as a series of potential losses. As someone just embarking on adulthood, that is hard to face.
I felt anxious: What’s going to happen? How am I going to cope? Will I ever get my energy back? Will I ever get my life back? I missed my old body terribly. Yet at the same time, I was determined not to give up. I knew I had to figure out what my body needed, how to make it thrive. No one else was going to do it for me. I knew if I didn’t seize that opportunity I’d be giving up.
This realisation was how I started developing a whole new relationship with my body. One where I’d listen and understand it. It was almost as if my body and I were a couple who’d separated, and now found reason to reunite and make things work.
When I was diagnosed I knew that, to give me the best chance, my body needed more than ever to be fit. Yet all the motivation in the world could not override the very real experience of fatigue and weakness I lived with daily. Motivation and enthusiasm only go so far.
Every one of us faces challenges when it comes to finding an exercise programme that suits the needs of our bodies and circumstances. For some it may be health and injury challenges, for others finding time or motivation.
However, I kept trying – because I needed this body and I needed to find a way to work with it that rewarded me with the strength and healing I so badly required.
I learned a lot through trial and error – there’s a wonderful range of activities out there but no one size fits all.
I tried the gym. It didn’t work for me but that’s another story.
I tried walking – being in the open air gave me space and perspective. It was great thinking time for me. It helped me learn to calibrate to my body’s daily unpredictability, because while some days I was able to climb a decent hill, on others I was just as happy to stroll a few blocks.
I tried yoga. The movements felt good, and they helped me get to know what I needed – when to extend and when to back off – which is so important for maintaining a healthy relationship with your body. I liked how yoga wasn’t competitive. I liked how there’s no “bad or good” in yoga – it’s not a match or a race. It’s you and your mat, you and your body.
I started to think in terms of extending myself, rather than challenging myself. Enthusing myself, rather than pushing. And that worked for me.
I began to learn not to be put off by a bad day. Everyone has bad days. It’s okay to sit one out and return to the activity again. I learned that if you love an activity, you are likely to want to keep doing it and will be confident in modifying it to suit your needs. I learned that my body responds well to variety – that more than two swim sessions a week will knock me out for a while, but if I stick to two and walk, dance or do yoga on the other days, I’m good.
I learned to be patient about progress – fitness is not an overnight thing. It requires commitment. Fitness really is something that gets better and better over time and is not a special prize limited to people in perfect health. I learned to trust that even if I relapse or have a bad patch, I will recover. All this has helped me feel strong and full of vitality. I feel like I’m thriving, because I am.
The one word that underpinned that newfound relationship between my body and self was: TRUST. Every time. Because, you know, it hasn’t been a linear journey by any stretch. But Trust has always been my ally, from that first yoga class to now.
I’ve learned that our bodies want to be our friends. I trusted that I did not have to give up all those things that had seemed to be at stake on the day of my diagnosis. I could continue a very successful career in TV and radio for as long as I wanted to, and I did. I trusted that I had a future, and I do. I have a home, a daughter, a family.
Our bodies are not just vessels we walk around in – they are home. They don’t have to be perfect to provide comfort. My body is miraculous, but I didn’t realise how miraculous until everything about that miracle was on the line. It doesn’t need to be perfect to love it. Time after time I have received inspiration, empowerment and freedom from this so-called broken body. In fact, I can’t imagine being the person I am with the wisdom, understanding, compassion and respect I have not just from and for my own body, but everyone else’s, had I not been on this journey. This journey underpinned by trust.
If you’re taking that first step towards pursuing a more active life, rather than go head-first launching into something because it’s there or you know other people who do it, challenge yourself to find the activity that suits you best.
And trust your body – it can do amazing things.
Alison Potts – Innate Being
Alison Potts is a yoga and meditation teacher in Bulimba, South East Brisbane. Her lifelong journey with MS – with which she is thriving in mind and body – make her a champion of embracing inner wisdom, including that of our physical bodies. She runs private one to one coaching sessions throughout the week , workshops and regular meditation sessions. Alison specialises in teaching people with injury, chronic fatigue or who have or are recovering from illness but also people who just want to play and experiment with the way each and every single body can find freedom, strength and joy. Yoga and meditation with Alison are accessible, fun and life enhancing.
Take the journey!