Tools In The Kit, A Primer For Self-Care Part I
(For your convenience, a PDF of the complete article is available for download)
Where I Came From To Where I Am: How I Know What I Know
My foray into wellness began in the early 1990s, working in fitness retail selling equipment to private residences and to gyms. Treadmills, step climbers, stationary cycles, barbells, dumbbells, circuit machines, vitamins, potions and powders – chances are if they made it, we sold it.
Looking back, much of it was a confusing mess. Every new piece of gear or accessory promised to make you stronger, bigger, slimmer, in less time than it took its predecessor. Whatever you felt you were lacking, there seemed to be a device or supplement that would assuredly provide it for you.
Cracks in the veneer began to show whenever we’d go to a fitness conference or expo. The people I saw and met, both attendees and the representatives hawking their wares, often appeared as if they had challenges walking the walk they were talking – it turns out that you can be a really good fitness equipment salesperson without actually having to follow the fitness lifestyle.
Among the conference-goers was a three-quarter of a pack-a-day smoker who was more than happy to head out with the team for pub food and numerous rounds of drinks to unwind after a long day – me. Perhaps my early-twenties vigor gave me a bit more resilience than my older counterparts, but in hindsight, I was an active participant in an often hypocritical industry that seemed obsessed with appearances – aesthetics (“hey, looking good!”) over wellness (“hey, feeling good!”).
My own blind spots caught up with me one fateful summer afternoon on an in-home install, moving a piece of heavy equipment through the narrow confines of a basement hallway. I wasn’t wearing a safety harness, and the height from which I was lifting meant I couldn’t use much of my lower body to assist. As soon as I hoisted, a horrible twinge ripped through my lower back. The only way to describe the feeling would be to compare it to when an elastic material – like taffy – gets pulled to the point where rather than breaking, it simply loses all of its resiliency and goes slack.
Ignorant to the possible extent of the damage, I neglected medical diagnosis, and was put on worker’s compensation for all of a week. My employer didn’t really care about my injury, and was only interested in how quickly I could get back out on the sales floor. Fearing the potential loss of my job, I hobbled back into action, far from fit and far from well. An errant sneeze or cough would throw my back into spasm; I began to brace myself at the mere thought of the recurring pain.
I eventually tired of and left the industry, but my injury followed me wherever I went. On the surface, I managed to retain the appearance of relative fitness, but the reality was that I was a walking bag of poor habits that sooner or later, were bound to catch up with me. Sure enough, in 2002, after a prolonged bout of searing sensation and numbness that ran down the back of both of my legs, an MRI revealed a lumbar disc herniation that was compressing my sciatic nerves. Coincidentally, this was also the point where I found myself in the deepest trench of depression since an initial diagnosis in the mid-1990s. To say that I was not a happy, well-functioning individual at that point in my life would be an understatement.
Fast forward to December, 2018. Given what I now do for a living, I’m obviously in a much better place. Day-to-day, I live a relatively pain-free existence. I quit smoking in 2004. I can now savour the occasional drink without the urge to go overboard. I may feel down from time to time, but no longer experience the crippling bouts of depression that I once did.
I’m now a part of what can be termed the wellness industry (itself, a multi-trillion dollar behemoth), and it turns out that it isn’t much different from the fitness industry. Instead of middle-age, pot-bellied men pitching the latest model treadmill, it’s rife with shiny, happy social media gurus claiming to have THE SYSTEM that will resolve all of your woes.
Even the yoga that helped me work through many of my physical ailments was (and still is) falsely touted as a panacea. One Indian teacher, responsible for much of yoga’s popularity in the west (and who, it turns out, had little understanding of anatomy and physiology), routinely advised their students that 6 days per week of vigorous, contortioned, postural yoga practice was all that was needed to maintain an optimal state of health. My experience (and as numerous articles [i][ii][iii] have detailed, that of many others) far from matched that outcome.
Attempting to follow this advice, I became beset with repetitive strain injuries, that exacerbated existing physical imbalances and ramped up my nervous response – the opposite of the effect it was purported to provide. This included a torn hamstring tendon that took well over a year to heal. And while the challenging classes in which I participated created surges of endorphins – our bodies’ “feel good” hormones – that would elevate my spirit in the moment, the overall effect on my day-to-day emotional well-being was negligible.
Meditation, considered an integral aspect of yoga, also yielded mixed results. I heartily participated in multiple 10-day silent retreats, eager to prove to myself and others that I could endure the rigours of a set schedule of sitting and following my breath and the physical sensations in my body for 10+ hours each day. It was certainly helpful in cultivating focus and concentration, and the body and mind can become beautifully calm in its deepest states of conscious rest, but it did nothing to address multiple psychological roadblocks that were still hindering aspects of my life. Truthfully, I often found myself using it as a means of escape, so as to not have to work through those issues. The typical answer to those concerns – meditate more – didn’t feel like it made much sense, either.
It’s since been spoken about at length that traditionally, meditation is not intended – as such courses often tend to advertise – as a therapeutic salve, but is instead a technique designed to lead to a complete, irreversible shift in one’s perception of reality. What may be suitable for monks and other ascetics carries a much higher potential for untoward psychological harm in the lay individual lacking an adequate support system for such an undertaking.
While it might seem as if I’m denigrating a modality that I now teach five to six days a week, this is not my intent. My injuries and setbacks have been solemn guides, greatly informing how I now practice and instruct; emphasizing strength, resilience and mobility over flexibility, and self-reflection over showy, performative attainment. And I can only speak to my fifteen years of study and experience in the field. If you’ve followed the same formula and come out shining on every plane, more power to you – though you’re likely the exception to the rule.
By now, you may have noticed that I’m pointing to a simple, yet oft neglected truth: there’s little likelihood that any one system will help anyone feel better. The reason that it’s neglected is that it doesn’t sell – few people who are suffering want to hear that our complex human issues require complex solutions that aren’t always easily resolved. It’s much easier (and in most instances, more profitable) to put forth the claim of a quick fix – weeks, instead of years.
If we make an honest assessment of our life challenges, we’ll quickly find that it’s difficult to point a finger at any one thing as being “the problem”. While something as seemingly cut-and-dried as low back pain may be due solely to injury (though studies show that the majority of disc bulges and herniations are asymptomatic), there’s as much a likelihood of it being tied to a multitude of factors.
These factors include habits, attitude and beliefs, lifestyle and environment, to name just a few. One, current understanding of human health and well-being takes all of this into account under what’s called a biopsychosocial model, and in my estimation, it’s the most sensible, sustainable approach to creating a path to feeling better.
In Part II, I’ll detail some considerations to keep in mind when looking for help with self-care.