Health in the Peace Corps, and why I did 100 Days of Yoga

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It started in a hotel room in mid-January, I think. I sat crying on the bed, with three lovely ladies from our Peace Corps group listening and comforting me. It was a mental breakdown about a mental breakdown, a layering of struggles that I had never experienced before Peace Corps.

The breakdown that spurred this one had come about a month earlier, about halfway up Table Mountain in Cape Town. I had struggled up the devil switchbacks of that mountain. I slogged forward,a sweaty mess in the blazing summer sun. I felt, at one point, the wheezing breaths of the start of an asthma attack, something I hadn’t felt for more than ten years.

“I really don’t think I can make it to the top,” I told Alex, tears starting to flow. I rested for a long while, trying to catch my breath, halt my tears, and come to terms with the fact that I may not get up the mountain.

If I turned back, it would be the first mountain that I had ever retreated from. And, despite the suffocating heat and steep incline of the trail, it was still just a couple miles, barely above sea level.  For a Colorado gal who had lived above 8,000 feet and climbed much more formidable mountains before arriving on this side of the world, the possibility itself felt like defeat.

I did make it to the top of Table Mountain, and I felt a restrained triumph when I arrived: I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t, but I had struggled more than I thought I would.

So it is the metaphor for Peace Corps, I suppose.

It was that moment, that feeling, that brought about breakdown 2, the one in the hotel room. I hadn’t entered the room with the intention of airing my troubles or seeking comfort, but I was distraught deep down inside, and I couldn’t hold it in. Earlier that day I had seen one of the girls in the room working out, doing cardio stair-steppers in the deserted hotel stairway.

‘I can’t do that,’ I had thought. ‘I haven’t been able to work out for months.’

At that precise moment, I was feeling a nagging pain in my left lower abdomen, which had come and gone for the past three months or so, and which I had dubbed The Mystery Pain.

Three months with The Mystery Pain hadn’t been the start, or the worst, of my health struggles since coming to Moz. Before that I had spent about three months with ongoing cramps; before that I had suffered from insomnia for about two months. And, just to round things out, I had a few bouts of pretty severe food poisoning sprinkled in there too. It seemed that when one problem got sort of solved after multiple, multi-day trips to Maputo to see doctors, another would spring up.

So it was that I sat on the hotel bed in mid-January, not having made much attempt at exercise-except on-and-off yoga- since the previous April. For so many months, the health issues were so severe that I felt like I couldn’t exercise intensely. Not only was I exhausted and unmotivated, but I had a fear of making things worse, especially when it came to the pains and cramps I was having.

As it was, I hadn’t ever formed a good exercise routine in Moz to begin with. In the first few months, when I felt healthy and fit from our previous life as mountain dwellers, we tried a number of times to find a routine. We went running a few times during training, I tried an 8-week walker-to-runner program when we first got to site (which quickly melted away in the brutal summer sun), we did a part of a 6 week body weight calisthenics plan, and I did yoga on and off through it all.

Before the health issues ever started, there were two big struggles in finding an exercise routine.

One was that Alex and I had never had an exercise routine. Pre-Moz, we were very active, but it wasn’t a plan or program and it took close to zero motivation. We lived in the mountains and the mountains were our gym. We stayed healthy by doing the things we loved doing: biking, hiking, canoeing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, with lots of walking and yoga and occasional runs. The fact that it was this easy meant we hadn’t really had to think much about our fitness for about 4 years before Moz.

The other big challenge from the start was finding an exercise routine in a new life that felt completely void of routine. Our schedule in Moz is different every single day, and this took a lot of getting used to for me. There isn’t one specific time each day that can be set aside for working out, unless it’s 5a.m. Some days, I have to be out of the house by 7a.m. for work. Other days we get home from working at 8p.m. There’s a lot of free time in between, but it happens at different times each day. I had the idea that if I was going to do some boring workout plan- for the sake of staying in shape-and not really want to even be doing it, I had better make it a routine or I wouldn’t do it at all. Exercising wasn’t the only thing I tried to fit into a consistent block of time each day, and failed at doing so. It’s odd now to think back at myself trying to compartmentalize my time in this way; the inconsistent schedule that bothered me so much then hardly phases me now. In the end, I did find small ways to build a bit of routine into my days, to have tiny but vital moments of predictability and consistency. But exercise never became one of them.

After mental breakdown 2, the defeat and frustration just kind of brewed and brewed, until finally I told myself that, even with The Mystery Pain lingering around, I could at least start doing something easy, to commit to taking care of my mental state and maybe start regaining my physical health. Through all the ups and downs, yoga had been a go-to for me, a way to calm my thoughts and give gentle exercise to my body, and a way to have time to myself each day.

So, on March 1, I started a 30-day yoga challenge from YouTube (shout out to SarahBeth Yoga). It started so simple, at 10 or 15 minutes a day, and built up from there. I could tell that even the simplest things felt challenging. But when those simple things became simple again, I noticed. That was a positive about losing so much health, I told myself: getting to actively notice it building up again.

At the end of the 30 days, I felt so good and had gotten into the habit of finding time somewhere in the day each day for intentional movement and self care. So I kept going. I think it was at about day 45 that I decided to commit to 100. At first it felt a little extreme and unnecessary; I asked myself if I was being obsessive, expecting myself to exercise every single day. But I wasn’t pushing or forcing, or training for hours each day. I was spending 30 minutes each day doing a good thing for myself. I was listening, paying attention, and taking care of myself.

What finally came out during that long hotel room cry was kind of a raw and sad truth: I was having an identity crisis. An active, snowboardin’, mountain-climbin’, outdoorsy Colorado girl was my identity, and I felt like I had lost it. Never before had I felt limited by my physical fitness; if there was a mountain I wanted to climb, there was no doubt in my mind that I would stand at its peak.

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Now, there was doubt. “That’s who I was,” I cried. “It feels gone now, so who am I now?”

There are a lot of answers, of course, because for everything I’ve lost I’ve gained a whole lot more. But it’s not always so easy to remember this.

With my brief mentions of my 100 days of yoga on Facebook and here on the blog, I felt that all these other things could not be left unsaid.

My 100 days of yoga was not a challenge made for the sake of accomplishment. It was a saving grace after a year and half of mental and physical turmoil. I did not do it to achieve a beautiful pose and post daily photos, because my goal was not to impress, or even inspire, anyone but me. So, the 100 days were for me, but this story is for you.

It was important to me to share all this so you can know why my contented smile in the picture of tree pose I have shared feels like one of my largest triumphs. And it feels crucial to me to say that the crow pose I shared didn’t come until about day 80, and that those seconds spent in it were my strongest, physically, in nearly two years.

But maybe the most important thing that came from my 100 days of yoga, and the journey that led me there, was this thought that started springing up in the quiet, blissed-out moments at the the end of each practice, the things I started saying to myself: thank you for taking this time for you, for listening and paying attention, for playing, smiling, and challenging yourself.

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5 responses »

  1. I really loved this. While I’m in a much different location, with a far more regular schedule, I’ve found fitness while living abroad a tricky thing to make a habit. There’s just so much about daily life I can’t seem to get under my control. I love this post because it reminds me how important it is to remember: time spent listening to and respecting your body is time very well spent. Mental balance and strength is something we all need to spend time finding and fostering. Thanks so much for sharing this!

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