Tag Archives: 100 Days of Yoga

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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3 Smiles and A Struggle: 100 days of yoga, Visitors, The girls workshop, and What’s Next

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June was a joyful whirlwind of a month for us, as seems to be the theme of this second year of Peace Corps. I was lucky to go into this busy time feeling solid and well-grounded. The reason was that on June 8, the day before our lives got a little crazy, I completed 100 days of yoga. The 100 days of yoga was something that I had decided to challenge myself to after completing a 30 day yoga challenge in March and feeling really darn good by the end. The whole idea had come about as a way  to start getting back into shape and bring back at least some of the health that I felt like I lost during the first year of Peace Corps. The 100 days did just that, and more. My daily time spent doing yoga became my guaranteed Cece time, to take care of me. What a comfort this was! The challenge also brought about the realization that it is definitely possible to find time every day  for intentional movement and self-care. There were a number of days that I was certain I did not have time for yoga that day but, in the interest of not bungling my  whole challenge, had to find the time. In the end, I found it each and every day, even if it was just ten minutes spent in legs up the wall or a gentle stretch after getting over a stomach bug. I came out of the challenge feeling strong mentally and physically, and full of smiles for this and for having accomplished my goal.

 

A lot of smiles this month came from having visitors. Our first visitor was one of our best friends, Sarah. Sarah was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania from 2010 to 2012 and visiting her at her Peace Corps site was a big part of our Kenya/ Tanzania trip in 2012. In fact, this was the first time that I remember thinking, ‘We could do something like this. We could definitely do Peace Corps.’ From the moment we told her we were going to Peace Corps, she was set on visiting us and seeing our site. You may recall that we met Sarah and our friends Liesel and Jared and Victoria Falls for New Year’s. At the time, they were on a quick 3 week trip in this part of the world. Because of visa costs and time factors, they didn’t visit Mapinhane. However, soon after, Sarah got a job in Tanzania for June and July. She immediately began scheming to visit us here in Mapinhane first. So, we are beyond lucky to have received not one but two visits on the African continent from such a good pal. We spent our short week with Sarah soaking up the sun in Vilanculos, stand-up paddle-boarding, and enjoying perhaps more seafood in one sitting than we have in the last year combined. We then headed to Mapinhane, where Sarah tagged along to class with us- just as we had with her 5 years ago- hit it off with our beloved adult-learners at Adult English Club, sat in front of approximately 40 pairs of staring eyes while I read to primary school students at the library, labored through making Matapa, and got the first-ever full tour of the 7 Wonders of Mapinhane (detailed post coming soon).

We saw Sarah within the last 6 months of her service, when a PCV seems to be constantly oscillating between anxiety and impatience regarding the future, and nostalgia for and weariness toward their country of service. I remember her at that time, thick-skinned and mildly irritated half the time, and downright revelatory the other half. She too, visited us at this same point in our service.

In a week’s time, it felt like something in our friendship with Sarah had come full circle: we visited her Peace Corps site, where the seed of the idea of doing Peace Corps was planted, only to have her visit our Peace Corps site almost exactly 5 years later, and find us in, probably, a similar state to where she was herself at this point 5 years ago.

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We parted ways on opposite sides of the highway that runs through Mapinhane: Alex and Sarah heading north to Vilanculos, where she would catch her flight out, and me heading south the Tofo, with 4 female students from school.

This brings us to the next smile: this year’s REDES workshop. You may remember a bit about REDES, and about being a female from Mozambique, from my post after the workshop last year. REDES stands for “Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saude,” or ‘Girls in Development, Education, and Health.’ The program is a curriculum of 15 meetings, designed for adolescent girls and covering subjects like good communication, healthy friendships, goals for the future, puberty, reproductive health, HIV, and much more. Last year, I never got a group up and running at school, but was continually nudged by my amazing counterpart, a 12th grader at school named Marizia,to keep trying.

So, this year, the two of us finally got a group of 8th grade girls together that meets twice a month. Each year, Peace Corps Moz puts on regional workshops for REDES, and other such youth groups, in which leaders bring a few of their group members to meet other groups from the region and do more intensive learning about the topics covered in regular meetings. The workshops help create a strong network between the participants; Marizia still talks with a lot of the participants she met last year. They are also meant to be a type of mini-camp, reminiscent in some ways of weekend Girl Scout getaways. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, game-playing, and pillow talk.

This year’s REDES workshop was one of my favorite things that I have done during my Peace Corps service so far. I was so impressed with the PCVs who organized the event; it was dynamic, fun, productive, and full of a constant, buzzing energy. The group facilitators got to work with girls in small groups, for an extended time to talk more in-depth about topics like HIV, puberty, menstruation, and life skills. This led to a lot of great discussion and participation between the girls. The girls amazed us with theatrical performances on the last day, centered around things like higher education and drug and alcohol use. We also played A LOT. The girls and facilitators seemed to always have a song or game in their back pockets, and we spent some time one evening doing Zumba as a big group.

After an awesome and exhausting 3 days, the groups cleared out pretty quick to travel home after breakfast on the last day. All was quiet, and the beach in front of our accommodation was deserted.

“Teacher, vamost mergulhar!” my girls proclaimed. ‘Teacher, let’s swim!’

Having arrived later than expected on the first day, the girls hadn’t had as much free time at the beach as I would have hoped. There was free time here and there during the days of the workshop, during which there would be a mass exodus of girls headed for the beckoning sea just 2 minutes away. Still, I could tell my girls wanted more, and I had promised them some uninterrupted, free time on the beach before our journey home.

There are moments here when I see joy that is so uninhibited, all I can do is watch and try to soak it up in hopes that it will settle into me. This kind of joy isn’t fleeting; once you’ve seen it, you have it with you. A brilliant early morning sun rendered the girls silhouettes as I watched them, at first, jumping waves, laughing, and running from the surge of foamy water. Claenencia, tiny in stature but bursting with a sassy sense of humor, had never seen the ocean before and her string of giggles as she clung to my side were like bubbling purs of a happy kitten. Artezia, always quiet but with a look of contemplation, knowledge and strength, ventured a bit further, holding the hand of Meyvis. And Meyvis.

“Meyvis!” I reveled at her. “O seu coração…está no mar!” ‘Your heart is in the ocean.’

Meyvis often looks serious, angry or irritated even. I see her this way in class and in our REDES meetings, and I saw her like this all weekend. I’ve learned, though, that she isn’t usually angry or irritated. I will have seen her looking this way, and then later overhear her telling her friends how happy she was about whatever it was that was happening when she was glaring, sullenly, from the corner. Although I know this, seeing her smile, seeing her joy come out as she played among the waves was enough to make me smile and laugh too.

In the waves, Meyvis couldn’t stop beaming and laughing. She watched the waves like they were alive, deciding her next move among them, experimenting with a little bit of swimming.

Before too long, I had waded out with the girls. Artezia and Meyvis wanted to do more than jump waves, they said. They wanted to learn to swim. Laying belly down on the sand, I demonstrated the motion of swimming. They practiced. “Consegui!” ‘I succeeded!’ Meyvis told me. Watching them splutter as the water splashed into their faces, I taught them how to hold their breath. They took turns practicing, floating, face down in the water, holding my hands while the water sloshed them around the shallows. ‘Consegui!’ Meyvis beamed after a few rounds. I showed her how to blow bubbles out her nose. She practiced, coming up with her eyes closed, spitting water as she told me “Consegui Teacher!”

“Vamos para lá!” she said next, pointing east to the breaking waves. ‘Let’s go THERE!’

A few times, while they played on the beach or splashed in the shallows, I swam out into the waves alone, diving under them. Now, Meyvis wanted to go.

I explained to her first the principle of diving under the waves. If you are under them, I told her, everything is calm and they can’t batter you. If you stay above the water, that’s when the waves batter you.

We swam out a bit, not as far as I had gone, holding hands the whole way. I told her I would say when to dive under. We watched the waves growing, rolling under the water, before cresting and breaking.

“Agora!” I shouted as one approached us. ‘Now!’

We dove under, and she came up laughing out loud. Again, again, again we dove under.

“Consegui!” She kept telling me.

More then two hours had passed by now, and I practically had to drag them out of the ocean. The busy and productive weekend, seeing their pure joy, and having the chance myself to be free and play left me full to the brim.

 

 

It was also during this REDES workshop weekend that we received our second group of visitors. In fact, this group, Alex’s mom, aunt, uncle, and aunt’s mom, had ended up at the same beach at which the REDES workshop was being held, and were there when I arrived.  They are in southern Africa for two months, completing a big loop that was spurred by coming to visit us in Moz. Because their travel is so long, it is also very flexible, and some switching of plans is what led them to Tofo beach at the same time that I was to be there. Between the activities of the workshop, I was catching up with them, trying to make up for the 20 or so months since last seeing them.

From the REDES workshop, we all traveled back to Mapinhane together, where our family spent a few days tagging along to school with us, meeting all our favorite people and, again, laboring for their Matapa.  Our time with them was rich and satisfying. Just simply having the time to spend together, chatting and catching up, around the dinner table was more special than anything else we could have done.

As we try to prepare for our last leg of Peace Corps service, it’s stuff like this that fills the tank, gives us the energy to finish strong. As if the time spent catching up and hanging out with people we love wasn’t enough, having visitors also meant getting to experience the strange kind of magic that happens when you see your Peace Corps service through new eyes, as a visitor sees it.

For the second week in a row, our service got to be new and fresh again, perhaps more so with Alex’s family than with Sarah, who could draw a lot of similarities to her own service. Suddenly,  the things that are normal to us now seemed a bit adventurous once again: chickens on the bus, people who think you’re just another tourist mulungu, the energy of a Mozambican vegetable market. The slow pace of life that we have adapted to felt fleeting and precious: nearly nothing runs by a clock and we nearly never have too little time to stop and chat with someone. Our uncertainty about progress in our work got put on pause to the compliments of someone seeing it from the outside: it’s an accomplishment to teach with nothing more than a blackboard and chalk, and do it in another language, it’s impressive to manage 45 8th graders at the same time, it’s incredible to see the confidence of our adult English learners as they read aloud. The friendships and sense of community that we are used to were marveled at: we pick Matapa leaves off our bread vendor’s trees, there’s a give and take of resources between people in the community , and some days we can’t get through a full sentence while we walk through town without the calling of one of our names interrupting. In just a few short days, all of these re-realizations were a reminder of what a special and unique time this is for us.

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Alex’s fam at Adult English Club.

While the presence of visitors has the ability to really ground us in the present and let us observe our service as they do, it also brings about lots of questions about life after Peace Corps, which seems to be barreling toward us at a somewhat frightening rate. This struggle is twofold. First, our visitors reminded us what life in the States is like. Yes, some days it feels like we’ve forgotten what it feels like to live in the States, as strange as that sounds. But it seems there is no better way to remember than spending time with Americans straight out of America. Over the course of our two weeks with visitors, we noticed a number of American tendencies that now seem to be less a part of our life than they once were: an attachment to schedules and plans; an unbridled optimism towards problems and the presentation of solutions in the form of “Why  don’t you just…..” statements; and a probably normal but high-for-us standard of hygiene and cleanliness of self, home, and possessions, as seen in Sarah’s diligent sweeping of ants off the outside of our house and Alex’s aunt’s suggestion-before seeing them and realizing they may never have been cleaned properly- that we clean our shared toilets with baking soda and vinegar. Needless to say, our response to both: “Not worth it….” All of these little things remind us of what’s next in our life, of all the things about American life that we will have to re-remember and re-adapt to .

The other side of the “What’s Next” struggle comes in the answer to the question, “What’s next?” The answer is this: We don’t know.

We do not begrudge our visitors for bringing to light the fact that it’s time to start thinking about the future. Not at all. With or without the presence of visitors, trying to answer this question, if only for ourselves, has certainly been a struggle lately. It’s not that we haven’t thought about it, it’s more that we just still don’t know. We know it’s time to think about it. We know that ‘having a plan’ is the thing that’s supposed to come next. We know that some of the PCVs in our group are already there and lots of others aren’t. Perhaps it’s in realizing how much less attached we have become to long-term plan-making. Perhaps it’s that life in Moz has drilled in to us a sense that most things are utterly unpredictable, and, subsequently, left us mildly resigned from any attempt at control. Or perhaps it’s that our whole sense of time here has slowed waaaaayyy down, meaning that our five remaining months still feel like a lot of time. But more than any of this, I think it’s that, for all of the ideas and dreams and schemes that we have thought about for life post-Moz, committing to anything feels like a weird betrayal, like Moz is already in the back of our minds as we jump ahead to the next plan. Every time we try to make a set plan for how the next year or so of our life will look, it feels horrible and forced and completely unnatural. Right now, we don’t want to be planning our next big chapter. We want to be in this chapter, because we know this time is going to fly and we know we will never have anything remotely like it again.

I know that all of these changes will reverse, to some degree, one day. I know that we will once again become plan-,makers, even if it’s to a lesser degree. I know that life one day may feel slightly more predictable, whether or not we will like that, I don’t know. I know that some day I will probably try to regain a sense of control on things, but maybe it will never be to the level that I tried before. I know that it won’t be long before our sense of time changes again and 5 months feels like nothing instead of an eternity. These are products of the culture you are surrounded by.  Although we didn’t know it 2 years ago, these changes were inevitable in coming here, and their reversal is inevitable in our return. And I know that we’ll find a balance, eventually, of enjoying our last months here and thinking about what’s to come.

But for now, ‘What’s Next’ is nothing more than the hours that will pass today: going for a run on my favorite path, hoping that bread comes in to the market from Vilanculos, and cooking up a hearty dinner.

We have 5 more months to enjoy a life that’s this simple, and that’s what’s next on the list of things to do.

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