31 Weeks Pregnant: Healing an Eroded Body Image

January 19 – January 25: 31 Weeks 0 Days – 31 Weeks 6 Days.

It’s funny that how our bodies feel can so profoundly affect our mental state. Last week I got some good chiropractic adjustments and was feeling like a pregnancy goddess. This week, I had a not-so-great adjustment (from a different chiropractor) and everything about my pregnancy seemed less glorious.

Last week I was gazing into the mirror admiring the best complexion I’ve had since before I hit puberty (with hormones drop-offs, no more cyclical acne!). This week, I was standing on a stool in my panties in front of the bathroom mirror to get a good look at my varicose veins so I could spend some quality time obsessing over them (I’ve gone weeks without thinking twice about them). Last week I celebrated the achievement of learning to ask for help at the grocery store. This week I felt helpless and frustrated—like I couldn’t do anything on my own. I had the energy to buy potted herbs, soil, and a planter, but I didn’t have the energy to actually do anything with them. On top of all that, the furnace was out of commission for three days, leaving Richard and me shivering.

It’s not that there weren’t great, fun, amazing things happening this week: Richard and I have been consciously spending more time talking and interacting instead of checking out and watching TV; I found out I could cook a whole chicken in just 30 minutes in my pressure cooker (then use the slow cooker function overnight to make broth); and, I won a gangster-themed board game at a friend’s birthday party, probably partly because other players had an unconscious aversion to pointing a foam gun at a pregnant lady. I was just latching onto the negative stuff because I was achy and cold: my shoulder and upper back were tense, the baby was pushing up against and kicking my stomach, and I was starting to feel like a big fat sumo wrestler.

In the middle of my second trimester, a recently-pregnant acquaintance told me, “You look great! I just wanted to make sure I told you that, because I know I felt like a fat cow during pregnancy.” I tend to have a positive body-image and at that time I couldn’t fathom thinking of myself as a “fat cow.” Now that my belly is twice the size it was then and many of my movements are punctuated with groans and grunts, I’m beginning to understand where she was coming from. Between my change in appearance and physical limitations, it’s harder to maintain a positive body image!

Bump Progress

Bump progress report: 12 Weeks to 30 Weeks. My pregnancy fashion tip: Tight pants and a top that’s fitted above and below the bump are the cutest. The looser the pants the bigger I feel.

31 Weeks Pregnant

This week: 31 weeks pregnant, wearing mom shoes. (To continue the point above: imagine how much cuter this would be if I was wearing tights).

Here’s what I’m doing to maintain a positive perception of my body:

1. I allow myself to feel my feelings. Sometimes I get down about not being able to be as physical as I used to or not looking the way I want to, and that’s okay. There’s no good or bad or right or wrong with emotions; they are what they are. Just because someone else has it harder than me or millions of women have been through this before doesn’t mean I am not allowed to feel a certain way. I’m entitled to my experience. Instead of trying to bottle up these feelings, allowing them to fester in my subconscious for weeks or months, I acknowledge them, allowing me to process them, talk them out if needed, and ultimately move through them. The moving through part is important—I try to avoid the addictive behavior of wallowing in negativity.

2. I shift focus to what I can do, rather than dwelling on what I can’t. There are holes in my day where my old activities used to be, and it’s been helpful to fill those voids with new activities, rather than sitting around feeling bored and incapable. I can do prenatal Pilates, I can swim, I can paint, I can play piano, I can write, I can plant my herb garden (just maybe not all in one day). And, the ultimate ability: I can build a fully functioning human being using nothing but some DNA from my husband, food, and my internal organs. That’s kind of amazing. Outside my body, this would probably take a team of scientists, millions of dollars in grants, and years of concerted lobbying effort to get the project past an ethics board. Here I am doing it with only nine months of mild to moderate discomfort. Part of me is eagerly looking forward to childbirth as the ultimate expression of this all the work I’ve been doing over the last nine months.

3. I talk to real women about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Although I have a science degree, reading statistics about how the average pregnancy “should” go is only marginally helpful. Nobody has the average pregnancy. When I was nauseated through my first trimester I talked to many women who had not been nauseous at all (validating my feelings that I had it rough), and I also talked to several women who were hospitalized throughout pregnancy because their unrelenting nausea was so bad they couldn’t gain weight (giving me the perspective to feel gratitude that I didn’t have it that rough). Doing prenatal Pilates and doing my prenatal appointments in a group setting has given me the opportunity to see real women at various stages of pregnancy, and see how different it shows up from body-to-body. My take-away: the media sets unrealistic standards even for pregnant women’s bodies.

4. I reframe “me” into “we.” I fall solidly within the millenial generation, which is illustrious for narcissism and self-centeredness. Although I consider myself compassionate and empathetic, I do sometimes catch myself falling into these millenial stereotypes. During the holidays, I visited a doctor I’d never seen before to make sure I didn’t have an ear infection (it was fine, probably just adjusting to my abnormally firm body pillow). At the beginning of my appointment she asked, “How’s your pregnancy going?
My response: “It’s been okay. I mean I’ve had some aches and painsdifficulty sleeping, and my digestive system feels squished, but I guess that’s all pretty normal.”
She looked at me for a couple seconds, and then asked, “…And how’s the baby?
“Oh!” I replied, a little embarrassed that I hadn’t even thought to talk about the baby, “She’s great! Everything is on track. Her heart beat is strong every time they measure it and she’s growing at a good rate. She’s moving around a lot now, too.”

Looking back, my energy talking about myself during pregnancy was drab and grey, but when I talked about the baby I was vibrant and animated. My baby is already a huge source of joy, love, and pride to draw from. This week, when my husband asked me how I was doing I processed my challenges and insecurities with him (as per my first point); however, when acquaintances and strangers asked about how my pregnancy was going I told them the baby was doing amazing and kicking all the time! It was uplifting to remind myself of the big picture that includes more than just me.

Shifting awareness from “me” to “we” is of course also important prep for being a mother, and I do feel my mentality shifting in that direction. I cried the first time I watched this video about what’s really important in motherhood, and I cried even harder when I watched it with my husband a second time (it’s not even that emotional, and at the end of the day it’s a formula ad).

The pregnancy hormones may be a contributing factor too. I was crying during this video about the secret meaning of “Closing Time” by Semisonic well before he even started singing:

In any case, I take the tears, emotional turbulence, self-judgment, and even physical discomfort to be telltale signs that I’m going through an amazing, radical transformation. Every day I step closer to fully embracing this wonderful change.

25 Weeks Pregnant: Tis the Season to Dress to the Nines

December 8 – December 14: 25 Weeks 0 Days – 25 Weeks 6 Days.

I just read an article about how tech companies throw impressive holiday bashes to retain employees, and not to be outdone, Richard’s company had its party this Saturday on the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier. The invitation requested we “dress to impress.” Minor discomforts aside, I’ve felt good in my second trimester, so I was looking forward to it.

I have several high-waisted dresses, and I thought I’d easily be able to squeeze into one of those because it’s only my belly that’s growing, right? Wrong. Thursday evening I tried on dress after dress, and the zippers wouldn’t come anywhere near closing. There was a dress or two that I could use if I was desperate, but nothing that looked that “impressive.” Friday, I headed to the mall to search for a maternity holiday dress.

First stop: Motherhood Maternity. They had a couple nice dresses there, but in response to nearly every one of my hopeful inquiries, the saleswoman replied, “I’m so sorry, we no longer have that in your size.” Disappointed, but unwilling to give up, I got took every marginally winter-appropriate dress they had in my size into the fitting room.

We don’t have bright lights or a good full length mirror at our new home yet, which I guess has left me with some body blind spots. Upon putting on the first mid-thigh-length dress, I turned around in front of the mirror to see how it looked, but froze when I caught a glimpse of the back of my right knee (what’s that area called? The knee pit?). It was blue! Horrified, I laboriously bent and twisted to try to get a better look. Are those spider veins? No, those are definitely varicose veins. Two of them? No, three?! Oh my God. (I still don’t know how many there are, I can’t get into a position where I can closely examine my own knee pit). I tried on all the dresses I’d brought in, but I was so distracted by examining and re-examining the back of my knee that I probably didn’t genuinely see most of them.

Pregnancy Art Therapy - 25 Weeks

“Close your eyes. Visualize your body as you breathe in and out. Try to imagine your breath as a particular color as it enters your body, another color as it exits. What do you see? Draw an outline of a body on a large sheet of paper, and inside, create a watercolor based on your bodily state. Think about what these colors mean to you, where they are densest, where they are most opaque.”

The previous day, I’d tried an art therapy technique in which I drew an outline of my body, meditated on my state, and filled in the outline with watercolor. I feel like I need to do another one using the body shape of me contorting to try to see the back of my knee. The agitation I felt in that moment is probably worth processing. Those varicose veins represented something more significant to me. Maybe I was upset because I saw it as the first evidence of a permanent change pregnancy would have on my body (which is not necessarily the case, sometimes varicose veins shrink or disappear after pregnancy—during pregnancy blood volume goes up 50%, contributing to bulging veins). Maybe seeing them shattered my sense of invincibility, thrusting me into a tempest of worry about all the other things that could go wrong (my gestational diabetes test is this week). Maybe they just made me feel old, unhealthy, or unattractive. I don’t really know.

I was alarmed by the the variety of textures and colors on the back of my knee. (Reality check: they have become less and less pronounced every time I’ve looked at them in the days since—they are not even that bad). I Googled “blood clot vs varicose veins,” as I bumbled through the mall and was satisfied that my symptoms were benign. However, when I got home (empty-handed) I phoned the nurse-midwife who was on-call after hours at my hospital and described my symptoms to be reassured that I was really okay (She was graciously nice about it).

I accepted that I wasn’t going to get a fun new holiday outfit, and resigned myself to wearing an old relaxed white sweater dresses the party. On Saturday morning I headed back to the mall to buy some maternity nylons and other flesh-tone underthings to complement. The saleswoman at Motherhood recognized me and said, “Hey you were in here yesterday, right? That dress you really liked—we just got a shipment in and we have it in your size now. Do you want to try it on?” The previous day, when I looked in the mirror, the appearance of each dress I tried on was outshone by the pulsating blue aura emitted from my gnarly knee pit. With the perspective of a new day I still checked out my new found body change in the full-length mirror, but I was more focused on envisioning which necklace I would wear to match and how I’d do my hair and make-up. Here’s how it turned out:

Maternity holiday dress

Ready for the holiday party!

Richard and I had a lovely time at the holiday party. He was like a kid in a candy store on that aircraft carrier—he wanted to see everything! I’m glad I brought flats, because the stairways were practically ladders. We stayed until almost midnight, which made me recognize how much more energy I have now than I did in my first trimester. One thing I’ve come to depend on in pregnancy is that, for better or worse, every week something changes (And in the big picture, as long as the baby is growing and healthy, it’s all for better). One of the Joyful Pregnancy Affirmations in my Hypnobabies home study class was particularly poignant this week: “I love my pregnant body and accept it every day.” This was the first week I felt like I needed that statement.

I’ve since read up on how to minimize varicose veins to prevent complications. The whole time I’ve been writing this post I’ve been diligently trying to avoid crossing my legs. I’m still trying to figure out how to sleep on my left side and elevate my legs at the same time, but I’ll keep trying (lying on the left prevents the baby from compressing the inferior vena cava, which can inhibit blood from returning to the heart, and elevating the feet prevents blood from pooling in the legs). Daily cardiovascular exercise would help, so maybe it’s time to locate my closest swimming pool. For now I’m off to spend a few minutes in legs up the wall (viparita karani).

Stop Procrastinating and Dive into Life

So many of us succumb to procrastination in our day-to-day lives, which is essentially allowing that which matters most to give way to that which matters least. Even in yoga class, we mull over what we should’ve said in an earlier argument, repeat and re-repeat mental grocery lists, and wonder self-consciously if anyone noticed that giant zit that popped up this morning. All of this is just procrastination that prevents us from being present to the real work: the svadyaya (self-study), the dharana (concentration), and the dhyana (meditation). Just as with any other work we procrastinate from, this stuff is often scary, uncomfortable, and exhausting. Anything that that spurs wild transformation usually is.

As Rusty Wells always said in class when I practiced with him years ago (and he probably still does): “If nothing ever changes, nothing ever changes.” Next time you’re in yoga class, your mantra is, “I prioritize that which matters most in this moment.” Mental chatter is definitely going to come up, but instead of indulging in it, you notice it as an observer rather than a participant. What do you cling to? What are your recurring thoughts? When is there the most mental chatter? When is there tranquility? Distraction is going to come up too. That’s an another opportunity for svadyaya. As one of my dear teachers, Les Leventhal, always used to point out: we never stop take a sip of water or fix our hair in the poses that we love. Notice.

Once you start diving into your yoga practice, you’ll find that the habits you develop start spilling over into the rest of your life too. You run for what matters most rather than lolling about in what matters least. You seize the day. You savor the richness of each moment.

Life is love - enjoy it. -Sai Baba

Life is a song – sing it. Life is a game – play it. Life is a challenge – meet it. Life is a dream – realize it. Life is a sacrifice – offer it. Life is love – enjoy it. -Sai Baba

On the internet, there is widespread disagreement who wrote the following poem, so if you know who the author is please let me know!

Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.
– Unknown

Why Yoga Bootcamp?

After ten years teaching fitness and yoga and seven years studying Kinesiology and Cognitive Science I’m finally putting it all together: In January, I’m teaching Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp at Thriveability in San Francisco. This four-week transformational series combines yoga and meditation with fitness and goal-setting to provide students safe, fun, and motivating, complete mental, physical, and spiritual workout. Here’s why I’m so hyped up about it:

Why Yoga?

Side Plank with Tree

Side Plank with Tree (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Yoga is the foundation. It is the ultimate system for letting go of what no longer serves us, coming into acceptance of who we truly are, and realizing our divine purpose. Without the work we do in yoga (or other systems that guide us to develop in the same way), any action we take or goal we set is directionless and purposeless. The present moment awareness that yoga cultivates provides us a springboard from which we can take mindful, intentional action. Also, yoga helps us develop body awareness and flexibility, feels amazing, and is just plain fun.

Why Not Just Yoga?

As with any other type of paradigm that involves physical activity, there are common patterns of muscle imbalance that can arise when yoga is our only form of regimented movement (these imbalances often aren’t from the yoga, we come in with them and can reinforce them in yoga if we’re not careful). Even if we have yoga teachers who enforce alignment meticulously, it doesn’t mean we will rehabilitate these imbalances; often, it means we are discouraged from going into positions where our body shows signs of that imbalance. Yoga is not supposed to be about ego or goals, so we should be content with backing off and taking it easy, right? This is great for avoiding injuries on the mat, but it avoids problems rather than addressing them, so it allows us to retain imbalances that may lead to injury off the mat during our day-to-day movements.

It’s so amazing and healing to be able to think to yourself, it’s okay that I can’t do handstand. I’m perfect the way I am. But, without losing touch with that thought, it’s also worthwhile to question, why can’t I do handstand? Where am I losing the energy that is supposed to be holding me up? If the energetic bottleneck is something physical, it’s doesn’t really make sense to address it only with the spiritual practice of yoga (especially if you’ve been doing yoga for years and nothings changed). Drawing on the extensive knowledge of kinesiologists, exercise specialists, fitness instructors, and physical therapists would be much more directed and intentional.

Why Fitness?

Core Twist

Core Twist (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

Fitness helps us fill in the gaps of our yoga practice so we can maintain strong, healthy, functional, injury-free bodies. Developing body awareness, stability, strength, endurance, and power using fitness allows us to practice a broader range of poses safely. Often, the physically challenging poses offered as options in yoga classes will only ever be available to those who already have the fitness to do them (or who gain that fitness outside of yoga). Regular yoga classes often don’t provide the frequency, intensity, and type of movements to elicit the significant training effects needed to build the strength for a challenging pose like handstand.

For example, in yoga we do moderate-intensity core work as part of our warm-up or prep-work to bring awareness and circulation into the core and prime these vital muscles for the rest of class. It makes the core more able to contract properly in the short term. In fitness, we do high-intensity core work toward the end of class. The goal in this case is to fatigue the muscles, which is essential for improving strength and endurance over time. However, it makes the core less able to contract in the moment, which is why it’s safer to do at the end of class.

Personal Experience: After doing both yoga and fitness for years, I cancelled my gym membership and started doing vinyasa yoga almost exclusively. It only took a year of this for me to developed some painful imbalances and hypermobilities in my body that kept getting worse the more I practiced yoga. Everyone told me to stick to gentle classes, but the gentle poses made me feel worse than anything else. It wasn’t until I started doing Pilates and rehabilitative exercises that my body finally started recovering. Not only was I in less pain, as I strengthened my glutes, my hip flexibility increased instead of decreasing. Once my body was more stable it was safer for it to open up. As I strengthened my core to support my aching spine, a side effect was that poses that had never been accessible to me before started showing up. All of a sudden I could stick a handstand–if only for a couple seconds. I began to see poses like handstand not as an end goal, but as a check-in on stability, integrity, balance, and body awareness.

Doing fitness is not only about the physical benefits, there’s a philosophical aspect to it, too. It’s one thing to have a vision and a purpose, and even to clearly see your path (yoga and meditation are phenomenal forms of self-study that allow you to establish these things). It’s another thing to have the drive and know-how to follow the path toward your intention. In one of my college classes, we learned that will power is like a muscle: if you overuse it, it becomes burnt out; but if you practice it regularly without exhausting it, you’ll slowly build its strength and endurance. By adding fitness into our weekly practice, which–unlike yoga–is goal-oriented, we develop our tenacity, our determination, our perseverance, and our will. When we experience ourselves achieving our what we said we would achieve (especially if the goal was audacious), we begin to trust our own words, and our intentions become more powerful.

Why Inversions and Arm Balances?

Eka Pada Galavasana

Eka Pada Galavasana (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

1. They’re fun.

2. They are informative. If you wanted know where you tend to collapse in your body, do handstand and you’ll find out immediately. While many other poses whisper bits and pieces of feedback that are easy to miss, arm balances and, even more so, inversions give you a full presentation on a loudspeaker with PowerPoint slides.

3. They are empowering. The first time we see an inversion or an arm balance, our immediate reaction is, I can’t. But then (after a little work, perseverence, and guidance), it turns out we can, it helps us re-evaluate other possibilities in your life we’ve dismissed. Very few things are impossible. It just takes practice to identify and diligently follow the path to your wildest dreams.

Why So Often? Why so long? Why so early?

I want Yoga EMPOWER Bootcamp to remind you how powerful you and inspire you to tap into that power to achieve your divine purpose. The program is 5-days-a-week (Monday to Friday) at 6am for 4 weeks. To make radical changes in our lives, we must practice new habits regularly and for a sustained period. We alternate what we do everyday so we never end up with overworked or fatigued, and we take weekends off to we can recharge our will power and maintain balance in our lives. As with any program for improving fitness, it takes six weeks to see significant results, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on experiencing what your capable of by cutting the program any shorter. However, for now, we’re offering a trial version of the program that’s only four weeks long, which is a little easier to commit to. Stay tuned for the full six-week version.

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift

Down dog on the Wall with Leg Lift (Photo Credit: Faye Chao)

6am is earlier than most of us have anything planned, so there aren’t many excuses for not showing up. It’s hard to get up that early for six whole weeks, but each of us knows we’re capable of it–it’s another way we will develop will power. Also, when we’re waking up that early every day, we start to feel the effects of our lifestyles. They’re amplified. If we pay a even an iota of attention to our energy levels, it will become painfully apparent which lifestyle choices allow us to get out of bed and do an intense workout first thing in the morning, and which leave us running late, groggy, and unable to harness our power.

See you bright and early on January 6th at Thriveability!

I am so excited to share this program with you. I truly, wholeheartedly believe it will help you realize your purpose, develop the skills to achieve it, and learn some fun poses along the way.

What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana?

Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about asana (yoga poses)?

A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the highest stage of enlightenment is reached in seven stages, and asana (the practice of yoga poses) is the third stage. Putanjali describes asana in three sutras:

The posture should be steady, comfortable and grounded in joy. (2.46)

When I was younger my unconscious philosophy was something like, “exercise should be recklessly fast, numbingly intense, and fueled by anger.” Exercise worked as a great coping mechanism for me. When I roller-bladed as fast as a could, I was so focused on not falling that there wasn’t room to worry about anything else. The aching in my muscles during a long run superseded aching in my heart. Exercise was something I could channel uncomfortable emotions into instead of letting them eat away at me. It was also empowering to see my body getting strong and healthy. It was a great band-aid for a while, but eventually it stopped working.

In my early twenties, I was experiencing a deeper heartbreak than I’d felt before, and no matter how vigorously and desperately I exercised, I couldn’t block it out. Then, in the midst of my suffering I discovered vinyasa yoga, and it was transformational. Through the metaphor of asana (poses), my teachers taught me to be still and notice my emotions, even if I wanted nothing more than to resist them and block them out—steadiness. They taught me that whatever was going on in my head, it was okay to be feeling was I was feeling—comfortableness. Through time and practice, I learned that my worth was defined by more than getting having a boyfriend, getting into a challenging yoga pose, or even being strong and healthy; I found out I was more than all of those labels—joy.

Posture is mastered by relaxation of effort and meditation on the unlimited. (2.47)

I tell my students that practicing asana is practicing for life. If we are able to relax our gripping, gritting, or gnashing and maintain a meditative state during a challenging pose, we are more likely to connect to that mindfulness when someone cuts us off in traffic or when our hearts get broken. In San Francisco, I teach an intermediate vinyasa class in which we practice challenging postures that Putanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras), probably wouldn’t have dreamed recommending for meditation. I constantly remind students that it’s not about the pose itself; the pose is just a construct to test your ability to relax and be mindful. In this respect, sometimes the more advanced variation of a pose is the one that challenges your strength and flexibility; sometimes it’s the one that’s physically easier, but challenges you to let go of our ego.

When posture is mastered there is a cessation of disturbances caused by dualities. (2.48)

Our minds operate by identifying opposites. It’s built into our language and logic. We understand light because we can contrast it a lack of light (dark). We understand ourselves as entities different from our environment, different from others. Sometimes we even dissociate our own body, mind, and spirit. These aren’t bad things, we need them to survive. But, they create an illusion of separation which can be a source of deep suffering.

I’ve already mentioned that through my personal asana practice lines between things I thought were separate began to blur: as I learned to practice with physical grace, I began to cope with my emotions more gracefully too. As I relaxed in the face of intensity on the mat, I was more able to handle stress and conflict off the mat. As my practice of mindfulness developed, I began to notice my profound effect on my environment, and my environment’s fundamental effect on me. The labels that used to define me and set me apart from others started to drop off. I began to think that maybe my sense of self was more of a pragmatic, survival-based construct that a metaphysical (real) one. As the edges of my identity began to dissipate, I considered that maybe there is something that has no opposite. Something that is everything. Something unlimited that connects us all; that is us all.