Monday, March 1, 2021

Worth the “Weight”?

I never thought I could learn so much about myself from a cactus! Upon a recent trip to Arizona, I learned something about the Saguaro cactus (the really tall ones that can have a bunch of “arms”, once they are 75 years old). They can shrink and expand, based on how much moisture they hold within their hollow centers. “Hey, that’s ME!” I thought…I have shrunk and expanded more than I care to admit these past few years, in particular.


For example, despite being vaccinated for the flu this year, I was so sick, I literally ate a couple of Saltine crackers a day for over a week (after eating NOTHING at all for 3 full days).  It took me almost 6 weeks to feel up to eating “real food” again.  Needless to say, my body was so calorie-deprived, that I lost a significant amount of weight.  Upon sharing this with some people, I heard the reaction of “oh, that’s great!” (likely because those close to me know that I had gained weight recently, having had serious health issues and being unable to exercise like I used to).  While I understood their best of intentions, the response was far from flattering: it stirred some negative emotions in me.

I was reminded that, just prior to getting the flu, I had a discussion with someone close to me about opening a yoga studio / school in Colorado. I have had a studio / school in another state, but upon moving to Colorado, decided that being a stay-at-home mom for a while was what was pulling at my heart. The response I received was: “How can you teach yoga [and promote healthy living] while being overweight?”  I don’t recall my exact response (I’m sure I was in shock at the audacity of the person questioning me), but it was probably something that assured her that I fully intended to take the weight off.  Once again pondering this discussion after my bout of flu, it led me to ask myself some questions:

  • Do I feel like I can be authentic in my teaching if I am not representing the “picture of health”, even if I feel like it’s the right time for me to share my knowledge with others again?
  • Is it necessary for a “wellness role model” to emulate every aspect of well-being (i.e., I may have the attitude and personality that may inspire someone, but perhaps my body type is not what that person wants for themselves)?

I realized that the only way I could answer these questions was to do what I know best: get on the mat! This often helps me see things from a different perspective, release negative emotions, and can inspire some wonderful ideas (from the small—like what to make for dinner—to the huge, like figuring out that staying at home with my son was what was really needed for both of us at the time).

I did a quick, easy sequence of heart-opening exercises (using a foam roller) that led me to my answers. The foam roller is a prop that helps to open the chest and relax the muscles of the upper body (crucial to those with poor posture or who sit in front of computers all day, etc.).  As well, the roller serves as an introduction to gentle movement linked to breath. For the purposes I was seeking, it is also beneficial, as it “opens the heart” (a phrase commonly heard in yoga, meaning it allows for our intuition to be recognized more easily).

Here’s what I did, and what you can do if you are “stuck” without answers:

  • Passive Chest Expander:  Sit on the bottom edge of the roller, and gently roll back to support the entire spine and the head.  Feet remain flat on the floor (allow the knees to rest inward, if more comfortable in the low back).  Simply allow gravity to do its work, and settle your spine into the mat, letting shoulders relax and feeling the chest open. If it’s comfortable to let arms rest on the floor, do so…if tight in the chest, use pillows to support the arms.
  • Shoulder Lifts / Arm Raises: This deepens the range of motion (ROM) of the shoulder joints, and coordinates movement with breath. From the previous position, raise arms toward the ceiling (palms facing inward).  Lift the shoulder blades away from the spine as you inhale (feeling an opening in the back), and then settle the shoulders back down to rest on the roller as you exhale (taking the opening into the chest). Repeat this gliding motion several times, as you feel the roller massaging your back and creating space in the front and back body.
  • Thoracic Mobilization:  Choose whatever hand position feels most natural for this (play around with it to find what works best!), from smallest ROM to largest: either cross your arms as if giving yourself a hug, rest your arms by your sides, or raise your arms overhead (with arms in a “cactus” position…see photo!). Imagine an ice cube between your shoulder blades, and on your inhale, lift JUST YOUR CHEST (not the lower back) away from the ice cube/roller…maintain the natural curve of your lumbar spine. Exhale and release the spine back down. If you are familiar with “cat/cow” (sometimes called “cat/dog”) in yoga, this may seem counterintuitive to you…and this movement is VERY small, albeit powerful!
  • Repeat this series several times (you should feel a slightly greater ROM each time). If you feel comfortable, increase the movement (and bring in the lower part of the spine) by engaging the entire body: hug everything in toward center as you exhale, and then expand outward as you inhale into the chest (expanding the chest and belly as the back body lifts away from the roller, grounding through the tailbone).

So, you may be wondering…what were the answers that I came to through this practice? Well, I decided that while I am a teacher, I am also human, and I have struggles just like everyone. For me to ignore them and present myself as anything less than human would be a dis-service to those I wish to inspire.  I feel that my calling is to teach teachers, and while I have deeply enjoyed my time as a stay-at-home mom, I am called back to the work that I have missed. And so my new adventure begins…

Let me hear from you, readers…what are your thoughts about your wellness role models? Do you feel that their “human-ness” makes them more accessible, less inspiring, more inspiring, or something else?



Debra Hennesy is the founder and owner of Feel Your Best, LLC, an organization that trains people to become instructors of yoga, Pilates, stress management, as well as yoga therapists.  Colorado is the location of her newest adventures, along with her husband and active 6-year-old son.

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