Blippety Blip Time
After a bit of a blip this past week or so, I’m happy to report (touch wood) that I am back on form, and hopefully having reached the other side of things, can see things much clearer again.
For those of you, who haven’t come across the expression ‘touch wood’ before, it actually has some rather funny history behind it For example, in pre christian times, people in England used to go into the forest when they had things they needed to talk to the trees about, and they used to knock on the trees so that the evil spirits couldn’t hear what they were talking about. In Italy, people would knock on iron (‘tocca ferra’ – both wood and metal were considered to have magical properties) whenever they saw anything related to death, for fear that they too would die. In Ireland, people would knock on wood to let the little people know they were thinking about them, as a way to thank them for a bit of good luck. And in Spain, knocking on wood was what you did when you didn’t have any salt at hand, to throw over your shoulder to ward off evil. Rather fitting that in latvia in June we have Liga/Janas festival, when we collect birch and have a special all night festival with birch, which is one of the most revered of the magical trees in almost all traditions.
I have to say here, that my coming out the other side of a very stressful week is mostly thanks to the amazing new friends I have made over the past month and a half at Sun Yoga Tbilisi, and I’m sure they have no idea just how much strength I have been able to draw from them on my journey so far (and I don’t mean draw in a phlebotomist or vampire kind of way, in case you were wondering!).
Boats at Sea
The reason for all this stress was partly because it looked like I may be kicked off the ocean row, very rightly so, owing to fears raised by two British solo ocean rowers (Charlie and OPG Patron Sarah) being rescued by Japanese Coast Guards after a typhoon damaged both boats last week. The main issue for the coaches is that I am not based in the UK, and they really have no idea about the quality or amount of my training, and are concerned about the team dynamics and difficulty to communicate and form bonds with us training separately, and also that yoga is not necessarily the right kind of training for an ocean row.
All of this was very justified and I completely understand and agree with their reasoning and concerns about our team’s safety and future dynamics, but it did send me into a massive emotional tizz in which I completely freaked out, and a huge learning curve, and my position on the ocean row now has a large question mark over it. On a personal level, its very hard, because actually nothing has changed for me, the risks remain the same, and I’m still convinced my training is fine, especially having spoken to other ocean rowing friends, and I feel sure that the team dynamics will also be fine, especially if we all have the same aims, though I am nervous about the team dynamic after our discussions this week, mainly because I now feel like my ability is being questioned, and I know I always respond badly to any doubts anyone has of me. Which sadly, I react badly to, and is hard work because I’m stubborn minded and also an all or nothing person, and if people start to show doubts or worries or to behave in even the slightest negative way towards me, it makes me back off and not want to waste time or energy. What makes it worse is when you understand and agree with everything being said and know it is well meant and in your own interest, but still wish you had been a party to that conversation before such big decisions were discussed or decided.
My future is still in doubt, and though I am still there in my commitment, I’m also afraid to remain attached now as to not be a part of the team and to sit on the side lines whilst they do the things that I dreamed of doing with them, will be really heart breaking, and I have a feeling that I could be taken off the team at any point, since I am joining an established team and its not my baby, just as my team on OPG feel at knowing that OPG is my baby and that if I don’t like something they do and I don’t see that it is fixable, I can equally fire them at any point, no matter how hard they work or how much time and energy they invest in the run up to that. The question is, in my all or nothing manner, can I fight my instinct, and overcome the issues, or will I just run away, or will I not have a choice in the matter?
I suppose in a way, it is also due to the end of the ‘honeymoon period’ as we were all so over excited at first, maybe getting carried away, and now the realities of what lies ahead, heightened by Charlie and Sarah’s efforts and struggles being left at sea until conditions were calm enough for them to be rescued, are starting to rear their ugly heads and put things in context and now we know just how much work we have to do.
Failure and Responsibility
The main reason I freaked out, was that I felt like if I was kicked off the team, through no real fault of my own, then I would feel like a failure, and that I had let everyone down. And I can’t begin to imagine how that must feel for Charlie and Sarah having worked so hard to get sponsorship and media coverage and people donating to their charities, to not only be unable to complete their rows just a few weeks in, but also to have had to leave their boats at sea, boats which were paid for by sponsors most likely. If they now wish to continue, they will have to raise more sponsorship and have new boats built and regain the confidence of others, despite having made successful ocean crossings before. Thankfully both actually have a massive following of eager supporters who will stand by them whatever they decided. There’s a part of me, that says that would be easier to deal with than being on a team and then unselected from the team, and for sure that is one advantage of being the person who starts the team, or for being the only member of the team. I also suddenly realised how alone I was and how independent I am, and that was also really hard.
Never Forget the Importance of Family and Friends
From the week’s stresses and strains, two important realisations came to light. Firstly, that my priorities are very different from my team mates, and I’ve reflected long and hard on that this past week, and have realised that the row has become the be all and end all for me, I’ve got a type of summit fever, though I’m interested in the journey rather than the endpoint or world records, and that I’ve put it higher than friends and family in importance. Secondly that we have a different philosophy when it comes to training for expeditions.
A Hard Lesson to Learn
In relation to the first thing, its been a really hard lesson for me to learn, and looking back over the week, I’ve tried to deal with everything on my own, even missing my yoga classes because I couldn’t bare to face people knowing that I might have to tell them I’d been kicked off the row and was a failure and a fraud. But actually it was the friendships of the people at yoga that helped me through that, just by spending time together and getting to know them better. In the end I also opened up to my OPG team and explained why exactly I was stressed about project things, and also I contacted my father and for the first time in my life asked for his advice and thoughts. I’ve never done any of those things before as I was brought up to be independent and not to be weak or needy, yet actually the response I had from all was very positive and then I didn’t feel like I was the worst person in the world anymore. That actually I was still me and they accepted me, regardless of whether the row might happen or not. And with that in mind, I have realised that I need to spend more time being sociable, reaching out, and asking for support when I really need it. I need to put friends and family above the row in my priorities, without the row or OPG or whatever becoming all consuming. Even the dogs were picking up on my stress and I could see it in their behaviour, and as soon as I realised and started to enjoy spending time with them and relaxing again they were completely different, and that is a huge lesson on my journey to parenthood too. One of my reasons for coming to Georgia in the first place, was that I was sick of work taking over my life and my not having time to enjoy the little things, yet here I am with a self imposed timetable of work and craziness!
To Row or Not?
I don’t know what the future holds for me now in relation to the ocean row, but I’ve decided to back off, and let nature take its course. If its meant to be, it’ll happen, no point forcing it. I was treading on eggshells with my team, worried about saying the wrong thing in case I got kicked off the row, but then it hit me that it would be better to find out about dynamics issues now, than whilst we are at sea together for 6months. I can’t change who I am, and they will either like me or not, no point trying to be all polite and scared about being something I’m not. I still want to be a part of the team and the row more than anything, and I’ll be devastated to no longer have a place, but the decision is up to my team and if they decide that I’m not a part of that journey, then forcing the issue isn’t going to help anyone. But I will be devastated not to be on the team, and I’m also now scared about committing to be in the UK a minimum of once every 6 weeks for fear of last minute rejection. I can do it and make it work, but I will be giving everything and I don’t want to add stress to the dynamics by my being eaten up inside with fear of getting kicked off the team at any point along the way. Sure, at some point it has to happen sometimes, but its not such a great feeling when your the one at risk of illimination, or when you know that actually its something that is essential for an expedition from time to time!
When Things Go Wrong
I’m actually afraid of fear it seems, and I now have to quickly learn how to deal with my fear, without it becoming a self fulfilling prophecy or jeopardising my chances of success. That’s my typical all or nothing response to things when things go wrong, and I have to learn not to beat myself up about things when they don’t work out, because actually, in this case, it isn’t anything personal, its just logistics and safety, and if I can’t be in the UK as much as they want me to be there, then the safest thing or best thing for the team is to kick me off, as its not worth risking lives or sanity over. But I do think we are still bulletproof as a team and should be focusing on giving our all right now, not on worrying or having doubts about things, and that isn’t to say that I am burying my head in the sand either.
The second realisation for me was that we have different attitudes towards training, and I know that my attitude changed massively after I had Guillain-Barre as I could no longer push myself to death with my fitness or energy, but had to learn to pace myself instead, I had to learn to do a marathon rather than a sprint. That was a big eye opener amidst our stress and discussions this week, and if nothing else, I’m actually learning a lot about myself through the experiences with the row. After my Guillain Barre I spent 18months overcoming paralysis and neutropenia, and though I was exhausted all the time, the doctors and physiotherapists were pushing me to pace myself and to do a little more each day as they were afraid that I might develop chronic fatigue syndrome. That was a tough place to be in, mentally wanting to be busy and active, but physically not even able to walk to the toilet or even to watch a whole film. Being so tired that you wanted to die just to get out of the awful feeling of fatigue, not in a depressed way, but just the pain of being physically tired and having to not listen to your body’s demands for sleep. Before that time, I was running 10k a day for fun, I was was kick boxing at National level, and I could push and push myself through any physical barrier, just keep on going. After my Guillain-Barre, it was like my body had no idea what normal was anymore. I’d have days where I felt better, so I would do more, then for the next three days I would sleep because I’d overdone things. Learning to pace myself was so hard. And it wasn’t even like I’d get that sense of ‘I’m feeling a bit tired now’, instead I would be fine, and then suddenly, out of nowhere totally and utterly exhausted, that I would literally just collapse and not be able to do anything until I’d had some sleep. No warning, no pushing things further. That left a huge psychological nervousness and even now I have to work on that confidence, especially when my muscles are lactic filled and I expect them to crumple under me or to start spasming.
So, to me, in my new found pacing of activities, yoga is the perfect training, especially since a lot of the struggle on expeditions is as much mental as it is physical. Yoga gives me that calm and inner peace, as well as physically giving me strength and flexibility. For my body, I want to use yoga to strengthen it properly from scratch, and once its at a set point, to introduce more cardio work like swimming and running, and when we meet in London to begin the rowing training on the ergo. I want to make sure every joint of my body is well oiled first and foremost before I start pushing them to their limits, I’m after slow and steady, to last me through the endurance of the row, and a gruelling routine of two hours rowing, two hours resting throughout the 6months we will be away. To me its like carefully building a car piece by piece and making sure each cog works to its potential, rather than having an engine whose whole goes to the maximum, but hasn’t actually had its parts checked to make sure they are fully functioning. The girls on the other hand, are running marathons and working out at the gym and out rowing as hard and fast as possible, and under the supervision of people training rowers for races. My ocean rowing friends have told me that you don’t need a posh gym to row an ocean, what you need is to build up strong and flexible joints and muscles most importantly, and based on that I’d prefer to continue with yoga, adding on more cardio training when I naturally feel ready for it, building it up slowly, not because I doubt the coaches or that I respect the ocean rowers more, but because I’ve had it drummed into me since my Guillain-Barre, to pace myself and build things up slowly. But I know this is against the grain with the girls, and its hard to argue when they are receiving input from Olympic coaches, who in my view may be specialised in river rowing races, but haven’t actually rowed an ocean or taken part in a six month endurance event (as far as I know anyway, since I don’t know very much about them at all). Of course, one could argue that its like saying a patient has more knowledge of surgery (having been operated on) than does a surgeon, but I think you get my drift. I’ve not questioned anything at all from the girls, simply because I trust them and I’m happy to follow their advice, and if needs be would follow them over the ocean rowers since we are a team, but on reflection I have realised that perhaps we are coming at training from different angles too, and if they knew this, it might make them think twice about me being on the team. But equally, I can’t help but have those thoughts and I can’t pretend to think one thing if I don’t believe it, and I would hate for little things like that to become huge issues later on. Even though it has no bearing on what training I’m actually doing, and if anything, I’d be more likely to follow the advice of both sides to ensure that I was as ready as I could be. No harm in having an insurance policy or listening to advice from others, who have been there and done it and know where they went wrong, or what they would do differently in future.
No More Emotions
Another important lesson that I learnt this week, and which is going to be essential for success on the row, is that we each need to not bring emotions into things, but instead to be quite matter of fact, problem, solution, end of. This week the situation put us all under massive stress and drove a wedge between us with things getting lost, confused, or misunderstood because of the emotional involvement, most of which was entirely my fault as I reacted badly to the news that I may no longer be able to be on the team, and I felt like I had let everyone down (especially the yoga community who have massively helped me) and that I’d been left out of the communication or decision making process (due to my being so far away and difficult to call by phone or in person). Delivering such news is also not a great position to be in, especially when you need four people on your team and then suddenly go from 3 to 2 with just under a year to go. Thankfully, because we were able to talk about the issues we seem to have resolved things, and this gives me strength that we will all learn from the experience and that it will help us get on better on the row, and I think once we have spent a lot of quality time together, things will be much easier, and I’m gung ho on making sure that those little doubts or niggles are overcome so that through the situation we actually end up stronger as a team. I am aware that I have a different relationship with each of the girls though, and it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic is with the fourth, and how those personalities work together during the row. I’m starting to see both the strengths and the weaknesses of each member now, and that’s helpful to have such insight, and really illustrates why we so badly need to spend more time together over the coming months. I think if I am more task focused than emotion focused this will also be a huge help, and I plan to work on this over the next year. I feel I was justified in being upset, and I also understood and would have said the same things in the trainers’ position, but in my bitter disappointment at the realisation that I may not be able to be a part of such an amazing journey, I did lose things a bit, though I felt I was restrained in venting them, but not allowing disappointment to take over is going to be vital, no matter how bad I feel about it.
Anyway, the reality is, that my future on the ocean row hangs in the balance, simply because my being in Georgia is putting pressure on the team communication, training, and dynamics. We hope to meet for the first time at the end of July, and then at least once every 6 weeks to train together. If we get on and I can get to the UK so frequently then all will be good, but the reality is I need to keep in the back of my mind that I could get knocked off the team at any point, but not to let this overwhelm me to the point where I give up or just give in. Logistically I have enough airmiles now that if I get the scholarship for the university in Sweden (starting my MSc/PhD in maritime archaeology) in August then I will be travelling frequently to Sweden anyway, and from there can use my airmiles to travel to London one weekend in every 6, and also use the university’s gym and maybe even join their rowing club, when I’m here I’ll continue with the yoga, running, and swimming, and in the UK will train with the rowing coaches there. If I don’t get the place in Sweden, then its a whole different board game, and the reality is I will have to pull out unless I can find a sponsor or I can earn enough each month to cover the 200euro train fare from here to London. That another factor jeopardising my place on the team, as they are concerned that I can’t commit due to my being here, especially in terms of cost. But what has become clear to me is that I wish to row an ocean, and the question is ‘at what cost’ and ‘is this the right team for me’ because equally my team mates have a lot of stress too, in that I could bail out on them at any point, even right before the row, and then they’ll be short on a person.
The stress of all this uncertainty was really eating me up and making me feel like I had let down my ocean row team, my OPG team, and also the yoga guys, and that I was jeopardising my adoption plans and future stability. All of which was not really helped by the temperature in Tbilisi rocketing this week to the mid to top 30s, having no air conditioning at home, training twice a day in the heat, and at the start of the week I ate some dodgy local cheese in a khajapuri and spent three days with stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, and a headache due to my wisdoms playing up again. On top of which it was too hot to sleep at night and I was also up until 3.30am skyping the row girls, followed by sorting out emails and trying to help my team of 8 OPG Leaders try and make decisions on their own futures, whether they would stay in Georgia or not, and feeling like I had nothing left to give them and was letting them down.
How to Do your Best by Others
The problem I find, is that when I’m stressed out or feeling rubbish, I don’t want to see anyone, mainly because I don’t want to burden them or let them see me miserable and needy. But the irony is, that is probably the time when I actually need other people the most and when being around others usually makes me relax, and then I see things from a different point of view. For example, in the midst of my freaking out, it was all a big inconvenience and stress. I had thought I had everything figured out and timetabled, then a few bombshells and suddenly my world was turned upside down. It was all a negative. But at the other end of that, when I felt better about things, I realised actually how lucky I am to have these things stressing me out. Each and every one of my stresses is caused by having some really life changing opportunities presented to me. Things which not many people get the chance to do. I’m stressed because I may or may not have a funded place on a PhD in another country, that will give me opportunity to travel and learn something really exciting for my own research, I’m stressed because I’ve been selected to travel across the world and to set 5 world records, I’m stressed because I’ve got amazing friends and family supporting me, and I’m stressed because I’m running my own NGO and we have just been given funds from the first grant we ever applied for. I’m stressed out because I have 8 magnificent and passionate Project Leaders, who started as volunteers but will soon have a salary. This time last year we were a school club, now we are a registered NGO and business with more than 40 children, about to start our second intake and hoping to publish our first book this summer, and expecting a visit from Prince Edward next year. When you look at things from that point of view, things really become clear and you wonder why its all so stressful that you can’t timetable things in, rather than celebrating the opportunities that you have! My job now is to make sure I continue to see things in that way, rather than getting bogged down in the unknowns and fears of things that may or may not happen. And now I am applying that to my future. I will go with what I am in control of and do know about, which is OPG, and if the PhD and the ocean row happen for me, then that will be the icing on the cake. Better to be welcomed and hosted than to gatecrash and be a burden, and if its meant to be there will be an invitation.
The result of all this stress and uncertainty was that I missed yoga for three or four days, but actually I didn’t feel guilty this time, because to be honest, I really just needed to get my head straightened out a bit and I was feeling pretty rough physically, a likely combination of the heat, khajapuri, and worrying about everything. But when I did go back, I felt so happy and it was nice to feel as if I was amongst friends, and actually I think people understand and would likely be a lot more supportive than I ever give credit for. Being the drama queen that I am, I expected to receive the cold shoulder, but actually in those hours of need, it was nice to be invited for coffee/lunch/theatre and it was as if a whole weight was taken off me, just by having that extra human contact, with another person, and reminding myself that actually very few people in life have things perfect, and everyone is still learning and muddling their way through life no matter who they are. I’m also really glad I spoke to my father for the first time about decisions that needed making or stresses that I was struggling with, and I realised how lucky I was to have someone who wasn’t so much fatherly, but was actually more of a friend and also an adult who is very similar to me, who understands my character a little, and also what its like to manage a team of people, to have aspirations, but also to want to make the right decisions, and I found in him an ally that could reason with me in a factual, unemotional way as two equals. So I have to put friends and family as higher priority in future and to learn to be less self sufficient and reliant on myself.
From a physical point of view, missing a few sessions of yoga actually seems to have been a good thing, and I feel much stronger as a result, and know that had I come when my mind was elsewhere would have meant a half hearted session of little benefit. The first session back I was a bit wobbly, I think from being sick for a few days and not having energy reserves to work on, but today I’m feeling super strong, probably the strongest I have felt so far since I started yoga in May.
Throughout the ‘Summer Shape’ programme, its become evident that I have two favourite instructors, who work in a way that suits my personality best. Sadly one of those is leaving Georgia, but through a series of fortunate events, I’m having a lot of lightbulb moments with all the instructors due to each of them adding to my limited pool of yoga knowledge and experience, and being able to ask the same question to several people can put information in a way that gives you different learning styles so you have the best chance of improving your ability. In other words, the whole being made up of little parts. Today I actually had two breakthroughs, that I thought would never happen, and which makes me even more certain that I want to listen to my body in terms of training, rather than to push it before its actually ready for it. The first breakthrough was the boat pose:
Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) can teach us much about living big. This challenging posture helps develop determination, stamina, and boldness of spirit. It builds strong and steady muscles at the body’s core. It also fosters a satisfying sense of vigor and warmth, and offers a healthy dose of vitality that can propel us through our day with steadiness and ease. When practiced with gusto, Paripurna Navasana can be one of the most empowering postures in yoga. (http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/1193).
When I started the Summer Shape class, I really struggled with this pose, and didn’t enjoy it very much. For some reason I just couldn’t sit on my bum as my coccyx just seemed to be in the way and would be sore (something I’ve had issues with since breaking them on several occasions as a kid), and every time I tried to do the boat pose, I ended up using just one side of my body and getting tired quickly. It was also not very comfortable on my lower back, I had a tendency to bend up, and just couldn’t keep my back straight as my stomach and hip muscles would curl everything in. I’ve had issues with my hips for a long time, and after trekking through the deserts in Jordan was diagnosed by MRI scan and arthrogram with an acetabular labrum tear and overactive iliopsoas, apparently a remnant of my Guillain-Barre. If I stretch properly before walking or exercising I’m general ok now, but I was struggling with boat pose because my hips seemed to tighten and that pulled my back into a curl too. I sought advice from two different instructors, one of whom is also a physiotherapist and both gave me suggestions on how to help the issue. I followed the advice of both, and now I’m able to do the boat pose, using both sides of my body, and with no issues when sitting on my bum. And best of all, I feel strong and balanced when I do it now, and the next step is to get my legs higher and straighter. But I thought was body was too battered up to ever be able to do it, and its fantastic to have a breakthrough moment like that where you really feel your hard work paid off.
The second breakthrough came with my knees, as I’ve had lateral releases on both, and since then, kneeling has been tricky. I’m now kneeling much better, with no clicking or locking, and its even to the point where its no longer uncomfortable, and its starting to feel more natural now. Today I had a breakthrough with ‘cat pose’ as when I started, my knee was very unstable when I extended it and would catch and be uncomfortable. My right leg is now pretty strong, though my left I still have a little trouble with, but its improving all the time, I’m now able to start adding in the arm extension too as my knees are able to take the weight of my body, which is a tremendous improvement on something I thought would be difficult due to the surgery. In terms of the ocean row, this is vital as my knees will take quite a hammering and need to be stable at the joints.
Its such an odd feeling when you feel like you have stagnated for a bit in terms of progress, then you have the benefit of a 1:1 session and get to go really slowly and double check on every move you make, and to get feedback or ask when you think you are maybe not doing something right. That’s how it was last week, and I got a lot of feedback, that I was then able to apply to my practice, and which was the catalyst for everything suddenly falling into place, and my being 100% stronger and better at everything. The other massive help for me, was actually a psychological shift in being worried about my body not being able to do things or being worried about hurting myself, to suddenly having more confidence in it and pushing myself more. This really came about through having a go at doing a shoulder stand (asana) against the wall:
OK, so this was my first attempt, and I was pretty rubbish, but just the fact of having a go was a massive psychological shift for me, of potential and challenges to be overcome, and it was a great way to work on my shoulder strength for the ocean row without just being in a gym lifting weights. It was nice to try an inversion, something I did a lot of as a kid, but have lost the magic of, so was great to try some fun poses. But in attempting that, its actually made the sun salutations, downward dog, and even chair a lot less daunting, and now I feel I am getting much stronger, to the point where, even walking home from class, in the heatwave, I feel like I’d easily be able to go for a run, and I’m now able to jump and hop whereas before my ankles would probably have given way. I short, I’m feeling empowered. That’s exactly what I was hoping for from yoga, and now I fel ready to step things up for the next level of training. Mind and body are strongly connected for me, and if I’m mentally down, then I’m physically down too, and vice versa. To succeed on the ocean row, I have to be strong in both mind and body and I need to know that I strengthened and made flexible, every single joint, bone, and muscle in my body. I need to have faith that I brought them up well and that they won’t fail me. Yoga works for me, and is the right kind of training, and its much harder than what you might be misled to think, for that reason, I think its ideal for a repetitive and tension building sport like rowing, and in combination with cardio and ergo type training I think I will have the best training. I’m sure that’s why I felt so upset when the team knocked my yoga as not proper row training. I’ve been working really hard on making time for training, getting up at 5am each day to fit project work around physical activity, so it was hard to have it feel as if it was undermined, especially when I’ve never questioned or commented on the team’s training, and have also been following the plans they gave me. At this point, I really don’t know what will happen about the ocean row, but what I am certain of, is that yoga will be a big part of my life and for a very long time to come.