brainfog, cake, CFS, chronic pain, Dave Grohl, Desikachar, empathetic, exhaustion, fairy dust sprinkler, Fibromyalgia, glitter, Insomnia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, kittens, light/sound sensitivity, massage therapist, migraines, myalgic encephalomyelitis, pilates, pranayama, pugs, Punk rock yogini, Rachel Hawes, Suburban Yogini, Tara Fraser, unbendy yoga teachers
Name: Rachel (aka Suburban Yogini)
Bio: Punk rock yogini, teacher, writer, massage therapist, sprinkler of fairy dust + lover of all things glitter, cake, kittens, pugs and Dave Grohl.
How long have you been a student of yoga? And how long have you been teaching?
I went to my first yoga class as a child alongside my mum and I’ve been hooked on and off ever since. I went to a weekly class right through college and university (I’d been a dance student in college and it really helped my posture and flexibility), but it wasn’t really until my mid-twenties that I started to see it as anything other than a physical practice.
I’ve been teaching since 2005.
What sort of yoga do you teach?
My background is very mixed. It was very Astanga Vinyasa based up until about 2004/2005 when I met Tara Fraser of Yoga Junction who practiced and taught in the style of TKV Desikachar. My teaching probably lies very much in that tradition, although when I’m lesson planning all kinds of things can come in as warm-ups and counterposes – stuff from my dance training, stuff from my Pilates training (I’m training to teach Pilates at the moment), just stuff that feels right, you know?
On the flyers it says Hatha though – it’s simpler that way!
Which form of chronic illness do you live with? When were you first diagnosed?
I was first diagnosed with M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis) when I was 17 and I’ve lived with it on and off (and through various name changes – CFS/Fibromyalgia) ever since. There are good periods and bad periods. More good than bad most of the time I’m happy to say.
What sort of symptoms do you experience? Is there a known cure for your condition?
The symptoms are manifold and no sufferer seems to have the same set of symptoms which is why the medical profession find it so hard to pin down and why some still think it’s all in the mind (it’s not, I can assure you).
For me the symptoms have been as diverse as migraines and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain and light/sound sensitivity, chronic sore throats and just plain old bone aching exhaustion.
But the worst of them all is the brainfog. The brainfog leaves you incapable of remembering your keys or the previous chapter of your book and there have been times I’ve stopped mid-yoga lesson not really sure what I’m meant to be teaching next. Never be without a class plan, that’s my motto! (Ed: Me too!)
There is no known cure. There isn’t even any agreement as to what causes it although my money is on it being neurological rather than auto-immune.
I also have a C-shaped congenital upper thoracic scoliosis. This wasn’t discovered until adulthood, so again there is no treatment other than osteopathy/chiropractic.
Did you start teaching yoga before or after you got sick?
After – long after!
If you got sick THEN started teaching yoga, what was going through your mind when you applied for yoga teacher training? Was your YTT impacted by your illness?
YTT in the UK is a massive commitment. You do a year’s foundation course first followed by the full YTT which is equivalent to Yoga Alliance’s 200 and 500 hours put together I believe and takes another 2-3 years. I thought long and hard about it to be honest. I didn’t see how someone this sick and tired, with a spine that just did not bend could possibly commit to the training.
It was Tara Fraser again who encouraged me, saying the world needed more empathetic unbendy yoga teachers bless her! So I did it.
On the first day of YTT I met L, who had had surgery for two herniated discs. The sick and the lame sort of stuck together on my YTT and we’ve been inseparable ever since!
Half-way through my YTT I did have a really bad patch. I’d just moved across London away from Tara’s studio and also Tara had gone on maternity leave so I found myself teacherless. I was working full time in law too then (yeah, I have no idea how I did it to be honest!) and I just needed a break. I took a six month hiatus from YTT and then joined again to take my final exams.
Have you ever shared your health condition with your students? If so, what happened? Has anyone ever reacted negatively?
I don’t share it with everyone, just if it seems relevant – more with private clients than group classes, although I do talk about the scoliosis a lot more than the ME. It’s more relevant to most people.
That said, it’s all up there on my website so anyone who’s read that will already know and that’s fine with me.
The only negativity I’ve had towards my health, sadly, has been from other teachers who seem to think it makes me “not good enough” (Ed: wtf!!) rather than from students, who all seem to quite like me!
Does your health ever affect they way you sequence your yoga classes?
Not that I’m aware of no, but I did learn at a very early stage in my career to teach without demonstration – partly not to wear myself out and partly because well, no –one needs to see my backbends!! When it comes to backbends for example I will use a student who I know well to do them. Himself (Ed: Rachel’s partner) has a very bendy back so I use him sometimes!
Chronic illnesses can be very frustrating. Do/did you ever feel angry about your diagnosis? How does it impact your own yoga practice and your life in general?
I get frustrated a lot, especially with the brainfog and the dropping things and the pain (pain is exhausting and yes, I take painkillers, I’m not ashamed to admit it). But here’s the thing. I was so young when I got diagnosed that sometimes I don’t remember anything else. And actually, in hindsight, I wonder if I haven’t had this since I was a kid.
Somehow having always had it seems less frustrating because I never knew adult life without it, so I never had to give anything up, if that makes sense. Everything I’ve done I’ve done with M.E. and as a kick in the face for M.E., rather than thinking “Oh I used to do this before I got sick”. I consider myself lucky because of that.
Have you experienced any “dark night of the soul” moments/hours/days in dealing with your illness? What got you through?
One of the most annoying symptoms is insomnia. I go through some really bad periods when I hardly sleep at all and 3am is a bad time for everyone when it comes to “dark nights of the soul”! I get though it with a mixture of good books, camomile tea, chocolate, pranayama and legs up the wall pose (Viparita Karani).
From your yoga practice and studies, what sort of outlook do you have regarding your health?
Despite the frustration and the bad bad days (and the brainfog, when I don’t really have the capacity for an outlook at all), I have a pretty live-and-let-live outlook to it. After all, there is very little I can do to change it other than what I am already doing. There is no point whining about “why me” because really “why not me?”. When I was being diagnosed I had tests for a lot of very very scary things, so I’m pretty grateful not to have any of them really.
Giving up the 9-5 grind to teach yoga and massage really helped. I’m lucky enough to have a very supportive partner for that one, and appreciate that not everyone is in a position they can give up work. But I really think that I’m lucky to have never known a different life to this.
My regular yoga practice and continuing studies keep me grounded which I think is really important to help prevent me getting too caught up in my symptoms and pranayama is a god-send, seriously!
How do you manage your health? With western medicine, eastern medicine, alternative therapies or a combination of them all? What one thing helps you the most?
Yoga, Pilates (I always say yoga helps my soul, pilates helps my spine!), massage, reiki, cranial osteopathy and chiropractic. I don’t know if one helps more than the other or not, it’s a perfect combination! I have played around with my diet as well although when I find something that works it only seems to for a little while. I’m currently experimenting with gluten free. Western medicine gives me painkillers, which isn’t ideal of course but is sometimes very necessary to carry on with my life.
Do you have any questions for Rachel? If so, ask away in the comments section!
Where you can find Rachel
|Blog: Suburban Yogini||Business website: Fusion Massage & Movement|
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HUGE thanks to Rachel for stepping up as my very first interviewee! I hear you on the brainfog, the light/sound sensitivities and the exhaustion.
I think we all owe Tara Fraser a debt of gratitude for encouraging Rachel to complete her YTT. And I don’t know how she did such a rigorous training while working full-time, either!
Kudos to you, lovely!! And once again, thank you for sharing with us all! xx
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