A Crack In Everything …

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Career, Career Change, Health, Mary, Uncategorized, Wellness

by Mary Yoke ~

I’ve decided to write about something this time that is rather personal: the physical challenges I’ve faced in my life and my struggles to overcome them. I don’t know if anyone reading this has endured similar difficulties. If so, perhaps my words will help.

I consider myself to be a thriver, even though I’ve had a great number of physical issues. It always has seemed to me I’ve had an unfair amount of suffering and pain. In fact, I spent a large portion of my life feeling sorry for myself as it always seemed no one else has had to endure as much pain and disfigurement as I have. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that everyone has to go through some pain in life. It just seems as if, for some, those trials don’t show up until much later.

My pain started at age 2, when my parents discovered I had a genetic defect. Odd reddish blots began appearing on my right leg, which eventually were diagnosed as a cavernous hemangioma, or blood tumor. I had my first surgery at age 2, followed by another at age 4, then age 6, and then three more surgeries before I was 21.

At first, my doctors weren’t sure whether the tumor was a malignant cancer, so apparently, for the surgery at age 4, I was prepped for an amputation of my leg. My mother has told me how overjoyed she was when the surgeon appeared in the waiting room after the operation and said they hadn’t had to amputate my leg. However, my leg remained in a full old-fashioned cast for several weeks, and I remained in the hospital.

Sadly, the hospital climate in the 1950s was not what it is today. Parents and visitors were allowed only 30 minutes per day to see their children. That meant I was alone for 23½ hours per day — for several weeks at a time over the course of each of my six surgeries.

Later, in my 40s, I was diagnosed with medical Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as I tried to come to grips with the pain and suffering and feelings of abandonment in my life. Many physicians, nurses and other medical personnel in the 1950s and ‘60s often were cruel, unsympathetic and impatient with the cries and demands of small children.

I had a number of traumatic experiences that involved medical personnel yelling at me, cutting me and telling me I was a baby and should not be crying.

Speaking of being a baby, a different type of scarring occurred in elementary school since I was forced to wear “baby shoes.” In those days, baby shoes were white, lace-up, ankle-high affairs — worn only by babies. I had to wear these shoes all the way through 4th grade. Plus, I had a limp.

I know we’ve all heard about the cruelty of children to each other, and I was a recipient of that meanness all through elementary school. No one wanted to be my friend; I was not invited to any parties. I was cruelly ostracized at recess; after all, I couldn’t play kickball (the most popular game) or any other physical activity enjoyed by my peers. I literally had NO childhood friends.

Luckily for me though, in 7th grade my small country school had to reorganize and become part of a larger school system, so I was bused 15 miles away to a new middle school with all new peers. By this time my limp had more-or-less disappeared, and I was no longer wearing baby shoes, so I was accepted and actually invited to some parties — and a modest social life amazingly evolved!

As I went through adolescence and young adulthood I still had some negative experiences related to my leg: I was never permitted to take gym class, and people pointed and stared at me on the street.

Once, when I had had it with the insensitivity of strangers, a woman in a clothing boutique saw me from across the room and very loudly exclaimed, “OMG, what happened to you?” causing everyone in the store to stare. I gathered the courage to reply loudly, “I was born with a birth defect, okay?”

As an adult I’ve learned to dress in such a way that my leg is always covered (pants, high boots, long skirts, etc.). But naturally, since my leg is seriously disfigured, it always has been a source of embarrassment at the beach and when starting a romantic relationship, and I have to say this aspect still persists today.

Every single day of my life I had woken up in pain (which usually went away after I got up and moving) until recently. Five years ago I had two pulmonary embolisms (potentially fatal blood clots in the lungs) that were determined to have come from my leg. I found a new doctor, who immediately put me on Coumadin, a blood thinner, which dissolved the clots. I now will be on Coumadin for the rest of my life. The good news is that my leg pain is, for the first time in my life, almost entirely gone.

Unfortunately, I have had many other physical challenges aside from my leg. I was in a car accident when I was 21 where my face smashed into the steering wheel (this was before seat belts had shoulder straps). One of my cheekbones and the bone under one eye were broken, so I had to have plastic surgery on my face.

I had a tonsillectomy and then a separate adenoidectomy at ages 27 and 28; these were attempts to help solve the problem of my vocal hoarseness (as I was then a successful young opera singer).

Then I had a number of surgeries around reproductive issues: a C-section at age 38, followed by an ectopic pregnancy at age 40, four miscarriages, and a laparoscopy on my fallopian tubes that did not turn out well (my physician accidentally nicked an artery). This was a very painful time, both psychologically and physically, as I was unable to have the two biological children I wanted.

And, as if that weren’t enough …


In 2005 I was attacked by two dogs, who punctured one of my lungs and took a large bit of flesh out of one side of my torso. In 2007, I had a near-fatal ski accident on the top of a mountain in New York. I crashed into a steel snow-blowing gun and ruptured my spleen. That resulted in a prolonged emergency surgery and a week in intensive care followed by another week in a regular hospital room. Suffice it to say I have many, many scars of all types!

So, what have I learned? Well, this lengthy history and my attempts to deal with it all caused me to seek therapy. Fortunately, I found a wonderful woman in New York who was immensely helpful for more than 10 years. I will be forever grateful to her.

I also found yoga and meditation, and these practices have pulled me through many dark times and helped me have some compassion for myself. In essence, that is the journey: to move from self-hate (I aggressively hated my leg) to self-compassion.

Although I’ve had many major physical issues, on a day-to-day basis I’ve always been robustly healthy — almost never sick in any way. I tell myself I’m never going to have surgery again, but obviously there are unknowns.

Being in my 60s now, I am aware of joint pain and bottom-of-the-foot pain (in both feet) that seem to be rather normal for people my age. However, as a former exercise physiologist and current health behavior academic, I am determined to stay fit for the long run.
My leg has taught me to be resilient. Suffering and pain are transient; there is always a strengthening of the pain, and then a lessening. It almost always passes, and we must let it go.

And it’s important to let go of how you think the world should be. In my case I needed to let go of the idea that life was unfair, that I somehow had gotten a bad deal, and that my body and childhood experiences were not as good as everyone else’s. This caused me to be flooded with self-pity and to feel like a victim for many years.

Is there value in suffering? Well, I think the long view is that it’s important to be compassionate, and my own challenges have helped me be more understanding of the difficulties of others. When we have pain, we have two choices: we can either bemoan our condition (this is where I was stuck), or we can accept it and use it as a vehicle for transformation and personal growth.


I have long loved the following poem by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

What a radical idea — perhaps accepting the brokenness and imperfections of our physical condition, the brokenness of our past experiences — perhaps that is how we can be filled with light and move forward and upward to full thriving.

by Mary Yoke | email | facebook | linkedin

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My Third Act

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Career, Career Change, Education, Mary, Uncategorized, Wellness

by Mary Yoke ~

It’s hard not to ponder the strange path my life has taken. Both personally and professionally, I’ve had so many unexpected twists and turns. Career-wise, I’ve definitely had what can be divided into at least three acts — something I would have never imagined in my 20s, 40s or even in my 50s. And who knows? Maybe there are more acts to come. Life, for me, has been so unpredictable.

In my 20s, I thought I had it all mapped out. I was certain I was destined to be a famous opera singer. Every indication led directly to that conclusion.

I earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in voice performance, won every vocal contest I entered, and won two large cash prizes at the culmination of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program in 1978.

Me singing Mimi in La Boheme at an outside performance in San Francisco, 1978.
Singing Mimi in La Boheme at an outside performance in San Francisco, 1978.

Famous impressarios, conductors, voice teachers and opera coaches all were convinced I had a magnificent career ahead of me. I lived — diva-like — for music and art. This was Act One, and, like any act in a theatrical play, it came to an end — and an unfortunate end at that.

Suddenly, in my late 20s, I was beset with unexplained hoarseness. I tried everything: a month of complete vocal silence; 100 shots in my back to see if I had allergies; and a tonsillectomy, which was followed a year later with an adenoidectomy. I changed voice teachers and voice coaches; I moved to different climates. I studied the Alexander Technique. When experts said it must be psychosomatic, I entered therapy. All to no avail.

During the subsequent and devastating entr’acte, I unhappily supported myself with a number of different jobs: waitress, bartender, line cook, pastry chef, legal aide, bookkeeper, receptionist in a large car dealership, salesperson in music and clothing stores, and as a church organist.

Eventually, I chanced into the world of fitness. And so the Second Act began.

Luckily, after teaching group exercise for a couple of years (back then, we called it aerobics), I met an influential person who recommended I return to school for a Master’s degree in exercise physiology, which I achieved in 1988.

Fitness has been good to me. Not only were jobs available, but I was able fairly easily to juggle the demands of new motherhood and maintain a flexible and accommodating work schedule. Plus, a great side benefit of a career in fitness is that staying in shape is actually part of the job.

I worked first in cardiac rehab and as a physical therapist assistant, then in corporate fitness, and then in commercial fitness, all the while teaching one academic class per semester as an adjunct professor.

In 1986 I became involved with a major international fitness certifying organization, and for 30 years this company has provided me with amazing opportunities for teaching, writing, and traveling around the world to present a wide variety of fitness workshops and certifications.

I’ve also presented at hundreds of conferences and have made several online videos on a Hollywood sound stage. I’ve been so very fortunate and I’m tremendously grateful to all those who’ve helped me and inspired me. The fitness world is full of people who motivate others for a living — they’re an enthusiastic and passionate bunch!

The bizarre thing is, I never could have predicted this entire career back in my 20s. Who’d have thought I’d become a fitness presenter, educator and writer? This was SO not on my radar during Act One!

Teaching at Indiana University.
Teaching at Indiana University.

And now, surprise!, I’m in Act Three. My fitness credentials helped me land a Visiting Lecturer position in kinesiology at Indiana University. I entered academia full-time and found that I loved it.

After decades of cobbling together a full-time income from multiple fitness jobs, I’ve now decided it’s good to stay more-or-less in one place and have some job security. I’ve found that I love developing longer-term relationships with students over the course of several semesters. I am inspired by my students, other faculty, and partners within the community. I love the vitality of a college town, the vibrant action on campus, the idealism and questing of students, and the golden bubble of learning, which is the academic world.

I have a strong sense that this is where I now belong. When the Visiting Lecturer position ended, I found I was finally at a point in my life where a PhD could become a reality, and so I’ve moved into health behavior research and will receive my doctorate by the end of 2016.

I hope to stay in academia, do research, inspire students, collaborate with inspiring colleagues, and continue with my writing and presenting. I am filled with purpose and feel as if I’m on fire!

Seriously, every single day is exciting and amazing for me. I’m being challenged in new ways I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago. Even though I’m at the age where some of my friends are already retiring, I feel as if I’m just getting started on a new and amazing path.

Retirement for me? No way! I have zero interest in retirement — I feel as if I’m good to go for another 20 or even 30 years. There’s so much I want to learn and accomplish.

I guess the reason I felt compelled to write this post is that I am continually surprised at my own career path (and don’t get me started on all the personal life changes I’ve experienced) and I’d like to put forward the idea that this is possible for others.

I’ve come to believe that, in fact, we can have multiple careers within one lifetime. Perhaps this can be an important way to stay vital, energetic, curious and productive. If you’re floundering in uncertainty or in a dead-end job, take heart that life can hold something better for you that may be beyond imagining.

In my own case, I can assure you that my unorthodox and unexpected journey has nevertheless caused me to thrive in ways I could have never foreseen. Who knows what lies ahead?

by Mary Yoke | email | facebook | linkedin

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The Motivation to Move

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Career, Career Change, Mary, Wellness

By motivation to move, I’m not talking about moving to another place of residence. I’m talking about move as in moving your body! As in physical activity. Or, for those of you so inclined, exercise.

Last week, Maria and I had a stimulating discussion about moving and not moving. What is the secret to being motivated to be physically active on a regular basis? Do you have the answer? If so, I’d like to hear about it. Seriously.

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Cover shot of one of my wellness videos — me working out in 2004.

The motivation to move conundrum is really the key thing I’m interested in researching for my doctorate, and in my subsequent career in academia.

Of course, I’m sure all of you can list the reasons WHY it’s good for us to do regular physical activity. And I imagine that most of you even know the “rules” for what to do in order to be healthy, and in order to be fit. Quick, cover the paragraph below — and name five benefits of regular physical activity! Got it?

Actually, there are dozens and dozens of benefits that have been scientifically proven. Here are a few:

  • Reduces the risk of heart disease (our nation’s #1 killer)
  • Reduces the risk of many cancers
  • Reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, many musculoskeletal problems, and depression and anxiety.
  • Increases the ability of your immune system to ward off colds, flu and the like.
  • You’ll have better sleep.
  • Improves your brain function — you’ll think more clearly after a good workout. Etc.
  • But the real plus is that life is simply easier when you’re reasonably fit.
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Taking off for a 4-day hike on the Appalachian Trail in CT in 1992 (with my 5-month old son!).

It’s easier to walk a brisk mile to the bus stop. It’s easier to carry out the trash and put your suitcase in the overhead compartment on an airplane. It’s easier to get out of a chair and go up the stairs. You can do more work or exertion with less effort.

It just doesn’t feel as hard to do everyday activities, so the payoff is that you have much more energy and stamina. You feel better! You like yourself better! You are much more likely to thrive!! Sold? Well, maybe. You may have already known all this, but that still isn’t enough to get you to commit to daily activity. Hmmm.

How about the rules or recommendations for physical activity? What are you supposed to do to get all these benefits? The US government (actually the Centers for Disease Control) has published recommendations for all Americans to know and follow. Can you state these guidelines?

Well, the main thing is to accumulate at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. How does that actually play out? You could do 30 minutes per day, five times per week, for example. Daily movement is better than 150 minutes all on one day.

And what feels like moderate-intensity movement to you? We are all different, so the best thing is to listen to your body and ask yourself: Does this activity feel easy? Does this activity feel moderate? Or does this activity feel hard? Moderate (or, actually, easy) is best if you’re just starting out. It’s less likely to make you sore, and it’s less likely to make you discouraged and quit.

So, are you motivated yet? Well, if you’re like a majority of Americans, probably not. We have a real public health problem of physical inactivity in this country. Millions of people would be healthier, happier and have lower medical costs if they’d just move more. What to do? (Again, if you have the answer to motivating those who are inactive, I’d like to know!)

As I’ve written previously, I’m working on my doctoral dissertation in health behavior. The main behavioral theory I’m modeling my work on posits that people are motivated to do a behavior if it’s fun, popular and easy. (Actually, the specific language used is much more obtuse and theoretical, so I’ve watered it down a bit).

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Hiking in Rio de Janeiro in 2002.

When you think about being physically active, are you thinking about something that’s fun? That makes you feel good? Is the activity something that others around you also do, or something you can share with like-minded people? Does the activity feel socially acceptable within your crowd of friends and family? And, do you know what to do?

Perhaps in order to make it “easy,” you need a trainer or a skilled person to get you started. The activity also needs to be doable, convenient and affordable for you. If it isn’t, then you probably won’t stick with it.

So, what comes to mind for you? Water Zumba class? Gentle yoga? Walking the dog outdoors in a beautiful park? Weightlifting with a friend? Frisbee with your significant other? It’s great to have a couple of different activities that you really enjoy; that way, if one of them isn’t available, you always have a backup plan.

Over the years, I’ve taught just about every type of group exercise: step, slide, kickboxing, hi/low impact, stationary indoor cycling, mini-trampoline, water aerobics, Pilates, yoga, bootcamp, etc. For two years, I even taught a jump and pump class, which entailed three minutes of crazy jump rope moves, followed by three minutes of weights, repeat, repeat, etc.

I was also a fairly serious recreational runner. Now, I’m 62 and have to watch excessive joint stress. No more running or jumping for me. So, in case you’re interested, here’s what I generally do: 13,000+ steps per day, every day (that’s about 6 miles of walking).

I wear a Fitbit so I’m able to keep track of my steps. I lift weights for 30-40 minutes twice per week. I teach gentle yoga 2-3 times per week and do a 20-minute yoga routine at home on two or three of the days when I’m not teaching.

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Deepwater running with a flotation belt (head stays dry!)

Right now, it’s summer time and hot in Indiana, so I really enjoy doing deep-water exercise in the pool (I’m a terrible swimmer, so I wear a flotation belt to keep me vertical). The pool is great for allowing me to exercise intensely without any joint stress or noticeable perspiration — and I love it!! During the fall and spring semesters I teach a group exercise class (the format varies throughout the semester) twice a week to about 50 freshmen.

Are there days when I have to push myself to move? Um, sometimes, but not often. Fitness has been a big part of my life for 35 or so years, so I have a well-established habit. I’m used to feeling great physically, and I don’t want that to stop.

I also constantly remind myself of the immediate benefits (like abundant energy, increased productivity and clearer thinking), and I definitely choose activities that I really like, that feel good, that light me up and that help me thrive. How about you?

Let’s start a conversation and solve the motivation conundrum together!!! Please let me know if you were previously a couch potato and are now a motivated mover — how did you do it?

by Mary Yoke | email | facebook | linkedin

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A Doctoral Candidate Meeting

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Career, Career Change, Education, Mary, Wellness

So today I had a meeting with the chairperson of my dissertation committee. This person has guided me for the past 2½ years, and boy, am I glad. When pursuing a doctorate, I’ve learned that your chairperson (aka your advisor) is key.

It’s really important to select someone with whom you get along, someone knowledgeable and experienced, someone with a little pull in the department, and someone who is willing to spend a lot of time with you. Finding such a person isn’t always easy, and it’s partly a matter of luck. Well, I got lucky.

My advisor is known to be tough and rather difficult; she delights in asking you hard questions. She is a challenging and rigorous thinker, and expects you to be the same. We’ve had one meeting (last summer) where I was brought to tears—tears of frustration and — okay, I’ll say it — humiliation. Our average meeting lasts between two and three hours, during which she doesn’t let up.

Sometimes my head swims and I think I just can’t concentrate anymore — but then I do. She has taught me so much, not only about health behavior, but about how to be a role model and mentor in this field. I’m not done with my PhD yet, but I am very grateful to her and to the process which I’ve been so lucky to experience.

I chose the field of health behavior for my PhD because I’m SO interested in what motivates people. Why, with all the unequivocal scientific evidence and public health messaging in our faces, do some people still smoke?

 Laptop And Smoking Cigarettes
Despite all the evidence of the negative health impacts of smoking, according to WHO, 1 billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes.

Why do so many people choose to remain sedentary and inactive? More importantly, HOW can people be motivated to adopt healthier behaviors? What is the magic formula for touching people deeply and helping them to increase their intention to change for the better?

After 30+ years in fitness, I’ve come to realize that most of the fitness industry is missing the boat. Anyone can see that is true just by looking at the statistics on obesity and sedentariness in the US and around the world.

A vastly increasing majority of people are not making healthy choices, and are choosing to sit at work and sit some more at home. These same people are not joining fitness facilities, nor are they paying attention to all the recommendations for physical activity. Why is that?

Well, I will stop before I really get on my soapbox, but at this point in my life I feel it’s much more important to learn about behavior change than to continue with exercise science. What good is it to constantly preach about what to do, if no one is actually going to do it? Instead of focusing on the what, I’m interested in the whys and the hows of behavior change.
So back to today’s meeting. We got into the nitty gritty of my follow-up survey, which, like the initial survey, will be delivered online to about 195 participants. As an example of our discussion, she and I immersed ourselves in debate about whether I’m measuring regular physical activity or total physical activity in my survey. It turns out that there is a difference between these two concepts! Duh.

I hadn’t clarified this distinction in my mind. Being clear about what I’m measuring is critical when writing the survey questions. I’ve also learned that it all goes back to the main research questions — what am I trying to find out? What is the overall purpose of the study? Why do people do what they do, and how can they increase their intention to make healthier choices?

Another personal issue related to making progress on my dissertation: I’ve been accused of being a knowledge junkie. Example: once, when I was serving on an international fitness certification committee that was writing and evaluating test questions, a fellow committee member joked that my last name (Yoke) stood for You Oughta Know Everything!

This joke was in response to my continued (and undoubtedly annoying) insistence that we had to keep a large number of test questions on the exam — fitness instructors needed to know the answers to all of them! I was not in favor of eliminating anything!

The idea of having to know everything is not necessarily a good quality when trying to focus on a specific research agenda. For me, a big lesson is to keep a narrow, precise and steady focus — particularly if I want to finish in a timely manner. Fortunately, my advisor keeps reminding me to rein myself in. If she didn’t, I’d keep coming up with more and more questions that need answers.

Most of the fitness world is missing the boat.
A vastly increasing majority of people are not making healthy choices, and are choosing to sit at work and sit some more at home.

Suggestions. If any readers of this blog are students, and particularly graduate students, do take the time to ask about various faculty members in your department. When you’re trying to decide on your advisor/mentor/chairperson, it’s a good idea to schedule meetings with a few different individuals. That way you can get a sense of whether or not you click.

You also will want to have some idea about your course of study. What are you interested in? If you’re thinking of a doctorate, then what might your research agenda be? If you’re in the social sciences, are you interested in studying a specific group of people? Who, or what, is the target of your interest? You will want to find a faculty member with similar interests to your own, and who, ideally, has already done research in your chosen area.

OK, I know today’s post is all about being a doctoral candidate. If you’re not a student (and even if you are), stay tuned for a wide variety of juicy topics coming up! Meanwhile, let’s go forth and THRIVE! There’s so very much to learn! 🙂

by Mary Yoke | email | facebook | linkedin

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