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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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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