Mental Health Awareness Week Pt. 3: Productive Pain

We’re still going out of the intended order. I’m kicking the can a little on the making and breaking social connections post, but I wanted to talk about productive pain (it’s on my mind as I watch the slow, steady traffic this post gets where I recount getting brutalized by my first Ashtanga yoga class).

When I talk about productive pain, I’m not talking about the kind of pain from the last post. I’m not talking about illness, injury, etc.

I’m talking about soreness and exhaustion from exertion.

For me, this is about the importance of staying active. Soreness and exhaustion are just an indicator that I got there. I mean, you could go through a car crash and have the same feeling, but that’s not what we want.

I have a slightly masochistic goal to be exhausted every night when I got to sleep, which is for a couple of reasons. 1) I want to feel like I earned the right to rest (we’ll get to another post later this week about why that’s a little bit of a messed up approach). 2) Sometimes that’s the only way I can sleep well. My brain doesn’t like to shut up, and exhaustion is one of the few foolproof options I have left.

My affinity for this productive pain doesn’t come from nowhere. I grew up playing sports. I wasn’t any good, but I still played.

Well, when you get to high school, it’s not enough to play. You’ve got to get bigger, faster, stronger. So I was lifting. I was running. I was jumping. I was doing really weird stuff for hurdling. And it’s all in the name of getting better.

But being high school and led by high school coaches who sometimes don’t actually know all that much about safely getting bigger, faster, stronger, we got indoctrinated in the idea that soreness was always a good thing.

I’m not saying soreness is bad, but you don’t want to be in a constant state of soreness. You’ll never be in peak condition.

I know that previous sentence is true and yet I just can’t fully make myself accept it, so I still seek out soreness and exhaustion in my workouts. I like trying to sweat completely through the shirt I’m working out in. I like hitting the end of the workout and knowing that I didn’t leave anything on the table and couldn’t have given more if I wanted to.

And as much as that might not be the best state to constantly be putting my body through, sometimes it’s the best thing for my brain.

Staying active is paramount for my mental health. I deal with enough anxiety as it is, but when I can’t be up and about, it just multiplies in awful ways.

When I’m going through physical therapy for the bad variety of pain (like I am right now), I have to be careful that I don’t spiral when I’m not paying attention ’cause I don’t have as many chances to burn off extra energy that otherwise goes to my brain and suggests all the terrible things that could happen.

Going for a walk sounds like a stupid mental health plan, but I’ve done it before when I was hating work. It at least gave me something to look forward to.

And really, that’s not all that different from other activities. You train for a marathon, so you have a running schedule in place to give you a routine. If you join a yoga studio, you probably go to the same classes at the same time seeing the same people.

These things are good for mental health. They give you something productive for causing your body the good kind of pain.

Then there are times where those things don’t work. Last year as I was getting ready to move, all my yoga teachers were not teaching during the summer. As I’m getting ready for the stresses of moving, starting a new job, leaving the friend group I’d spent 3 years cultivating, and other stressors at the time, I lost the best outlet for me to have some productive pain.

I couldn’t run because of my knee, and taking a yoga class with teachers I don’t like is worse than not at all because I just become a rage monster on a 6mm mat.

But I couldn’t do nothing. I knew how that story ended, so I did what I hadn’t properly done in 8 years: I practiced yoga on my own pretty much every day.

That brutal ashtanga class led to me buying a book, and that book became my refuge. I even built a playlist.

And day after day, I was forcing myself to pour out sweat onto a yoga mat. I got better, and as I got better, I just pushed harder because complacency wasn’t going to do me any good at the time.

It was a little bit of a shame that I didn’t get to do one last ashtanga class with my regular teacher. I think she would have appreciated the progress even if she might not have liked why the progress occurred.

But that was the only choice I had. I could either let stress lead to bad decisions or I could let the stress fuel me through good decisions. I also spent that time eating entirely too many salads.

Sometimes you can make stress your friend. Sometimes you can get pain on your side. And sometimes that’s all you can do if mental health is a struggle. It’s not perfect, but it’s how I learned to get by.


Some stupid jokes before I go on a yoga rant

This is a weird post to make because it should be a good thing, but it really just kind of pisses me off.

The Situation:


Timely jokes. I bring all the funny.

The lead-up to today’s yoga class had a lot of classic markers for “things are gonna suck.” It had been almost a month (4 weeks, to be specific) since I’d gone to a yoga class and 3 weeks since I’d done yoga at all. In the interim, I’d been very inactive because of rogue neck pain and the holidays (a different pain in the neck).

A long layoff from ashtanga and yoga in general isn’t good, but that wasn’t even the main problem. What was? Leg day.


When I lift, there’s no true leg day because I don’t go often enough for only one area of work. Every lifting day is leg day. This one just happened to include squats after a long break from them. Nothing crazy, but my legs were dead this morning.

Legs are shot? Shoulders are tired? Long break from class? All in all, this is a recipe for disaster. My expectations for class were pretty clear:

And forever my favorite thing about this video will be the person who clicked play in their office with the speakers on.

I’m getting off topic.


But yeah, I was expecting to ride the struggle bus in class. You can also add that there were flurries while I was driving in and class is heated to 90 degrees. Just a weird day.

And what happened? Nothing really. And that was the disappointing part.

My legs feel like crap. My shoulders aren’t feeling fantastic. And I did every vinyasa for class (including more than what the teacher had set out for us). And I feel fine. Bleh.

I was expecting to feel dead. And nothing.

Optimistically, it’s just me being in better shape. Despite being heavier than I should be, I’ve been lifting consistently and doing yoga just consistently enough that some progress should be expected.

But I’m not an optimistic person.

No, class was just a bit off.

Maybe it was the students.

When I got there, someone was waiting in their car even though it looked like the teacher was already there. That’s weird. And with it being so cold that polar bears noped out of that situation, I thought we might be the only two people in class, so I set up in the front so as to not awkwardly set up in the back for no apparent reason. After a quick restroom stop (nothing is worse than doing twists with a full bladder), I get back in the room to find that class is now as full as I’ve ever seen it. Guess some folks are starting early on the new year, new me business (all kidding aside, they seemed to all be in good shape, and I’m just angry my body isn’t dead-tired from class. I have issues).

So class was full and I was in a spot in the room I’m not used to, which messes with me more than it should, but you know, that wasn’t really the problem.

It was the teacher. It’s always the teacher.

I can take a crappy class with a good teacher, but I will avoid a bad one like the plague.

What’s handy is the studio has an up-to-date listing of classes with the teacher. This is how I see them cancel my class half the time less than 24 hours before it’s supposed to be taught. But the teacher listing only works if it’s accurate. This class lists the same teacher each time. Of the 7 times I’ve gone, that person has taught it once or twice.

In other words, the picky yogi goes in blind every week.

Luckily, the other two people who’ve taught it so far have been great (and I actually like them better than the listed person).

No such luck this week.

It was a new person. Not inherently bad because everyone is new to me here, but man did I get a bad vibe off her. Not like bad-person vibe but more a we-aren’t-going-to-get-along vibe. Wrong energy. For someone with a Ph.D., it feels really weird to type that, but that’s the only way to describe it.

I’m guessing you know what I mean. You meet someone, they seem like a nice person, and you know 100% they’re not someone you should be around.

But the nice thing about ashtanga is that it’s technically supposed to be the same thing every time, so the teacher difference gets mitigated. Now practically speaking, it isn’t. Each teacher focuses on their own thing (breathing, core, etc.) and each class only gets most of the practice because 90 minutes isn’t enough time unless everyone in the class knows what they’re doing and we’re not pausing for instructions. But all in all, you know what to expect from class.

Despite doing this same practice for two years, today still threw me off. There were the times she skipped poses. There was the time she added a non-ashtanga pose in. There was skipping the vinyasa between sides once we were seated (these are the bonus ones I did that I had to fly through for reasons to be explained).

All of that? I could live with. No, the thing that drove me insane was her version of counting.

Generally, yoga is done by breaths. In most classes, you won’t really notice it, but every ashtanga class I’ve done has been paced that way, whether the teacher emphasizes slow breathing or letting people go at their own pace.

It started weird. In the sun salutation series, we did three rounds that seemed fairly normal before she wanted us to slow down to a 4-count for each breath. Ok, that’s fine. You want us to slow down. That’s going to hurt, but I get it. So 3 regular, 2 slowdowns for A and B. Weird that we didn’t just do it the whole time, but maybe it’s to get us to used to the movement before focusing on breathing.


Things just got weirder. When we were doing the rest of the series, she was working off a 5-count. That gels with typical ashtanga. You do 5 breaths for each pose (mostly). Except her version of the 5-count was paced the same as a 4-count for each breath (i.e., 5 counts, not 5 breaths). This meant that we were in each pose about two-and-a-half breaths.

And this is why I had to rush vinyasas  when we were switching sides in the seated part or I risked missing the pose.

There were other quirks, but they’re not worth mentioning. The counting system was… different.

I’ll avoid that teacher forever. Just kidding. I’ll have no effing idea when they’re teaching because I don’t know their name because they don’t update the online schedule and even if I knew their name, it wouldn’t matter because THEY DON’T UPDATE THE ONLINE SCHEDULE.

I’m gonna watch Netflix now. Happy New Year, party people. I swear I’m not actually that angry, just restless.

The Highlight of My Weekend

At some point yoga became the highlight of my weekends. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was just supposed to be something that I happened to do.

But it wasn’t just something that I did. In Starkville at Firefly Yoga, it was taking away my mornings. In Stillwater at Red Earth Yoga, it steals the middle of the day. I was having to dedicate real time to these things.

I didn’t realize what would happen as a result. Ashtanga is a special kind of evil yoga that goes after pretty much every muscle, even ones I didn’t know I had.

Because I couldn’t lift after a shoulder issue kept me out of the weight room for a while, I quit the gym in Mississippi and was left with yoga as my only real source of upper body strength training. For the most part, that’s not going to cut it. Ashtanga disagreed. More specifically, 58 vinyasas disagreed.

I almost threw up the first time I went to an ashtanga class. This was something I had to take seriously.

I started making sure I was prepped for class. I generally wouldn’t run the day before class. I was getting a good night’s rest. It was still kicking my ass, but I was getting used to it.

Flash forward to the move, and I had a new studio to acclimate to. I had the luxury of a weekend ashtanga class again, but I had to deal with it a new time, a time I didn’t want to spend sweating on a synthetic mat.

After a few weeks of procrastinating, I finally made it in. I then proceeded to attempt dying after 90 minutes of 90-degree yoga. It was brutal. I was wiped. But I made it. And that’s what matters.

I’ve been back a few more times, and as I’ve acclimated to the heat, I’ve started being able to make it through class somewhat successfully. A few weeks ago, I was able to do all but a couple of the vinyasas available to us. Last week I did them all.

Crap. You know what that means. Time to make it harder on myself.

Once I started doing ashtanga here, I went from 3 weight room sessions to 2 so I could have the rest before masochism took place. It was working. I was about as fresh as I could hope for going into ashtanga, but now that I’m no longer dying, I decided that lifting the day before might not hurt so bad. I took it relatively easy, but I was still lifting. I woke with sore shoulders that were bound to appreciate all the vinyasas I could throw at them.

And I threw the vinyasas at them. I lucked out. The studio was in the 60s when we arrived because someone turned the heater off (the windchill hit low 20s this morning), so it took a while for the studio to heat up. My shoulders still hate me, but I survived again.

So in the middle of the pie-eating contest that is academia (and the prize is more pie), I keep adjusting my week around 90 minutes in a musty studio.

And I’m cool with that.

Adios, dorks.


I’m making progress? I’m making progress

The first time at the real yoga studio killed me.

The second time also killed me.

The third time killed me, but it took longer to pull off.

That’s progress, right?

While I’m used to getting in the swing of things, I didn’t expect to get into the swing of things this quickly, especially in a heated class where we’re going all the vinyasas for the sequences that we do (I’m guessing about 6-10 vinyasas missed today, but that’s the most I’ve done).

I’m still soaking through my shirts. The first session was bad enough that I’ve started taking a spare shirt to switch into afterward, and I’m putting a towel underneath me to avoid getting my carseat sweaty (not working well enough).

I say that to say this: It’s still hard. I’m still sweating profusely, but I’m hanging in there.

And why? Lifting.

That’s the only logical answer.

I’ve overlapped with lifting and yoga before, but usually it’s one or the other. For the first time, I’m able to do both (in part because I have to from the knee issue). And for the first time doing ashtanga, I’m able to lift at all. I started doing ashtanga after my shoulder kept me out of the weight room. Now I’m lifting during the week, which makes all those effing vinyasas a little more bearable.

In an ideal world, running would be added to the trifecta. Weights are getting me through the movement, but I need better cardio to sustain 90 minutes of 90-degree heat and about 50 vinyasas.

But progress is progress. I’ll take it.

Progress Report: Weight Rooms & Dying in Yoga Studios

It’s been a little bit since I checked in, so I thought I’d share what’s been going on:

I haven’t fallen of the weight lifting wagon yet, which is good, especially if a 45-pound plate falls on you on the way out. I’m taking it relatively easy, not adding too much weight. I’m going for higher reps more so than anything else. Still legs as priority, with some upper body and core work thrown in so that I can ogle myself in the mirror.

Side note, I’m not historically a headphones while lifting person. I didn’t see the point. But then I bought wireless headphones for running only to find out that I wasn’t going to be running any time soon. Hated for them to go to waste, so they make the trip to the gym. That said, I’ve been listening to podcasts (and one audiobook) instead of music for the most part. It’s been a good way for me to stay caught up on my backlog of episodes. 99% Invisible, Nerdist, and Revisionist History are my go-to podcasts in case you’re looking for something to listen to.

As for running? Like I said in the last paragraph, I’m still not running. Enough said.

And I finally made it to the yoga studio in town. I’d made it to three rec center classes at the university gym. That was… interesting.

The first class was terrible. Calling it yoga is a bit of a stretch. Derogatorily, I’ve seen it referred to as McMommy yoga before. Basically, just exercising on a yoga mat. The second class was better, but that was a low bar to step over. The poses were on point, but they were out of sequence and the teacher was giving bad instructions. The third was much better, though she would hold the counts too long (it was fun to watch people collapsing into child’s pose because she would say 1, 2, say something for a count or two, 3, 4, 5). It was fine, but the class is still too short and there’s too much risk or spending time on my knee or getting stuck in pigeon for 5 minutes, which I can’t really do.

So rec center is out unless I’m desperate. That means I’ll be at the real yoga studio immediately, right?

Well, no.

There’s a problem: The studio’s schedule is a bit wonky, and the class I want to take is taught at noon. That’s after I want to eat lunch. Starting a 90-minute class then is less than ideal. Any productivity that’s going to happen has to happen before yoga, which is just weird. I’ll adjust. Eventually.

But I made it today. I’ll call it generally a win. It’s ashtanga, which I know I can do. The teacher was good, so I know I have a person I can go to as a teacher now. And most importantly, it’s off campus to lessen the risk of running into my students, thank you very much.

That said, it’s not all good. Again, the time is awful. Can’t get around that. Eventually college football games will actually interfere. Next, you can’t trust the website to be up-to-date enough to have the person who will be teaching listed. That’s problematic when you’re as picky about teachers as I am (so I don’t actually know the name of the good teacher I had class with today).

As for what happened when I actually got there, we’re now nitpicking. The place is carpeted, so it was a bit on the smelly side because it’s a yoga studio. Also because they heat the class to about 90 degrees. That causes a lot of sweating. So much so that I went through a liter of watered-down Gatorade and soaked through my shirt so much so that it was actually dripping by the end. Not a good smell. First time I was in danger of ditching my shirt in a yoga class. Nobody wants that. Not until I drop about 20 pounds, at least.

And most vainly, I was the worst person there. That’s not new. I was the least capable in ashtanga at my old studio, but this was amped up. Everyone (except maybe one) was either a yoga teacher or in teacher training. The class was more advanced as a result, so instead of floundering in my own sweat like I would have anyway, I was floundering in my own sweat as other people were fairly comfortable going much further than I could.

But all in all, it was a win. I have a studio to go to. I had Whataburger afterward. And I worked hard enough today to not feel guilty for not working out tomorrow. I’ll be happy to move at all tomorrow.

How Diamond Dallas Page, no cable, and horse blankets got me started with yoga

The first time I did yoga was a bit strange. It started with back pain. This isn’t atypical.

I’d moved to Florida and had a six-week window where I was there with nothing productive to do before I started my grad program. I was mostly lying around on a cheap futon, with some guitar playing, some reading, and a lot of TV watching to do. This inactivity led to more persistent back pain than I’d like. The kind that lingers in your lower back just above the back of your hips.

Among my favorite channels was PBS. When I got there, I didn’t have cable. I plugged in my cable cord to the jack just to see if I would get lucky and have free cable. Nope. But for some reason it did act like an antennae, and I picked up a snowy version of PBS.

For the first few days, that was all I got, so once I got cable, I kept watching out of habit. There was a lot of time spent watching Curious George’s shenanigans and time spent watching Austin City Limits. And of course there were the glorified infomercials.

One of those was for a pilates video. It talked about how it could help with back pain. I did what I do and went to a bookstore for an instruction manual. I decided that yoga and pilates were basically the same thing and went looking for both. I opted for yoga because it seemed more manly (there was one book where Diamond Dallas Page was teaching yoga, and if yoga was good enough for DDP, it was good enough for me). I at least opted for a non-DDP yoga book. If I was going to make a slightly sexist decision, I could at least get a regular yoga book instead of a broga book.

I then read the book. I looked at what it had to say, including what I needed. Evidently, I needed carpet or a yoga mat. I had neither. But I did have a rug.

Let me tell you about that rug. It wasn’t actually a rug. It was a horse blanket. I won it in one of those little kid rodeos when I was 6 or 7. I didn’t know I’d won anything until they handed me this fancy horse blanket.

Problem was I already had a saddle pad. Why use the fancy blanket when I already had something to perform the same function? And it didn’t really occur to me to use the fancy horse blanket if I didn’t actually need it.

My brother used it as a horse blanket once or twice, I think. I’m not sure I ever did. Maybe once. Again, we had saddle pads that were more functional. I actually used the horse blanket as a blanket for myself once or twice. I was an odd kid. I’m still an odd adult.

Before my move to Florida, I looked around my parents’ house for what I could steal for my place in Florida. I’d never lived somewhere that wasn’t furnished, so I wanted some amenities from home so that Florida could at least have a bit of Texas in it (and some New Mexico, too). I had the saddle blanket sitting in the closet. I threw it in the wash (it had been used as a saddle blanket at least once, after all), and then I took it to Florida to use as a rug for my living room.

So I have a rug. This rug was conveniently about the size of a yoga mat. The book said I needed a yoga mat or a carpeted floor. Looks like I’d found the best of both worlds.

Well, instead of carpet, I had tile floors. I loved that tile. The problem with tile, though, is there’s no real traction to it. Turns out if you use a rug as a yoga mat, it’ll just slide around.

My first yoga session was spent with me tentatively getting into poses, including lunges, and praying that rug wouldn’t move far enough for me to bust my face on the tile floor.

It worked once, and that was all I asked of it. I upgraded to an exercise mat immediately, though it had some of the same problems. It still slid some, but it was kind of like playing tennis on a clay court. You learned to work with the predictable slide.

That mat lasted me five years until I went into a real yoga class. I thought I’d keep going back there, so I bought a mat and only went one more time. I ended up sticking the yoga mat under the exercise mat for traction, which worked wonders. When I started going to real classes after I moved to Mississippi, I strongly considered doing that, but I didn’t want to be the weirdo who took in two mats to class. I was already a dude at yoga, which made me stick out enough as it was. In some cases that worked to my benefit, but carrying in a second mat would not have helped.

Why am I telling this rambling story? It’s mostly because I can’t sleep, and I was lying on my rug while I drew something. So yeah, that’s how I started doing yoga. Fun fact: The exercise mat was my bed the first two nights after my move to Oklahoma.

Perks of the Move

Moving is stressful.

Let me repeat that, moving is stressful.

Ok, got it? Good.

When you fill out those life stress forms, moving is high on the list. And because moving usually entails other life stress, those forms generally predict you’re going to die in a week. That’s not good. Seriously, I just took the stupid test, and I feel into the highest category.

But we’re not going to focus on that. We’re going to focus on the positive.

When you’re going into a new job, you’re supposed to look into the benefits. I did no such thing. I looked at the job. I looked at the people. And that was it. After I accepted the job, then I started worrying about benefits.

Not how they recommend doing things.

But sometimes you dumb your way into a good situation. In my (until yesterday) current job, I basically got no real health benefits beyond normal insurance. I was able to see a doctor on campus (did I mention I’m a faculty member?), and that was about the max I got on the convenience scale. At my last job, mostly the same, though because there was an attached medical school, my health insurance was all basically in-house and comprehensive. But mostly just normal stuff.

The new job? It’s got some perks. The one I did know about from my interview was that the rec center on campus was free to use. Due to injury issues, I knew I couldn’t get the most out of a gym membership, so I hadn’t been going. This means I can do my PT exercises and whatever else my body allows. It also means I get free yoga classes, albeit probably not the type of classes I want to take. But they’re there (I’ll still give a real yoga studio a try in town).

That’s pretty nice. No gym fees, and it’ll be half a mile from my office. But that’s not all.

Wait for it.

They have massage therapy on campus.

I cannot adequately convey how happy that makes me. I had to convey it in gif form.

One of the things I am not looking forward to is having to find a new MT. If this works out, I’ll have one that is a 10-minute walk from my office. And it’s cheaper than what I pay now.

So they’ll be closer, which will cost me less time (about an hour just for travel) and gas (3 gallons of gas, so $6, give or take), and it will literally cost less (about $20 less for the same time). Please return to the above gif. I’m still in that state.

If it works out. It might not. But then again it just might.

I might start getting massages more than once a month. I always said if time and money weren’t an issue, I’d get them weekly. Maybe the universe is testing how much money counts as “not an issue.”

So free gym. Free yoga. And massage 10 minutes away from my desk. I think this could work out alright.