By Milda Urban, Summersalt Yoga founder
Friends, I’m so happy to introduce another wonderful lady to our “The Madame Guru” series. We’ve met Erin last year and her sweetness (she’s Canadian after all!), stories and experiences have inspired the whole group.
Erin is a yoga teacher, a busy woman and also – someone who is open and vocal about her chronic migraines with a hope that sharing her experience can help others.
This is a really good one, guys, so dig in!
We can’t create change without acknowledging something in the first place – and while we can’t necessarily overcome something like an illness, we can certainly talk about it openly and use it to support others.
Erin, what’s your background and what do you do?
I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is pretty much the farthest that you can get on the Canadian east coast. It’s a city of about 300,000 people – so quite small by global standards. I love that it has a historic feel in comparison to much of North America, as we still have the original citadel, some cobblestone streets and walkways, and building facades from the original 1700s town.
My educational background is in marketing – I have a BComm and MBA that both focused on marketing. I currently work in media planning, specializing in digital and social media. It can be very busy, but I love getting to learn about all the different industries in which my clients are involved.
You’re also a yoga teacher – could you tell more how and why did you get into yoga?
That’s actually kind of interesting – I grew up playing a lot of sports (ice hockey, soccer/football, volleyball) and spent a lot of time at the gym, so for many years I actually felt that yoga was not for me, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I had tried a couple of classes and really didn’t enjoy them. I didn’t know at that point that there were different styles of yoga, and how much the teacher and their influence and personality can bring to the class and experience. I was going through a lot of stress at the end of university and my doctor insisted I swap out one gym session a week. My gym had a yoga/pilates fusion class, which I mainly picked because it was included in my membership, and after giving it a real chance, I discovered how much I enjoyed the challenge and how different it was than anything else athletic I had done in the past.
I sort of fell into teaching – I had just returned from spending a year in Ireland and my gym was looking for instructors. I was about to start grad school, so I felt it was a great time to take the training and something fun for me to do on the side.
What’s rewarding to you about doing yoga and teaching it to others? What do you learn from it?
I think what I love the most is the connection that I’m able to make with the people that come to class – finding out about their lives, and what they personally get out of yoga. I also love that I’m constantly learning through my classes – whether it’s a better way to communicate, how yoga can help people navigate through various difficult periods in life or advancing my own practice through tips from fellow instructors. I love that it’s a never-ending journey – the more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn.
You are open about the fact that you suffer from chronic migraines – could you tell a little more about what that is and how does it affect people?
There’s a common misconception that migraines are a bad headache. A lot of people not involved in the neurological community will actually use the terms headache and migraine interchangeably – and this is simply not the case. A migraine is a neurological disease that encompasses many symptoms, the most common of which is an often-excruciating headache. Symptoms can be different for everyone, but they can commonly include: visual auras (disturbances such as holes in vision, the appearance of sparkles, blurring, and many other variations), dizziness or vertigo, nausea, depression & anxiety, sensitivity in the senses (light, smells, sounds, even touch), tingling or numbness in the body, sudden fatigue (or the opposite, a manic or hyper feeling) and food cravings.
For me personally, I often get what are called ‘silent migraines.’ In other words, these are migraines without the headache pain, but generally with some type of aura and dizziness. In advance of an attack, I will usually go through ups and downs of fatigue and mania, and really intense cravings. When I’m at the height of a migraine, I will often find myself struggling to remember words, and can become severely depressed or anxious.
For those who are chronic, like me, migraine cycles can go for days or even months at a time. While some people are able to take leave from work, most aren’t able to do so. This means that while trying to manage crippling symptoms, they are also trying to, not just function, but excel at jobs or school or parenthood (or whatever else they are choosing to do).
Why did you decide to talk openly about the illness and what it does (which I think is an amazing thing to do) when there is still quite a taboo about talking about almost any illness in general?
I’ve had migraines my whole life, but up until about 3 ½ years ago, they were episodic. That means I only had a couple of episodes per year, I had figured out what my triggers were, it was easy to manage, and I didn’t think much about it. When I suddenly turned chronic, meaning I was dealing with it every single day, it became very overwhelming. I didn’t know anyone else that also had chronic migraines or even any other similar chronic illnesses. I felt extremely isolated and alone, all while trying to understand what was happening to me. I made the decision that if I couldn’t find others talking about it, I would be the one to do so. We can’t just wish for change, we have to make it happen ourselves – and I hoped that by being one of those individuals with a voice, I could help make things easier for someone else going through a similar situation.
How do you cope? And as it has not just physical, but also mental effects – what tools do you use to stay as balanced as possible and live your best life?
Yoga and meditation are both things that I use to cope. Being able to center yourself and breathe deeply are great ways to just bring a sense of calm when you’re feeling really sick and everything is a bit overwhelming.
I also try to take as much rest as I need, and more and more I’m learning the boundaries that I need to set with people. My weeks are extremely busy, so I sometimes find that by the time the weekend comes, I am worn out. And it’s ok if I need that time to rest and have quiet time. The people that truly care about my wellbeing understand that, and won’t be upset that I don’t necessarily want to be social all the time.
I’m a big believer in Western and Eastern/Holistic medicine working hand in hand. So while I do have prescription medications and receive injections regularly, I’m also on a three-week cycle each with massage therapy, chiropractic treatments and acupuncture. I also take a number of supplements (magnesium, sodium/potassium and B12) to help keep my body as healthy as possible. While supplements should vary depending on individual needs, these three do tend to be quite commonly taken by migraine sufferers.
I also find it’s really helpful to find someone that understands what you’re going through. I’m lucky in that one of my coworkers and best friends is also a chronic migraine sufferer. While she and I actually get very different symptoms, we can completely understand what the other is going through in a way that nobody else can. We’re able to empathize and really support each other when one of us is going through a particularly tough time. Having a chronic illness can often be very isolating, so sometimes that can be one of the most important things for your mental wellbeing – knowing that you aren’t alone and that there’s always someone there to listen.
How does yoga fit into this picture?
Yoga has been an amazing support for me, both when I’ve been feeling particularly unwell, and when I’ve been healthy! In my personal practice, it’s my me-time, when I’m able to reflect or focus on goals, or sometimes just find a place of calm where I’m fully connected with my breath. I think this is what helps the most when I’m in the midst of a migraine cycle. Being able to have that space where it’s just the (gentle) movement and the breath – often that’s the one time that I’m able to feel a sense of grounding and a decrease to the mental symptoms.
Has there been any feedback from your students, followers about your shared experiences? What kind?
Not a huge amount from my students – I think the big thing is that they see I’m “normal” – that I have bad days where I struggle with things, and that I’m not always doing everything perfectly. What has been incredible is connecting with yogis and others with various illnesses via social media. I’ve gotten great feedback from them, and I love building that network of people that are going through something similar.
Women today are reaching new milestones in their professional lives, in the way they are treated and perceived, but sometimes there is an idea that we need to have a strong façade and health issues does not “fit” in that picture. What’s your take on that?
I completely agree, and it’s something that I still struggle with on many days. The longer that I live with chronic health issues, the more I subscribe to the idea that true strength comes from being able to acknowledge our weaknesses. We can’t create change without acknowledging something in the first place – and while we can’t necessarily overcome something like an illness, we can certainly talk about it openly and use it to support others. While sometimes it can be really hard to truthfully talk about what’s happening in my own life, for fear of being judged, I know that it’s really important for me to walk the talk. Being open has allowed me to connect with so many people – both yogis and individuals dealing with their own chronic illnesses. The more that people start feeling comfortable with being open, and start sharing their own stories of overcoming challenges, be it health issues or something else, the more we will tear down that image of women having to be constantly strong and perfect.
What would be your tips for anyone suffering from the similar condition to yours? Do you have any insights that helped you and could help others?
I think the two best pieces of advice I could give are to be patient with yourself, no matter what condition or illness you’re going through, and to make sure you have supportive people around you. The patience is something I’m constantly working on, but I have learned over time that bad days or months happen, and stressing yourself over how long it will take to improve isn’t going to make it happen any faster. Find what self-care options make you feel like the best version of yourself, and focus on the little victories every day.