Finding Balance After a Stroke

Name: Barry Hurchalla
Location: Florida Treasure Coast
Occupation: Retired auctioneer and antique dealer

Barry Hurchalla Warrior 2My story began in 2009. I was 65, recently retired, and in good health – until I wasn’t. I was always a ‘sometimes’ runner, biker, hiker, and tennis player, but I started to notice my belly expanding. No, not a beer gut; turns out it was fluid accumulation from my liver not working the way it should. It was a genetic thing. I won the lottery: Two mutant genes triggering a protein deficiency. Goodbye, liver!

I’ll skip the details about my long illness and resulting surgery, but I have to call out the wonderful doctors and nurses at New York Presbyterian Hospital. They wouldn’t let me die, in spite of the many times I emotionally gave up. I also met a great guy, a Buddhist monk from the Zen Center for Contemplative Care, who helped me keep it all together at the hospital. And of course thanks to you, elderly man in Georgia, for becoming an organ donor.

In December 2009, I set out with my new liver. By that time, I had been in and out of the hospital since October. I spent another three in the hospital and at rehab, thanks to a post-operative stroke. Finally, in February 2010, I was free. My daughter and her husband welcomed me to their home, without a second thought, to recuperate. But I honestly just wanted to die. I weighed 111 pounds (I’m 5’7”), and I had apparently left my muscles at the hospital. I needed a wheelchair to move more than 20 feet. I couldn’t balance properly; I had vertigo just standing up.

After three months of my daughter Stacy’s whole-food cooking (and my Chinese son-in-law’s home-made favorites), I was able to get around with a walker and, on good days, just a cane. I was freezing my ass off up north at Stacy’s home in New Jersey and just wanted to get back home to Florida.

I made it back home in May, still using a walker and a cane. But unfortunately I wasn’t enjoying my “new” life. I’m a widower and I wasn’t able to do the things I most enjoyed to keep myself occupied. I didn’t have the balance to ride a bike, or the visual acuity to drive a car at normal highway speeds. The stroke had thrown something out of whack. Doctors weren’t sure, but suspected a neurological issue has disrupted my vision.

Then Stacy threw out something new to think about. She had been practicing yoga for several years on and off, and thought I should try a class. We went to her local community center for a family yoga class. We left my cane in the car, so as not to alarm the teacher.  I held Stacy’s arm instead, and we made it to the mat.

I managed the mat work without too much of a problem, but could hardly stand – just no balance there. But I enjoyed being able to move again, even in a limited way, and I also enjoyed the camaraderie of the class. Stacy and I went four times, to different studios, during my visit. I had been embarrassed by my physical limitations and because I seemed older than everyone else there, but the teachers I met were so understanding – a nice feeling. Yoga really is for everyone.

Then I saw an ad for a donation yoga class at my county library. I started going weekly and getting stronger. I met a fellow in that class who was 79. Not an exception – just the closest mat. Classes were mixed: about a third younger people, a third maybe 40-55, and a third old farts like me. A woman in that class told me about another class at a church nearby. Two classes in one week – it seemed like a lot at the time, but I was ready to commit to my practice.

Barry Hurchalla camel poseThere I met Dari, my mentor-to-be, who had been practicing yoga for more than 45 years, a vegetarian for more then 35 of them. I thought she was around my age, but it turned out she was 85 incredibly healthy years old. I started to take notice! You can see where this is going. I practiced my yoga, however weak I was, for the next year, twice a week. I continued to grow stronger. Yoga motivated me to improve my diet; I gave up meat and coffee. Once borderline hypertensive, my blood pressure is now well within a normal range, without medication.

It’s now the summer of 2013, and yoga is a huge part of my life. The doctors and nurses at New York Presbyterian saved my life, and yoga makes it worth living. I’m practicing now almost every day at Living Yoga in Vero Beach, Florida, with Elise Mahovlich and her great group of teachers. Yoga may not give me eternal life, but it will let me enjoy the years that I have left. It helps everyone, the once-a-week people and the regulars. I’ve never heard a discouraging word.

When I finally told my teachers about my medical history, they were amazed at how much I can do. And people who know me have told me how much they’ve noticed changes over the past year – even those who knew nothing about my illness. My doctors feel the same way; my primary physician said, “I’ve never prescribed yoga, but it seems like it’s working for you.”

My balance has greatly improved. The cane is long gone. I can even do bakasana – for 10 seconds, but still – and am working on headstand (salamba sirsasana). I’m considering teacher training next year, to help others like myself who need a hand in healing. Maybe you’re also ill, or overweight, or just getting older – just know that yoga is for you. It’s waiting for you.

I might have limited years left in my life, but they’ll be fun ones, thanks to yoga. It was sunny today in Florida. I drove my Can-Am motorcycle to the farmer’s market then went up to the pool for a few hours. I rode my bike. I went to yoga class. Life is good.

Barry motorcycleBarry Hurchalla is a 68-year-old retired auctioneer and antique dealer living on Florida’s East Coast. He moved there a decade ago from a pre-Revolutionary stone home in Pennsylvania, where he made his living selling and auctioning antiques. A dedicated yogi, he also enjoys biking and fishing.

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A Yoga Transformation Journey: 30 Years and Beyond

This week’s Yoga Diaries are being presented in honor of the 15th Anniversary of
The Atma Center of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.


Name: Mary Baird (spiritual name, Mantram)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor, Atma Center Yoga At Work Coordinator.

Photo by Flickr User whalt.

It all began in my 40’s  once a week yoga. I found yoga sometime in 1979-80. Back then, I hung onto that weekly class as my “oasis,” a welcome relief from job stress. My work was physically and mentally challenging – carrying ladders, climbing poles, running wire, repairing phone lines, and dealing with skepticism and isolation as the only woman on my crew for nearly two decades. Not exactly experiencing total transformation at this point, I would say that yoga “saved” my life! The transformation process, a process that still feels “never done,” began then as I learned to use the basic tools of yoga (asana and pranayama) to develop my capacity for self-healing.

Off the mat – yoga at work. In those “early yoga days,” it got easier to maintain my “cool” in the face of  constant verbal challenges and put-downs like “You’re taking that job away from a man who really needs it!” Or, “Who’s coming to help you with that ladder?” Using relaxation and breathing techniques to support my mental health, I’d find myself spontaneously stretching and re-positioning my body to counteract the often taxing physical demands of the job. I can remember the relief of stretching into “downward dog,” gripping the bottom rung of my ladder and breathing deeply for a few moments after too much time up the ladder, leaning out over the cable to test and connect lines in the terminal – maybe holding a side stretch in the opposite direction to balance the stress on my spine.

Developing awareness – inward bound. Though I used my yoga as “first aid” for survival, I had no daily or formal “home practice” during the first 20 years of my journey.  I did, however, develop a keen awareness that I had never before experienced — an awareness of the “state of my mental and physical self.” (It took many more years for me to become aware of my awareness – to realize how AWARENESS itself is yoga’s most fundamental gift!) In my early adult years I was very busy and externally focused on the demands and problems of the world and the people around me. A key aspect of my evolving transformation was a slow but steady shift from external to internal, beginning to experience the more subtle, deeper benefits of yoga. Knowing and healing myself became a priority. Still an activist on behalf of women and workers, I began to incorporate a broader perspective. After all, how could I change the world if I couldn’t maintain my own health and inner strength?

Moving from an early retirement at the phone company in my mid-50’s, I continued my weekly yoga – a great support as I embarked on graduate studies and other career pursuits. One thing I noticed as I approached 60 was an increased awareness of chronic aches and pains, especially low back ache and joint stiffness. I knew I needed “more yoga,” to work with my aging physical body but also to explore more deeply the philosophical and spiritual aspects of this awesome “life science.”

In the 80s and 90s I had taken classes with two excellent teachers near my west side home and kept getting their message, “There’s more here for you!”  I just didn’t know how to go about finding it. I still had not connected with the idea of a daily home practice or the personal motivation to begin.

Beyond bending and stretching Enter Satyananda Yoga® & the Atma Center on the “other side of town.” I was working with Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit I helped start, developing school-based programs to expose children to nontraditional careers. This brought me into contact with many wonderful people. An amazing, dedicated teacher who has since become a close friend told me about this great yoga center she had discovered and suggested that I try it and that it would be worth the drive. And it was! What a great 60th birthday present, discovering a whole system of yoga, Satyananda Yoga®, deeply rooted in tradition, right in my back yard!

Daily practice and the resulting benefits. My first taste of the fruits of daily yoga took place not at “home,” but at the Atma Center where my eagerness for the “more” saw me attending classes nearly every day! The rest is history: This wonderful decade (2001 – present) has helped to solidify my deeper personal experience with a style of yoga that continues to be well-suited to my needs as an aging practitioner and spiritual seeker. The practices of meditation and mantra chanting have helped me to anchor and still my busy mind and explore my mental habits. “Freedom from the bondage of the mind” is the meaning of my spiritual name, Mantram, given to me a few years ago by Swami Niranjananda. Yoga Nidra has become a new and deeper form of relaxation to counter the stresses of life and aging and Pawanmuktasana practices have began to work on my “sluggishness” and joint pain.

Photo by Daniel Levin.

Somehow during those first few years under the tutelage of Swami Atmarupa and the other wonderful teachers, my chronic low back pain disappeared! Using my new-found intuitive wisdom, I added regular strength training sessions to my routine, combined with daily yoga to reverse diagnosed osteoporosis in my lower spine. I’ve experienced and survived accidents (one falling on ice and another “crashing” onto my tailbone in roller blades) without fractures and with only temporary aches and pains, letting me know that stronger muscles are indeed protecting my bones. Developing body awareness and a confidence in my ability to strengthen and heal myself has been an important transformative aspect of my yoga journey.

About a year into the wonderful physical and mental benefits of daily classes, I found Yogic Studies, enrolling in the first “Yoga Patha I” course offered in the U.S. Doors opened to an understanding of the roots and multi-layered components of this amazing “life science.” Finally, I received the guidance and structure I needed to begin my own home-based daily yoga practice that continues to sustain me today.

Teaching yoga – my most transformative experience. Before long, I enrolled in the first official Satyananda Style Teacher Training course, also based at The Atma Center. I thought it might be a way to “give back” some of the benefits I had received. It took me several years to complete the whole series of Yogic Studies and Teacher Training courses, but the effort taught me a great deal: (1) It’s never too late to take on a new challenge. Believe me, it has been a challenge  – not unlike enrolling in a PhD program as a senior; (2) Learning begets more seeking begets more learning; (3) The experience of teaching is the greatest teacher of all. Meeting the diverse needs and interests of my students has been a living impetus to continue on my yoga path and to continue my yoga education for as long as I am able. My motivation is enhanced by their penetrating questions, their stories of struggle and success, and the insights they acquire and share as they embark upon their own yoga journeys.

Photo by Flickr User ojoqtv.

Add to this transformational decade, the opportunity to travel to Swami Satyananda’s ashram in India where I met him and experienced his divine energy face to face. It was there that I developed a deep appreciation for the Bhakti aspect of Satyananda Yoga®. Seeing his astounding example of giving and serving others at the core of a fulfilling spiritual path, I rejoiced in an opportunity that opened for me here in Cleveland to give where the need is great. Along with two Atma Center colleagues, I volunteer to teach yoga at a center for women recovering from addiction. We use their feedback to refine our approach, finding new ways to tailor the practices of Satyananda Yoga® to the urgency of their need for tension release, balance, peace of mind, and a self-nurturing attitude. Teaching and learning in this and other classroom settings has become one of the most satisfying, shared processes.

I am eternally grateful to Swami Atmarupa, the Atma Center, and Satyananda Yoga® for offering a community-based program that has nurtured my growth into my “later years.” In the end, it is the ongoing process of deepening awareness that comes with continued practice, which constitutes the spiritual support for navigating each day with the clarity and insight that I need at this stage in my life. And the transformation continues…

Mary Baird has been practicing yoga for over 30 years and credits yoga with saving her life, during her 17 years of working as a phone line repair and installation technician, by helping her to manage the physical and emotional stresses of her job. A yoga teacher for nearly a decade, in addition to her passion for instructing yoga, Mary has had a variety of other teaching roles: Peace Corps English teacher, elementary Career Education Specialist, tutor in adult literacy, class designer and teacher at a local women’s prison among others. Mary is now an avid volunteer: she instructs for the nonprofit Yoga Academy of North America, teaches yoga to women in addiction recovery at Orca House, prepares and serves holiday meals at Orca House and annually participates in the Stand Down for the Homeless through Interact. In her free time, Mary enjoys creative writing, biking, gardening, and visiting her adult children and their children.

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