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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Balancing Act

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


Name: Betsy Warner

Location: Cleveland Heights, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Insurance Agent

Photo by Flickr User john.schultz.

I used to think I had a stressful life. After all, I was busy. I was running a small business, I had a wife and two kids, and my 85-year-old mother-in-law had recently moved in with me. As I aged and added more layers of stress to my life, I managed to juggle a little faster and beat myself up a little more because I felt like the worst multi-tasker on Earth.

At the end of last year, my life changed drastically. Suddenly I wondered how anything that had come before had ever felt stressful.

Let me preface my story by saying I have an amazing wife. She’s a runner, she meditates, she eats well, she’s joyful, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s taught me an immense amount about enjoying life. So it was more than a shock when we learned last November that she had a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. Without notice, we were thrown into a world that is known only to those who have been there; a world of more questions than answers; a world of Western Medicine and more appointments than I thought possible; a world for “other” people. Yet here we were.

Photo by Flickr User TipsTimes.

First, the shock was so intense that neither of us could function very well. We went from appointment to appointment, but the rest of our life was on hold. We sat down with the doctors and set up a schedule for treatment that would take us through most of the year. We had no idea how horrid the treatments would be, and how much suffering she would go through. It was all so incredibly overwhelming that finding anything normal about our days seemed impossible.

I’d heard over and over again that the “caretaker” has to take care, and it didn’t take me long to understand why. So I went back to my on-again, off-again yoga practice. It brought a needed respite in an otherwise chaotic existence. My wife hadn’t been able to work since the diagnosis, so I took advantage of some free classes I was able to find, and supplemented with a home practice and one class a week at the Atma Center. I don’t think I was feeling able to cope, but I was feeling able to be present.

And then, before the shock had worn off, we had more news that seemed so improbable it was absurd. I found a lump in my own breast. The lump turned out to be nothing, but the mammogram revealed some calcified cells that worried the doctors. After an inconclusive biopsy I had a surgical biopsy. Waiting for the results was torturous, and when the news finally came I learned that I, too, had cancer. We would need to proceed with a lumpectomy to look for “clean margins.”

Had this happened six months earlier, it would have been the most stressful thing to happen to us in years. As it was, I just wanted to get through it so we could put that behind us and focus on my wife’s treatment. Oddly, we laughed about mine being the “good cancer.” It was detected early, and needed very little follow up. But after surgery I was unable to bear any weight on my arms or lift them over my head for weeks. So I kept it simple. I remembered the breathing practices and started doing them daily. I was able to do some restorative poses. Then I remembered the balancing poses, and I worked whole practices around them. The metaphor was so obvious, but those were the poses that made me feel like I could keep my life on an even keel. Gradually I was able to get my strength and flexibility back, and I resumed classes.

When the Atma Center offered a special on summer passes, I snatched it up. I’ve been to 2-4 classes a week since I bought the pass, and I still do at least a brief home practice most mornings. Through all of the insanity that has transpired in my life in the last eight months, I’ve actually felt less overwhelmed than I was before this all happened. I’ve been able to give up the idea of multi-tasking rather than beating myself up about it. I’ve managed not to stress out about the ridiculous stack of medical bills we have compiled. I’ve been able to appreciate what amazing gifts we have in our life. I’ve been thankful beyond words for the help we’ve received from friends and family.

By the time you read this, my wife will have finished what we hope is her final treatment for cancer. And I can’t imagine going back to my pre-cancer “normal.” I can’t say all of this is due to yoga, but I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through this year without it; and not just gotten through, but be in it and appreciate it in all of its complexity. And though I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, through it all I have learned and grown and come to know joy in the midst of intense sadness. I have come to really appreciate that each day is truly a gift. As I continue to evolve on so many levels in my life, I am grateful to have yoga to help keep me grounded, present, and yes, balanced.

Betsy Warner is an insurance agent in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She lives with her wife, two daughters, and her mother-in-law. She likes to walk her dog, hike, bike, camp, garden and sing. She’s been practicing yoga since 2004, both with a home practice and a variety of classes, mostly in the Satyananda style. Betsy can be found here on Facebook.


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