I’m very honored to have been a guest on one of the Global Healthy Living Foundation’s podcasts. The GHLF mission is to support and educate people living with chronic illnesses. They have several podcasts and the Wellness Evolution focuses on connecting mind, body, and spirit for better health despite chronic illness.
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Be inspired, supported and empowered. This is the Global Healthy Living Foundation Podcast Network.
Angel Tapia 00:10
Welcome to Wellness Evolution, a podcast with inspiring and thoughtful conversations highlighting the connection between health and wellness. Whether it’s through finding the right treatment or making lifestyle changes, we hope these stories provide relatable topics and perhaps personal inspiration. So join me in exploring the many paths to wellness through the lens of a diverse group of people as we cover topics such as chronic illness, mental health, spirituality, and everything in between. We’ll start today’s episode with a quote by Carolyn White: “I am not everything that has ever happened to me. I am everything I became while I healed, stronger but softer, focused, but not obsessed. A teacher but still a student. I am not broken. I am beautiful. I am a survivor.” Today I’m joined by Christa Fairbrother, who is an aqua yoga coach and trainer who lives with arthritis. She credits her yoga practice for her lack of pain, and specifically aqua yoga, because it’s kind to people’s joints. It’s easy for beginners to start and challenges the advanced practitioners in new ways. Thank you, Christa, for joining us today.
Christa Fairbrother 01:27
Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
Angel Tapia 01:29
Now in our first connection you shared with me that you were diagnosed with a chronic illness. So I have to ask what came first like the chicken or the egg? Was it arthritis? Was it then being a yoga instructor or vice versa?
Christa Fairbrother 01:43
That’s a great question. Like many people who have a chronic illness journey, my symptoms, when they first showed, were a very long span from when I was actually diagnosed. So I started showing symptoms that were a little strange when I was a kid. I grew up in California, in a beach town. So it was fairly warm. And my family decided we were going to start going to the mountains to go skiiing. And that was my first exposure, really, to the cold. And I would have a real reaction to the cold. And it just kind of became this family joke. Oh, well, you know, Christa’s “allergic”. I’m doing air quotes here because I know this is a podcast, because I wasn’t really allergic. But I showed all these strange symptoms in the cold. And went on with my life; I shod horses. And what that is, horses wearing those metal horseshoes, somebody has put those on, right? So it is a dirty, hard job. You’re bent over all the time holding up 1000 pounds. Really not good for your back. And so I had heard from somebody, well yoga was good for your back, why don’t you give it a try? So I started it as a way to basically maintain my career. So now I’m in my early 20s. I’m shoeing horses every day and I started this yoga practice just by going to a public class. And I actually really liked it. So I kept doing the yoga and then I started doing yoga at home every morning before I would warm up for work. After about 10 years of shoeing horses. The cold kind of caught up to me. I was doing horses on an island in the Pacific Northwest. So lots of rain, lots of wind outdoor in the barns every day. And being that this is hard on my back, I was like, “Okay, I’m pushing 30 maybe it’s time to get a career that’s a little kinder to your body.” So I gave that up and I went to graduate school and still doing the yoga. Now It’s just going to class, I go to graduate school, I have a couple kids, my kids finally both start elementary school and in reflecting, it’s like, wow, I’ve done yoga for 20 years. This is clearly really important to me, I think I’ll go to yoga teacher training. And at this time, it was just for myself to really deepen my own practice. When I started yoga teacher training, I had finally gotten a diagnosis about a year after the birth of my second son of systemic lupus erythematosus, which is a systemic autoimmune disease that can attack any body system. So I knew that when going into yoga teacher training, and I thought, “Okay, well, I’ve been living with it for a few years. Now I can handle it.” Except that during a yoga teacher training, I got a new diagnosis of mixed connective tissue disease, which is a much more rare combination disease, which does include lupus, but also rheumatoid arthritis. It often pairs up and so that “Rhupus” combination is what they call it, that’s the one I have. For some people it expresses as myositis and scleroderma, but when I got that diagnosis, it was like, “Wow, okay, I have done all these things. You know, I was an athlete, as a teen, I’ve shod horses, very physically demanding job, how can I manage to do all that? And yet, now that I have this diagnosis, you’re telling me I have all this really amazing imaging and how did I do this?” So that cognitive dissonance really made me realize I had found the best self management tool that I could have found and it really inspired me to share yoga with other people. And so that’s why I have pursued the yoga trainings that I have to really specialize in sharing yoga for arthritis and specifically yoga, in the water for arthritis with other people.
Angel Tapia 04:58
So I find that super interesting because it feels like it was simultaneously building so that you had both of the facets kind of developing one unknown and the other that you pursued. So we will continue with, we don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg. You are still a unique story. So in talking about you, first being diagnosed and then finding some of those connections between the air quote, “excuses for some of the symptoms,” which I think a lot of us go through, we try and rationalize or our family rationalizes what we could be going through. What are some of the challenges – once you did get the diagnosis – that you faced and just kind of learning more about your body, your health, and how to manage the condition?
Christa Fairbrother 05:43
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think the biggest ongoing challenge is specifically having a rare connective tissue disease. It’s very hard to educate myself as a patient, and then being able to go to appointments and get good information from providers, because they’re basically in the same situation as me. So I will go in and if we’re talking about a medication, for example, I can ask, “Well, has there been any proven efficacy for somebody who lives with this disease?” And of course, they say, “Well, no, because it hasn’t ever been tested on that.” So I feel like a guinea pig a lot of the time, because there’s just not the research on those rare diseases. So that has definitely been an ongoing thing on like a treatment plan. From a personal level, of course, it’s always a challenge to manage the hats one wears in life with a diagnosis. So of course, I only sort of mentioned my kids a little bit, I have a partner who travels for work, not so much here during COVID. He’s been working from the kitchen desk, and then being self-employed and trying to just manage that I have a life, I have a business, I have a spouse, and I have a chronic illness. And so it’s kind of that circular merry-go-round is what is going to be the in the biggest priority in this moment. So that’s of course another ongoing challenge. So the two of the patient life and personal life.
Angel Tapia 07:00
So when you mentioned that it is so true, there are so many hats that we wear and titles that we have within family, within work, within our community. How do you find that you do advocate for yourself? Since there’s folks that you’re taking care of in different ways? How do you advocate and kind of take care of you?
Christa Fairbrother 07:18
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And that has come up with other professionals that I know who live with chronic diseases, because you don’t necessarily want to disclose. So I’m very public with what I have, being self-employed, I have the advantage of my employer can’t cancel my insurance, because I have disclosed. But there are real reasons why people are afraid to disclose. And maybe they’ve just – it could be the practical reasons. But it could also be the personal reasons of what they have going on. And they just don’t feel that it’s appropriate. And then depending on our career, like if we’re in those helping professions, it isn’t necessarily best practice to disclose because then we’re shifting that focus to us. And we’re supposed to be having our focus on the clients. But from a personal level, what I found, when I didn’t disclose, is that there was just this real problem with trying to put myself out there all the time for other people and not getting that acknowledgement and nearer, not even necessarily empathy, but just the sympathy of that “I knew what you were going through for a reason.” And…
Angel Tapia 08:17
Christa Fairbrother 08:18
The connection, and just the authenticity. There’s also a real perception that yoga is really for only young, skinny, white, well-off suburban people. You can kind of keep going with your thoughts there. But there is really this thought that yoga is only for certain people, and we’re on a podcast, but I do look like a lot of the people who do yoga. I’m relatively tall, I’m white, I’m relatively skinny. And so people see that, and they’re just like, “Oh, you’re just another yoga person, you know, why do you care about me and my arthritis?” And you know, you kind of have to take a deep breath. And if you’re not disclosing, you have a professional interest in it. And it doesn’t necessarily help people as much. And really, what I have found is by me disclosing and being able to be open about this, they can really see someone who’s living with it like them. It’s like, “Wow, this person is managing to do yoga; maybe I could do yoga.” You know, “This person is managing to make it to the pool and manage their sun exposure, even though they live with lupus. What can I learn from them? Or how can I apply that for myself?” And so I try hard to make it not about me when I’m with a client, but rather about the client, and how can they use the information they’re getting, from someone else who lives with it, for themselves?
Angel Tapia 09:29
Well, and I would like to say that I feel our conversations have really been around just your interest in, in supporting those that can use aqua therapy to help their condition and to be able to just broaden the knowledge of this tool that people can use that is now easily accessible. And one of the things that you shared with me, which was very interesting, very impactful personally, and then also gave me that appreciation that you felt strongly about the history of pool discrimination and the negative effects that it’s had within the black community as well as the effects for women of color. So can you kind of share with me – I know it’s a topic that I was not aware of – just the depths and the history of it. And you know, when you talk about what people’s expectations are of someone that does yoga, or someone that does do pool exercise, we could have a different picture, but that can stem from some of the history around that. So could you share just, you know, kind of your knowledge in that area?
Christa Fairbrother 10:28
Sure. Yeah. And I’m gonna broaden it out even a little bit. Because to talk, you know, you reference back to the yoga perceptions, and a lot of the racial discrimination does come from basically our perceptions, right? So if you think about, well, 100 years ago, what were women allowed to wear and do? All women were not allowed at the pool. Because we had to dress from head to toe, right? And so there was women who really had to work to break down barriers to be able to allow all of us to wear clothes that are functional in an aquatic environment. That’s just really the teeniest, weeniest bikini, but just wear something that we could actually swim in, right? So if you think, “Oh, maybe this doesn’t apply to me?” It’s like, oh, no, it applies to all of us to be, this ability to be able to get into a pool. And you think about just the science of allowing us access to fresh water. We are all incredibly privileged here in the West to have access to swimming pools. So I really want to acknowledge that because the Global Healthy Living Foundation is a global organization, right? So I recognize not everybody has access to swimming pools and that quality of water on a consistent basis. But if you think about those two historic elements, and bring it a little closer in time, then yes, racism really did exist in this idea of recreational spaces. Because when you’re having a good time, you’re all just mixing and having a good time. And it’s hard to separate people out as representing something other than you, when you can see you have so much in common. And as the civil rights movement got going, Martin Luther King actually staged some swim-ins. We had some here in Florida, and a few of the press photos of those events really made the situation not look good. And that helped convince President Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act. So when you think about, well, moving forward, some municipalities weren’t okay with those shared spaces, so we actually lost municipal pools in some areas, because they didn’t want to integrate. So if you think about, okay, well, bringing this forward, there’s been a history of discrimination, some people lost access to pools, so there is not as many people who can swim in brown and black communities. If you’re an adult, and you don’t swim, you’re less likely to take your kids in for swimming lessons. So you’ve run this thread forward, and now we have discrepancies in drowning rates for black and brown kids, who drown at much higher rates than white kids. And a lot of it is based out of this historical discrimination. And so why is this important to me is obviously this is a tragedy that living in Florida is very impactful. I worked at the YMCA for years. And they’re the biggest provider of swim lessons in the country. And they work very hard for kids around the country to prevent drowning. And that’s one of their big missions. And so some of my – you know, – my interest in that really stems out of that is seeing the impact you can have on kids by giving them swim lessons, because sometimes they go home and you say “Mom and Dad, I want to go to the pool.” And maybe then those adults are thinking about, “Well, geez, I want to go to the pool.” You know, because maybe it’s the kid that’s informing the parents. It does work both ways. So there have been some barriers that have created these problems, but they’re not insurmountable, right? We can move forward and in a better place by improving access, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s scholarships, whether it’s talking about awareness of the fact that you do not have to get your head wet, when you go to the pool. You know, I hear a lot about hair, of course. So if you’re doing aquatic therapy, you do not have to submerge your head. There are places you can buy Soul Caps. If you’re somebody who lives with cancer, or maybe alopecia, and you’ve lost your hair, going to the pool can feel like a really big barrier. There’s head coverings for that. So there’s all kinds of ways we can address those barriers to access and break them down so that people can take advantage of the practice.
Angel Tapia 13:57
And when you look at the totality, I’m so glad that you’re sharing that, because it is things that build upon each other the experiences and how they can have an effect on us physically. But then also, you know, mentally as well, you know. As you said, now we have a generation of children that are bringing their parents into, “Hey, I want to get in the pool,” without knowing we have some of these fears or barriers that we may not know where they come from, and it can be tied to things in our past and history. So that leads me to, you know, kind of ask you about your thoughts on that connection between the mental and physical wellness and how those two components really can affect each other.
Christa Fairbrother 14:35
That’s a really good question, because you’re chicken and an egg analogy. So we know that if a person lives with chronic illness, they’re more likely to have mental health issues, whether it’s anxiety or depression, right? So we’ve got those issues. Well, if you’re living with depression or anxiety, what is your ability to deal with your chronic illness, right? It’s this feedback loop. And so because it’s that feedback loop, if we can impact someone on any aspect of the “triangle” – is kind of how I explained it in my air quotes here – then we’re improving their overall lives. So if we improve their mental health, we are going to be able to improve their physical health because they’re gonna feel more capable of doing something about it. If we improve their physical health, well, we have lots of data that shows exercise improves people’s mental health, right, so then they’re going to be less likely to be depressed or anxious. So I think that the combination is really important, and some people feel more comfortable addressing one area over another. So the fact that you can meet people where they’re at and help them where they are is really important.
Angel Tapia 15:38
And I know you feel very strongly about the importance of self efficacy, can you explain what that means to you, and also how you feel that connection that aqua therapy can help address some of those needs?
Christa Fairbrother 15:49
Yeah, so the way I explain self efficacy to people is, it’s your ability to be able to make what you want happen for yourself. So self efficacy is “I want this thing, and I’m gonna go out there and get it for myself.” That might be “I want to get on and off the ground to play with my grandkids.” That might be “I want to make it back in the sun without getting a Lupus rash,” right? It’s not something that someone else is setting as your bar, it’s something that matters to you, and what steps can you take to get there, so you can want the thing, but self efficacy is your ability to take the steps to get there. And sometimes that is that barrier that’s like, “Oh, I do want the thing, but I’m just going to throw my hands up because I don’t know what to do.” So it stays in that place of well, it’s just, you know, kind of a pipe dream. So if we can increase people’s self efficacy skills, they’re going to have a better life, right? How does aquatic therapy relate to this? One of the chief ways is that people are more likely to stick with any kind of exercise program that they like. And overall people like being in the pool more than land exercise, you know. Randomly assigned people to a land exercise program versus aquatic exercise program, they’re more likely to finish the aquatic exercise program. After the program ends, they’re more likely to continue their aquatic exercise program. If you think about well, aquatic exercise is giving them something that they’re doing for themselves, that they enjoy, that is showing them that they’re meeting a goal. If you can meet any one goal, you’re much more likely to meet any other goal, because you just proved it to yourself, you could do something, right? I have given you a format for something that you like to do that is accessible, that makes you feel good and better that helps you meet a goal and you can then transfer those skill sets to another arena. The other thing about aquatic exercise is it’s more social, you know? You often get on the treadmill, and you know, the peloton, that’s really popular these days, but you’re on a screen, and you’re maybe in your own house pedaling to nowhere. Well, how fun is that? But when you go to pool, you have to talk to other people. If you’re looking to improve your self efficacy skills, when you make friends, your friends help hold you accountable to whatever goals you’ve set. And so if you can have a larger group of people in your life, you’re gonna improve your self efficacy, usually because they’re helping you do it.
Angel Tapia 18:06
And I feel like self efficacy is so related to resiliency as well just you – .
Christa Fairbrother 18:13
Angel Tapia 18:13
Being able, as you said, to find the things that work for you, have yourself be accountable for those things, and to break through barriers and challenges. And, you know, we know that patients that deal with chronic illness, mental illness, other challenges in life, you have that. You have that resiliency. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to say “I am doing these things for myself. I am building upon these,” you know, “experiences,” and to find the best way to be healthy and good for yourself, wherever you are, and whatever that means along your journey. So I know that within your teaching experience, within your personal wellness journey, are there any key lessons that you think have really impacted the way that you see yourself within the community or just you know, within your family as a chronic illness patient as well as someone who is leading a community?
Christa Fairbrother 19:06
Yeah, that question the way you asked it is like a perfect segue into my answer because I would describe myself as like the Chumbawumba person, you know, “I get knocked down, I get back up again.”
Angel Tapia 19:17
Love that song
Christa Fairbrother 19:18
Tell anyone out there, “If you have a chronic illness, you more than likely live with chronic pain. And the thing about chronic pain is we kind of forget that we were not promised to have a pain free life. No, pain is part of life, unfortunately. The only thing is optional is suffering. And we can control our suffering, we cannot control our pain.” So to me, the best tip I could give to somebody is: “Wherever you’re at today, whatever you’re feeling, do the least one thing, don’t do nothing. Do whatever the least one thing that you can and then if that worked, do the next least thing, right? You just have to keep on keepin’ on whatever that looks like for you and whatever you can do and absolutely it will vary day to day.”
Angel Tapia 20:00
And it is so interesting when we talk about the things that are challenges or successes that are different amongst all of us. We also find some of the things that are common, and I think that doing your best when you can, is so important to understand that it is going to feel different day to day, depending on what you’re dealing with, physically or mentally or spiritually, and to be able to think of the song and know, “Hey, I gotta get back up again.” And whether it’s, you know, for my children, for myself, or the job that I love for whatever it may be, it is having that support for yourself and showing up for you that I think makes it a very important conversation to have with ourselves and to use these tips and reminders to know that it’s an active opportunity to show up for us. And I think that ties into the advocacy and that ties into the trying new things and making sure that we are always in alignment with what is best for us, especially when we’re not feeling our best.
Christa Fairbrother 21:05
Angel Tapia 21:10
I’m so glad that I got the chat with you today. I truly appreciate all of the insights that you’ve brought to us. Thankful for the conversation that has been open and honest and eye opening, and then just also the resources that we’re able to share with folks so that they understand that, you know, their physical and mental wellness is connected and that there are different ways that we can help ourselves throughout challenges.
Christa Fairbrother 21:36
Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to share.
Angel Tapia 21:47
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Wellness Evolution Speaker Series, a podcast inspiring new conversations about the relationship between health and wellness. I’m your host, Angel, and I appreciate you joining us on this journey. Remember to subscribe to our podcast so you never miss an episode and help spread the word by rating our podcast, writing a review, and sharing us with your friends and family.
Narrator 2 22:11
If you or a loved one are experiencing mental health related distress, particularly if the thought or feeling is new or has increased recently, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for help at any time. The lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress prevention and crisis resources.
Be inspired, supported and empowered. This is the Global Healthy Living Foundation Podcast Network.
Listen to more aqua yoga podcast guest episodes with Christa:
Aqua Yoga and the Chakras on The Chakra Way Podcast
Persistence with aqua yoga on the Persistence U podcast
Meet Christa Fairbrother on the Bare Bones Yoga Podcast
Aqua Yoga on Veganish and All Things Healthy
What is Aqua Yoga on Intuitively Rich
Interoceptive Aqua Yoga on The Yoga Pro podcast
Aqua Yoga for Arthritis on Arthritis Life