Yogis in Dementialand

Come to hot yoga, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

And I can’t lie. It is fun–in a sort of brutal way that leaves me dripping wet with mascara running down my cheeks.

Yoga isn’t foreign to me. I’m a certified fitness instructor, and I used to teach some yoga myself. But hot yoga just seems different…intimidating…and really, really hot. Scorching.

The instructor preaches a lot of the same things I preach in Dementialand.

“Let go of your expectations. Stay in the moment,” she says. “Focus on the present without looking forward or back. Appreciate being in the here and now.”

I am ridiculously bad at following these instructions. I continue to think about all the emails I have to send when I get home and what TV shows are waiting for me on our TiVo. I wonder if the soup we made over the weekend is still edible.

“No comparisons,” she reminds us. “Don’t compare yourself to the person in front of you, behind you, to your left, or to your right.”

As she refers to each person around me, I look at them with the sole purpose of comparison. I am definitely the oldest person in my immediate vicinity. The joys of living in a college town.

“And don’t compare what you can do today to what you could do yesterday,” she says. This goes against other things I’ve been told in various areas of my life. Isn’t comparing the “you of yesterday” to the “you of today” the basis for personal growth and improvement? How do you have goals if you don’t look forward and back? I’m not all that philosophical though. I’m just hoping maybe if I do this a few times a week my upper body will be more toned.

Hot yoga is tough. As I enter what I consider to be the stage immediately before one goes into extreme heat exhaustion, the instructions seem to get more cryptic.

“Step your right foot between your hands and look over your left shoulder as you press the top of the left foot to the map,” she says. Left-right-right-WHAT? I need references to one body part at a time. I look at the girl in front of me and think she’s doing it wrong. Then I realize I’m doing it wrong. Or maybe I’m right and she’s wrong after all.

I can’t say I hate it. It’s challenging, and I eventually buy a membership to the hot yoga studio. But I can’t help but think that Yogaland is a little bit like Dementialand.

In Dementialand, we tell you to let go of expectations. We tell you to live in the moment. We tell you to stop comparing yourself. That’s what you have to do to get the most out of life with dementia. It’s also what you need to do to get the best out of hot yoga, but I really wouldn’t know. I’m too busy thinking about what I have to do and comparing myself to others. If I ever enter Dementialand full-time, I hope I can do better at following instructions.

A few weeks back I talked to a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Although still functioning at a really high level, she was depressed. Throughout her life, she was fantastic at designing and sewing clothes. She could still do simple patterns, but her work paled in comparison to what she could do a few years back. As someone who can’t sew, I was still impressed with her projects. I told her it was 100 times better than anything I could do. Probably the wrong thing to say.

“So I’m better at sewing than someone who has never sewn. Great,” she said sarcastically. Obviously, attempting to get her to compare her work to my (lack of) work was not going to make her feel better. She was set on comparing her current work to what she used to be able to do.

I tried again. I tried to tell her to focus on the joy of sewing and not the outcome. She told me that I really had no idea how great she used to be at sewing. She even made wedding dresses. She couldn’t do stuff like that anymore.

“My whole life people have told me to work hard and get better at things. Now everyone is telling me to let go of that and be okay with being bad at stuff I used to be good at it. How do I flip that switch?” she asked. I really had no idea.

What I didn’t tell her was that there may come a point when she can enjoy sewing again. Why? Because she will likely forget that she used to be an all-star at sewing. There will likely come a point when she has no memory of making wedding dresses for friends and family.  I don’t know whether to hope that comes soon for her or not.

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