Mind Over Matters

Mindful meditation is helping some Torontonians deal with their mental health during the pandemic.  

By Marlo Fieldstone | Featured image via Unsplash

During the early days of the first COVID-19 lockdown, Derrick Moore, 64, a retired Scarborough high school science and physical education teacher, spent most of his time in his newly renovated basement. His two adult sons call it “the shrine.” The area displays a wall of family and hockey league team pictures and a prized football championship plaque that Moore and his team won in 1972 for Agincourt Collegiate in Toronto. 

Wearing his signature hat — a grey newsboy cap — he anxiously searched his Android phone to get the latest virus updates. “COVID was creating a panic that was taking over my mind,” Moore says. “Every night, I was listening to five hours of terrible pandemic news.” 

On March 11, he was alarmed to discover that the NBA was suspending all basketball games until further notice. “I was concerned, scared, and a little in denial [before that],” he says. “But when I heard that they shut down the NBA league and all the [other] sports, I knew things were terrible.” 

Two weeks later, however, Moore received an unexpected email from Lou Carcasole, 69, his former mindfulness meditation teacher. 

Moore had first heard about Carcasole’s classes in the spring of 2006 when he checked into Scarborough Centenary Hospital. “My heart was beating fast. My blood pressure was high. I thought I was near death.”

At the hospital’s outpatient clinic, a psychiatrist diagnosed Moore with an anxiety attack, whose symptoms can resemble a heart attack. The doctor also noted Moore’s Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized by restlessness and an inability to focus. The physician gave Moore a prescription for sleeping pills and antidepressants. He also recommended Carcasole’s popular mindfulness meditation classes to reduce his anxiety. 

Moore took his advice and found the classes beneficial. And then along came COVID.

Carcasole, who had taught mindful meditation to more than 4,000 students over 25 years, had to shut down his meditation groups at Centenary Hospital in Scarborough around the end of March 2020 due to COVID. But the effects of the government’s tight lockdown on people’s mental health alarmed him. “I had to restart meditation,” he decided. “We were all going crazy.”

His email to 1,400 of his former students said the guided meditations would begin, on Zoom, on March 30. “Regarding the COVID pandemic,” it read, “we know that the difference between experiencing mild or no symptoms and getting quite sick is the robustness of your immune system. Mindfulness is a stress reduction technology and has been shown to improve immune function. I can teach you to be on a path to reducing your stress levels.”

“Meditation is a game changer. Without it, I couldn’t have dealt with COVID in the last year without going into a deep depression.”

What is Mindful Meditation?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the generally assumed “father of mindfulness,” had influenced Carcasole’s mindfulness program. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn had helped shepherd the word “mindfulness” into the North American mainstream and made meditation a practice that scientists and doctors take seriously.  

Buddhist meditation practice influenced Kabat-Zinn, but his approach was to remove much of the Buddhism. “I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain flakey,” he says. He created a revolutionary system to tackle pain in chronically ill patients. He then developed mindfulness courses to undertake mental health problems. Over 2400 scientific studies support the efficacy of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness program. 

“Meditation for beginners can start with letting the body settle, letting go, and relax, into a chair, into the floor,” Carcasole says. “The basis of mindfulness is to focus repetitively on the breath, first inhaling the breath and then exhaling it. It sounds simple, but it’s hard. Positive results are usually not evident before four or five weeks, which is why almost all the scientific research on mindfulness had been based on an eight-week program.” 

Research has shown that the consistent and continuous practice of meditation reduces stress and increases the emotional and physical well-being of meditators. Long-term meditators report being more mindful in daily life and score higher on several characteristics, reflection, self-compassion and well-being.

But mindfulness is not a panacea. 

A 2019 University College London-led study found that more than a quarter of regular meditators have had “particularly unpleasant” psychological experiences related to the practice. The negative emotions included feelings of anxiety, panic, depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s mental processes or body), and thoughts of suicide.

However, the considerable success of mindfulness meditation practices in healthcare settings had sparked what is now called “the mindfulness movement,” which includes the widespread application of mindfulness practices in schools, police departments, professional sports, mass media, and even the British Parliament.

Carcasale’s decision to relaunch his classes immediately lowered Moore’s anxiety. “I was ‌feeling ‌hope ‌and ‌ excitement ‌when I ‌got ‌the‌ ‌‌email‌,” he says. He knew that consistent mindfulness practice could reduce his anxiety and diminish his severe osteoarthritis aches. He suffers from knee and hip joint pain due to over 20 years of daily running and playing hockey. The former avid hockey player requires hip and knee replacement operations. But COVID had put elective surgeries on hold. 

Eva Ligeti, 70, a University of Toronto law professor and the first Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, also received Carcasole’s invitation and eagerly rejoined his class. “In February, I was in quarantine and isolation for 14 days since I came home from the U.S.,” she says. “There were chaotic conditions and constant news of deaths. My worry just increased.”

That was also the case for Margaret Singleton, 48, a former office worker who has been on long-term medical leave and was struggling with her deteriorating mental health. Six years ago, Singleton’s anxiety attacks and depressive state were so severe that her husband took her to Centenary Hospital’s emergency department in Scarborough. She received psychiatric treatment at the hospital’s outpatient clinic. Her psychiatrist also introduced her to Lou Carcasole’s weekly mindfulness meditation program, which helped her considerably.

After COVID struck and Carcasole’s classes were cancelled, she soon experienced severe depressive symptoms, including sleeping around the clock, not eating and secluding herself from family. “I was isolated, anxious about Blair, my husband, getting COVID since he was working at Loblaws as the seafood manager, and I was worrying — what if he lost his job since he is the breadwinner.”

When she had stopped communicating with friends and family and stayed in bed, her husband became her primary support system. “Blair forced me to get up, take a shower, and made me eat,” she says. “My family have gone through hell and back with me.” 

She, too, happily received Carcasole’s email and knew she had to rejoin his classes.

Nine months later, and having meditated almost daily with Carcasole’s class, Singleton was relaxed. She wore her shiny dark hair long and had no makeup on. Her attire was a casual outfit ー navy blue sweatpants and a pink collarless cotton shirt. In her basement apartment’s storage/workspace, she was surrounded by her “cluttered office stuff” — plastic bins in disarray, books lying willy-nilly on their sides, and her cherished woodwind recorder.  

Singleton used to play her recorder during the late 90s at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Severe tendinitis in her right wrist and thumb sabotaged her playing the recorder and oboe. “Since October 2020, my wrist and hand are better,” she says. The amateur musician has picked up her woodwind instrument and performs Baroque and Medieval compositions with a group of musicians on Zoom.

“Meditation is a game changer,” she says. “[Without it] I couldn’t have dealt with COVID in the last year without going into a deep depression.” 

It has also helped to improve her relationship with her family. “I spent the week after Thanksgiving with my parents under COVID-19 lockdown less afraid, more focused, and have more energy,” she says. Meditation practice has helped decrease her antidepressant medication and has lowered the dosage of her anti-anxiety drugs by 75 percent.

Ligeti has also benefitted. “Starting meditation in [late] March reduced my stress and brought me to a situation of equanimity,” she says.

Derrick Moore reports similar results: “Lou’s meditation did more for me than the medications. Meditation changed everything.” 

He says that after nearly a year of mindfulness, “Meditation keeps me calm, and I can sleep. When I meditate, incredibly, 50 percent of my chronic pain goes away. The practice affects everything. The senses are more elevated. I notice everything on my walks, the leaves, the sky and the sounds.” Since rejoining Carcasole’s classes, Moore has had a better relationship with his wife and his 27-year-old son, who also suffers from ADHD anxiety.

On February 5, 2021, Moore had hip surgery at Stouffville hospital on the coldest day of the year. “It’s all OK. I had a ‘little’ hip replacement,” he says. “I was awake for most of the operation. I could hear the drill, but thankfully not the saw.”

Two weeks later, he had only used Tylenol for his pain, and with the support of two canes, he was taking daily one-kilometre walks. 

In March, Moore received his first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine in his right arm. 

“I did breath meditation before the vaccine shot to take the edge off,” he says. “The vaccine was a life-changing experience. It gives me a chance to get my life back. Meanwhile, the best thing I can do for myself is to continue meditating. I am more optimistic about today and the future. I feel gratitude because of mindfulness.”

Marlo Fieldstone, marlo.field@gmail.com, is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Marlo was one of 70 students who joined Carcasole’s first Zoom meditation classes. A year later, she is still meditating daily. Not all the meditators, however, had positive results. Some found sitting still for up to 40 minutes, focusing on the breath and the body, monotonous. More than half dropped out of the class.

The Weight

The pressure of making, and maintaining, a certain ideal weight leading up to competitions, has caused some weightlifters to develop eating disorders.

By Javheria Ibrahim | Featured image courtesy of Kristen Gomez | Updated April 20, 2020

Heavy beads of sweat trickle off her skin. The humid air of the outdoor gym blows over her 117-pound body as she tightly wraps a weightlifting belt around her waist.

In August 2016, five-foot-three-inch, 17-year-old Kristen Gomez tightly shuts her eyes as every muscle in her body tenses in preparation for the weight she is about to lift and for the completion that looms not far ahead. She hardens her grip on the barbell, and with a forceful breath, lifts 185 pounds in a powerful deadlift. She slams the barbell back down. The sound reverberates throughout the Miami gym as the plates on each side hit the padded floor. Her muscles tense again, for her set is not complete until she fails to lift the bar.

Two hours later, she walks out of the gym toward her Mediterranean-Revival-style Miami home. As Gomez ponders the nutritional makeup of her next meal, she envisions the enormous stack of pancakes she will eat after her show. But for now, it must remain a temptation to be avoided.

Gomez competed in seven bodybuilding shows between October 2016 and November 2017. Due to the intense and restrictive nature of preparing for a bodybuilding competition – or “prepping for a show,” as it’s referred to in the industry – many bodybuilders binge eat large amounts of food after their shows, sometimes for months on end.

Gomez was one of these bodybuilders.

Now 21-years-old, she began suffering from binge eating disorder and bulimia when she was 15. When she was an impressionable teenager, Gomez had started looking at models on Instagram. “I remember seeing them and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I looked like that,’” she says. While this motivated Gomez to begin weightlifting, it also encouraged her disordered eating habits.

From the age of three to 14, Gomez participated in gymnastics, a physically intensive sport that allows most of its athletes to stay in shape while eating large amounts of junk food.

“When I did gymnastics, I didn’t need to worry about what I was eating because I was training so hard that I was really fit no matter what,” says Gomez. “But when I quit, I kept eating the way I was eating when I was doing gymnastics but doing half the activity. I ended up gaining 25 pounds within a year.”

Magda Banas, a 22-year-old bodybuilding competitor in the bikini division, had a similar experience.

Banas, who lives in Mississauga, took part in dance and gymnastics from age five. She continued to dance until she graduated from high school, but swapped gymnastics for Taekwondo – a popular martial art – at age 15.

Having given up dance and gymnastics, and then Taekwondo after high school, Banas found herself rapidly gaining weight. She, too, needed a new physical hobby.

She pursued an interest in the human body and earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, which she began at McMaster University in the fall of 2016. Shortly after, she joined her university gym. Using the technical knowledge she was gaining from her classes, Banas began training as a bodybuilder.

“Taekwondo was much more fitness-based than dance and gymnastics were,” says Banas, “and it made me feel like a badass. I knew I wanted to do something more powerful, more fitness focused, so I started bodybuilding.”

Three years later, at age 21, Banas made her debut on a professional bodybuilding stage as a competitor in the bikini division at a local show in Barrie, Ontario in July 2019.

While Banas continues to work toward obtaining her “Pro Card” from the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness – a coveted achievement in the industry attained by few competitors – Gomez gave up bodybuilding competitively after her show in November 2017, where she was only one point away from achieving her card.

Only one year into weightlifting, Gomez was 18 when she first began competitive bodybuilding. She lost 30 pounds in two months and regained confidence in her new physique – yet she continued to struggle with her eating disorder.

“Competing for me was disordered eating in disguise,” says Gomez. “Everyone thought I was so healthy, but I was obsessed. My whole life revolved around my competitions. All that ran through my brain was, ‘when is my next meal.’ I was so food-obsessed and so obsessed with the way I looked that nothing else mattered.”

In the weeks leading up to a show, Gomez would be disciplined and diligent, not eating a single calorie more than her daily allotment. However, after every show, she would binge eat copious amounts of food. Following her final show in November 2017, Gomez began a cycle of binge eating and purging that lasted six months.

“Competing for me was disordered eating in disguise.”

This is not uncommon behavior among competitive bodybuilders. According to a study published in the European Journal of Sports Science in 2019, the top three reasons for participation in competitive bodybuilding are: “always interested in competing in physique sport (44.3%), to improve body image (37.4%), and to improve self-esteem (33.6%).”

This study identifies the latter two as prospective risks for developing disordered eating behaviours.

This suggests individuals, such as Gomez, are gravitating toward bodybuilding to ‘fix’ body image and self-esteem issues and achieve personal expectations of their ideal body weight and shape. Entering bodybuilding with this mindset puts these individuals at high-risk for developing eating disorders and body dysmorphia, as a lean and toned body must be obtained, and maintained, at all costs.

Marta Tsap – a 31-year-old three-time bodybuilding competitor from Toronto, who also competes in the bikini division – discovered bodybuilding in the fall of 2017 and began her competitive journey three months later.

Ten years above the average age of a first-time bodybuilding competitor, Tsap found that competing presented a unique set of challenges – as well as providing some wisdom.

“I find that a lot of people aren’t really prepared for the mental aspect that comes with competing,” she says. “How lean you are on stage isn’t sustainable, it isn’t realistic. But a lot of competitors come off stage and end up developing body dysmorphia because they put on a couple of pounds.”

Although Tsap did not experience this as drastically as most bodybuilders do, she has seen it happen in many of her bodybuilding friends.

According to Tsap, there are two post-show extremes:  chasing one’s ‘show-body’ by trying to stay at a very low body fat percentage year-round, or caving to the cravings that have been ignored for weeks.

Having gained 30 pounds after her first show, Tsap fits into the latter category. “Your body is just so overworked from training so hard and eating so little,” she says. “You just keep thinking, ‘When is my next meal? I want to eat already.’ It’s hard to come out of that and not binge eat.”

Body dysmorphia is another extremely common disorder among bodybuilders. A 2010 article published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience defines body dysmorphia as a psychiatric disorder in which those suffering from  it have severe misperceptions about their appearance. They believe they look overweight or underweight when, in reality, they look quite normal and healthy to others.

One example is Shemar Morrison, a 24-year-old bodybuilder from Mississauga.

Morrison was inspired to begin bodybuilding at age 16 when he saw a picture of soccer superstar Christiano Ronaldo modelling men’s underwear. He describes this moment as the seed that sprouted his passion for fitness.

“I wanted to look like him,” Morrison says. “I wanted to look more aesthetic because when I was growing up, I was always into fashion, but I was teased and ridiculed for what I wore. I didn’t want to stop wearing what I liked, but I wanted the teasing to stop.”

In order to appear more intimidating, Morrison joined a local gym. He didn’t take weightlifting too seriously for the first two years, until he graduated from high school and stopped playing football.

“I needed something to commit to after football,” Morrison says, “so at that point, I went all in. I discovered Jeff Seid, who’s a famous bodybuilder – really good-looking guy – and he was kind of my second inspiration. Ronaldo got me started on my journey, but Seid pushed me to take it to the next level.”

Only three years into bodybuilding, Morrison achieved fourth place in the men’s physique division at his first bodybuilding competition in Peterborough. Having done so without a coach – unusual in the industry – this could be seen as a great accomplishment. For Morrison, however, fourth place was an insult.

“After that show, I decided not to compete again – at least for a while,” he says. “I was just so focused on getting first place that, to me, getting fourth was a slap in the face. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough.”

Halfway through sharing this story, Morrison becomes distracted. “Should I post this [on Instagram]?” he asks, showing a picture of himself on his phone.

In the photograph, he wears a fitted white t-shirt and lime-green cargo pants. Morrison’s body looks muscular and proportioned; his shoulders are filled out, and the white t-shirt makes him look well-defined. He looks handsome in the photo, yet he asks: “I look fat, don’t I?” When assured that he looks muscular, Morrison shakes his head in disbelief.

“I was just so focused on getting first place that, to me, getting fourth was a slap in the face. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough.”

“Almost 100 percent of the people who have competed have dealt with some sort of body dysmorphia or eating disorder,” says Gomez, “and that includes the guys too. Binge eating happens to the best of the best. After a show, you’re finally able to eat [what you want], and because you’ve been starving your body during prep, it doesn’t know how to tell you when to stop.”

Accord to Tsap, this is because finding balance can really be a struggle. “After every show I’ve rebounded,” she says, “indulging in a lot of sweets, donuts and cakes. I know it’s not good, but you just can’t help yourself.”

Gomez says: “You feel so disgusting. You hate yourself, and after putting your body through that, you’re exhausted. So, you fall asleep, feeling horrible – physically and emotionally – and you promise yourself you’ll never do it again. But you do.”

Like Gomez and Tsap, Morrison dealt with disordered eating after a show.  “I started reintroducing foods I hadn’t eaten in over two years,” he says. “I guess you could call it binge eating – but not really. It was more like, I would eat junk in excess because I just hadn’t eaten it in so long. For about a year after the show, I kind of just ate whatever I wanted because, for two years prior, I had been so strict with my diet.”

During a binge eating episode, the person often loses control of their own actions. “You’re going so fast,” says Gomez, “and you’re eating anything and everything you can, to the point where it doesn’t make sense anymore – it’s not even food you enjoy, it’s just food. And you don’t stop until you feel like puking and you physically cannot eat anymore. Then you purge.”

While not every binging episode is followed by a purge, it is common belief that doing so will expel all the food that was ingested. However, the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Australia released an infographic in 2018  stating that vomiting after a binge-eating episode cannot get rid of all the calories ingested. Additionally, a well-known 1993 micro-study showed that about half the calories ingested in a single binge are retained, even when followed by a purge.

“You’re supposed to be living this healthy lifestyle, but you’re not,” says Banas. “People look at you and think ‘wow you have such low body fat, you must be healthy,’ but little do they know what’s really going on.”

While bodybuilding at a competitive level was detrimental to Gomez’s health, Tsap and Banas both enjoy it and intend to continue competing in bodybuilding shows in the near future. “You need to have the right support system in place,” says Tsap. “And you need to find a balance. You can’t always be at the gym and never eat a donut, and then feel guilty when you do eat a donut.”

For Tsap, bodybuilding enabled her to take charge of other parts of her life. “Because of competing, I gained the ability to say no, to focus on myself and put myself first,” she says. “I’m comfortable now making myself number one and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Gomez agrees: “The amount of self-discipline you gain helps you in so many other aspects of life. You’re able to accomplish anything after that.”

Despite having chosen never to enter a bodybuilding competition again, Gomez says weightlifting is still a significant part of her life. Without the pressure of competition, she finds it enjoyable and helpful to her mental and physical health. She applies this passion, and the self-discipline she gained from competing, toward growing her online business.

Now with over 106,000 Instagram followers, Gomez works on her business full-time. She has built a 12-week program to help women achieve their health and fitness goals. It includes a roster of educational videos on health and nutrition, custom healthy recipes, tailor-made weightlifting plans, and there are several more expansive projects to come.

Gomez knows that although many bodybuilders and weightlifters experience some form of disordered eating, few ever confront it the way she has. As such, she treats her clients with a level of care that most coaches may lack due to her experience with disordered eating.

Binge-free since September 2019, Gomez has overcome her eating disorder through therapy. There’s no guarantee it won’t return, but for now, it feels like a weight off her shoulders, and the rest of her body.

Javheria Ibrahim, a Toronto-based freelance writer, can be reached at javheria.ibrahim@gmail.com