June 22, 2009
Mishell Elliston 480-861-5148
Charlotte R. Brown 602-625-3016
From Miracle to Mastery
Once dubbed “the miracle child” by doctors, Mishell Elliston credits her healthy life today to a mom and a yoga teacher who would not let her quit
by Charlotte Rogers Brown
As 5-year-old Mishell Vale was jumping rope with a neighborhood friend, she fell and hit her head on the concrete driveway. Mishell’s mother cradled her daughter’s injured head in her lap as a neighbor rushed them in her car to John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix. She was later transferred to the Barrow Neurological Institute where, after months of physical therapy, doctors declared Mishell would never speak nor walk again.
That was in 1972. Today Mishell Vale Elliston teaches yoga and medicine ball classes at her Central Phoenix studio, Eightlim Yoga—that is, when she isn’t training for and competing in triathlons. She has made it her mission to convince any doubters—with and without physical injuries—that the ability to practice yoga is well within their reach. She believes the only limitation in the way of a successful yoga practice is the false belief that it can’t be done. And she has the history to back it up.
“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” says Mishell, whose fit, athletic body belies the once bleak prognosis for her future. She credits her mother for the first phase of her recovery.
“When she took me home from the hospital, that’s when my rehab really started,” she recalls.
Refusing to allow any doctor or test result dictate her daughter’s future, Mishell’s mother devised her own physical therapy method. Using her husband’s extra belts, she strapped Mishell’s arms and legs to her own, and then went about her usual routine of housekeeping chores.
“Mom moved me around like a marionette,” she remembers.
For several months, Mishell’s life centered on relearning much of what she had already mastered before the accident.
“I had just learned to tie my sneakers and was so proud of myself, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says, recalling all the hours she spent struggling to hold a simple loop in place with her disabled left hand while completing the bow with her right. Just as soon as she finished, her mother would untie the laces and make her do it all over again. She went through similar ordeals in buttoning her shirts and zipping up her jackets.
“It was hell,” she says.
But it paid off. By the age of 10, she had become a star attraction at symposiums conducted by the Barrow Neurological Institute where—like the monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein—she was asked to skip or play hopscotch on stage in front of an audience of physicians to illustrate her remarkable progress. Through the continual repetition of simple tasks, Mishell essentially had rewired her brain around the injury, a result supported by subsequent brain scans. Doctors dubbed her “the miracle child.” Nearly all physical functioning had returned, except in her left wrist, hand and foot. There, some loss of fine motor skills remained, though her lingering disability did not keep her from trying new things, including softball and tennis. She even participated in gymnastics, though instructors banned her from the uneven bars because she didn’t have the reflexes to safely time her moves.
Over time, Mishell became adept at hiding her disability, literally keeping her hand out of other people’s view. Then at 13, she decided she wanted to become a model—partly because modeling seemed glamorous, but even more because it would force her to stop hiding. By this time, her mother’s insistence that she could do anything she wanted had rooted inside Mishell, and she was ready to prove it.
“Anything where I’d be under a microscope, I did,” Mishell says.
For the next ten years, Mishell modeled for runway shows and magazine spreads, and even won a small acting role on the pilot of a television show, “Midnight Caller.” From there, her career turned to the corporate branding industry in which she worked as a project manager for a variety of corporate identity clients.
All the while, Mishell continued to stay in shape by running and going to the gym. One day while she was peddling away on an exercise bike, she took notice of a class starting up on the other side of a glass partition. Fascinated, she inquired and learned it was a yoga class. From then on, whenever she finished her workout, she’d sit outside the window and watch—until the day the instructor invited her to grab a mat and give it try.
While running or working out on gym equipment was one thing, managing the kind of moves yoga required was entirely another. If her attempt at gymnastics had left her with anything, it was the firm belief that her left side was just too weak for some pursuits. But the instructor seemed so insistent, Mishell relented and took a spot at the front of the room.
“Through the entire class, I mostly just stood there and watched, just as I had outside the window,” she recalls. “Afterwards, I felt so defeated, I was practically in tears. I thought, ‘Why did I just embarrass myself in front of all these people?’”
That is precisely the feeling Mishell hears expressed all too often these days by others who feel intimidated at the very thought of yoga, believing they aren’t flexible enough, strong enough, young enough or coordinated enough to even attempt it. She not only empathizes with them, she knows from first-hand experience that their fear is unfounded. In her case, she decided to place her trust in her instructor and face her fear.
She began by attending class twice a week, then three times, and before long, she was hooked.
“I became obsessed with it, because I was getting strong and feeling good,” she says, adding that the practice not only improved both her sleep and her diet, it provided the impetus to serve her community. “Yoga opened me in unselfish ways.”
She credits yoga with significantly increasing strength and flexibility in her left arm, hand and foot as well as improving her overall balance, focus, self-confidence and connection with her body. She soon added medicine ball classes to enhance her core strength and help balance left and right brain activity. Freed from all her self-imposed limitations, Mishell took on the challenge of competing in triathlons, endurance events that combine swimming, cycling and running.
“There is no way I would have ever competed in any sport without the breakthrough I had through yoga,” she says. “Now I’ll go into anything without hesitation, and it’s that spirit I want to instill in my own daughter as she grows up.”
Mishell went on to earn her 500-hour yoga teacher certification through Advanced Yoga Sciences in San Francisco, CA. She is a member of the Arizona Yoga Association and the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and she recently completed Ayurveda therapy training through the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Mishell believes anyone can reap the benefits of yoga. Her clients range from athletes to paraplegics, from teens to seniors. Her advice to beginners is simple: start slow, do what you can, and trust that you will steadily improve with every session.
“No one starts out as a yoga master, just as no one is born an NBA star,” she says.
To this day Mishell does not have full use of her left hand. She’ll likely never be proficient at any activity that requires nimble fingers—such as typing or playing the violin—but she can accept that, because she can do so much more than what she once believed possible. More than what even medical experts believed possible.
“If it weren’t for my mom and my yoga trainer—if it weren’t for yoga—I wouldn’t be doing half of it.”