Life is Training

Feature on Rebecca Garland for League Magazine

Martial arts can provide a foundation for dealing with any manner of events in life, whether those experiences are in ways of improving our self-esteem, or to help another person before their time on earth comes to an end. Rebecca Garland says, “Life, I think, is training.”

Garland, 43, is a life coach that owns and operates her own coaching platform called Elan Performance. Through Elan Performance, Garland helps people with their nutrition, lifestyle and mind-body connection, along with providing a safe place for her clients to talk with her about all manner of things. With everything that Garland has experienced, she carries that compassion when talking and listening to her clients.

“As a coach, it serves me really well, because that’s one of the things that I hear often is, ‘Wow, I just feel so safe talking to you,’ or ‘you’re so easy to talk to,’” said Garland in a Zoom call.

This would not have been possible without the journey Garland has been on, which started with her experiences with Karate as a youth.

Born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, Garland tried out Karate in her grade 7 year, but it wasn’t until Garland went into high school that she pursued boxing. Boxing was up her alley with her feelings at the time with her saying, “I loved the impact.”

However, an event happened that also encouraged her to pursue boxing, on top of trying to deal with her shyness and other aspects of growing up.

Garland witnessed a friend being sexually assaulted.

There is a resolve that that will never happen again. I’ll never feel powerless to help a friend again.

“As a witness to that where I was powerless, and I wasn’t able to do anything. I made a commitment,” with Garland adding, “There is a resolve that that will never happen again. I’ll never feel powerless to help a friend again.”

That part of Garland’s life was difficult to live through since she lost a good friend to cancer, along with the passing of her grandmother. At the time, counseling was not a thing that was easily accessible, so martial arts like boxing ended up being an outlet for her.

“With a lack of emotional wisdom and resources and support to handle and manage these really intense emotions. Oh yeah, boxing was a great outlet.”

Garland left the Yukon to attend university at 17. She moved to Victoria, B.C. to attend the University of Victoria for psychology, and it was during her time there that she discovered kickboxing.

Garland learned how to kickbox and received instruction from Stan Peterec at the Peterec Muay Thai centre. Peterec is a renowned kickboxer who has won several world championships, including the Canadian Super Welterweight Kickboxing champion.

“[Peterec] was a great instructor,” said Garland, and saying, “there’s such a community, I built some really great friendships.”

Rebecca Garland hits the pads of Stan Peterec at Peterec’s Martial Arts Centre in Victoria, B.C. (Photo by Rebecca Garland).

When she moved to Calgary to continue her education at the University of Calgary for kinesiology, she decided to pursue another discipline in Muay Thai with the Mike Miles club.

“I loved everything about Muay Thai. There wasn’t a muscle that wasn’t worked in all directions,” said Garland.

“We did a ton of sparring, which I didn’t really do a lot of in Victoria, so I was really nervous, but I got decent at it. That just developed another level of confidence.”

The one thing that has remained consistent with her training has been the importance of remaining calm under threat, which has been empowering for her, with Garland saying, “Whether it was my own pursuit of martial arts; teaching others kickboxing, personal training, nutrition, successful weight loss, or RISE/Body Brilliance coaching, empowerment is my mission.”

However, at 21 years of age, Garland was diagnosed with a rare and rapid spreading form of cervical cancer. She had to undertake a minor surgery and was an outpatient for 12 years. “That really rocked my sense of identity and my trajectory,” said Garland.

Garland was told that she would need a hysterectomy by her doctor, but was later told that her cancer would come back and follow her throughout her life.

“I lived in such fear and hatred and self loathing; fear of my body, fear of what I can’t see,” said Garland.

The cause for her cervical cancer was human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is sexually transmitted, but according to the World Health Organization (WHO), penetrative sex is not required for transmission. Skin-to-skin contact is a well-recognized mode of transmission. HPV is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. Most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives and some may be repeatedly infected. It has been noted by the WHO that some people can carry HPV on their fingers.

Garland’s HPV induced cervical cancer created more fear and loathing for Garland during this time.

“I was single at the time. I was so afraid of being in a relationship. And there was a lot of responsibility I carried. I didn’t want to pass it on to anybody,” said Garland.

After 12 years of uncertainty, Garland did not want to be a victim of circumstance, so she sought ways to reclaim her power.

“I was eating poorly. I was treating myself to everything. My inner talk was awful,” with Garland saying, “My background being in psychology, I’ve always been fascinated by the placebo effect. I was like, the mind is so powerful, and the body is so powerful. So how can you heal?”

Using nutrition and other practices to help with her own body image and improving the relationship with herself, she recovered in a short amount of time.

“I was empowered. My body could heal if I listened to it. And I tuned into it. And just over the course of treating it that way, I lost fat and lost weight. That wasn’t my intention, but just treating it differently with more love, care, thought, and respect. My body just changed shape. Healed,” said Garland.

Recovering from a car accident that she was in in 2003, and her journey with her cervical cancer, Garland overcame many hardships to get to her place with her business, along with meeting and marrying her husband, Billy McKay, and overcoming her doubt in relationships, she made improvements to her wellbeing.

William McKay, known as Billy, started dating Garland in 2005, which was a time where she was still reeling with the results of her cancer.

“I know it was really heavy on her mind. For the first little while when we were together. She was still much more fresh with her diagnosis,” said McKay.

But when Garland received the results that the HPV was no longer in her system, McKay says she worked hard to ensure it happened.

“To that point, she always thought that if she did all she could to improve her immune system through her mental state and her nutrition and her physical state, her body should be able to deal with this virus, and eventually it seemed that all that hard work paid off so that was an exciting moment for her,” said McKay.

“There was this cloud hanging over her that disappeared.”

Garland ended up caring for a well known acro yoga instructor in Calgary, a practice Garland participated in that helped her develop more trust in others.

Surya Dancing Buddha, formerly known as Scot Schiebelbein, was an acro yoga instructor in Calgary that built a following with his positive attitude, but also for his love of life. Schiebelbein, who goes by the name Surya — from the Sanskrit word meaning sun — was diagnosed with level three glioblastoma in 2017, which is a rare and aggressive brain cancer that, according to the WHO, has a common length of survival of 12-15 months, and three months without any treatment or removal of the tumour. Surya was given 1-2 years to live, but lived with it for four years.

As the cancer worsened, with Surya dealing with the realities of his cancer by seeing doctors and receiving treatment, Garland became his voice and his guide.

“He’d go to a doctor’s appointment, but then leave and not remember anything that was said,” said Garland, adding, “He couldn’t make his own notes because he lost the ability to write, he lost the ability to read, and he couldn’t use his phone.”

Surya lived with Garland and her husband for a short time before he moved into a place that was five minutes away from them. This allowed them to remain close, and because of Garland’s experience with her own practice, she opted to become Surya’s medical coordinator.

“I really just kind of stepped into the role of this medical coordinator. So, communicating and coordinating his [healthcare] team, his palliative care team, his family doctor, the MAID team, all the various therapists. There was over 20 people in my phone that I was coordinating appointments for,” said Garland.

Rebecca Garland (left), and Surya Dancing Buddha, pose for cellphone picture during what would have been the Calgary Stampede in Calgary. (Photo by Rebecca Garland and supplied by her).

Garland says it could have been difficult to take care of another man while married, but McKay trusted her and believed in her resolve to help him.

“I totally trust her and admired that,” said McKay. “She’s got more integrity than anyone I know.”

“She just took the reins and it was amazing to me. It was admirable work that she put in just out of compassion and love for somebody who was really suffering. She was so compassionate and willing to take on a really tough task,” said McKay.

“It’s only because of him (Mckay) that I was able to do what I did. He was so strong and such a steady source of support for me. So patient, so trusting, so understanding, so loving,” said Garland.

Because of COVID-19, many places were closed, or in disarray with how to function and operate, with Garland saying, “There was a lot of chaos. It was almost a full-time job.”

Garland’s stepmother passed away during this time as well, which was challenging for her since there hasn’t been a gathering, nor has she been able to visit her father. This, in combination with her caring for Surya, affected her wellbeing.

“We feel emotions physically, in a combination of thoughts and feelings. As emotions are felt and held in our bodies, it’s not really surprising that my body broke down too,” said Garland.

However, through the dealings in her life, from engaging in combative sports to improve her self-esteem, to protecting her friends and finding that desire to be strong for them and herself, Garland says that giving yourself permission to break is part of the journey of life.

“When you say yes to caregiving for a friend who you know is going to die, you know you’re walking into the fire,” said Garland.

“I didn’t think I was going to break physically but I knew I was going to be heartbroken and challenged beyond where I’ve been before, which I definitely was. And I use the analogy or metaphor of a forest fire. It’s so devastating. It just annihilates everything, but then the soil is rich. And then there’s regrowth, and the forest can come back.”

I use the analogy or metaphor of a forest fire. It’s so devastating. It just annihilates everything, but then the soil is rich. And then there’s regrowth, and the forest can come back.

Surya was known for his love of play with his acro yoga practice, along with his athleticism as an athlete, and so, remained active throughout his treatment. During his time with Garland, he went on regular walks and hikes, despite his ankles and feet becoming numb as a result of his cancer; however, Surya became challenged with his physical limitations. Garland says he rose to the challenge.

Surya Dancing Buddha (left), and Rebecca Garland jump into the air for a photo in Riley Park in Calgary. (Photo by Rebecca Garland and supplied by her).

“He was often tripping, and he was kind of stumbling. He would walk really slowly. And he’s like, ‘Wow, I never considered walking exercise before.’ But instead of saying ‘Oh this sucks, I can’t walk,’ he’s like, ‘let’s do it again tomorrow,’” said Garland.

“For a guy who was so identified with his body and his smarts and his intellect, it was amazing how he just kept showing up to do his best. Never in self pity. Never,” and adding, “He got up, he was doing things, he wanted to make the most of his life. He never wasted a day being depressed in bed. He was here to live as fully as possible,” said Garland.

“After two 18-hour brain surgeries, and nearly 10 rounds of chemo and radiation, he even pushed me up the stairs one time.”

Surya died by medical assistance in dying (MAID) on August 17, 2020, in a small ceremony surrounded by those that loved him.

“I’m really glad that he had the choice, but it’s something to be so full of life and to love life so much. And to face, you know, [death] the way he did, like your last moment is to sign off on a sheet of paper,” said Garland.

“He wasn’t afraid of [death], but he didn’t want to die,” and adding, “I guess it’s both the horror and the gift of cancer that get so bad that you just beg for it.”

The event was hard for Garland, but knowing how strong Surya was, along with his perseverance in the face of death, it helped her move forward, but it also allowed her to be vulnerable.

Rebecca Garland poses in front of the Bow River on Memorial Drive and 10 Street N.W. in Calgary on April 23, 2021. (Photo by Alejandro Melgar/SAIT)

“I give myself permission to break. I’m allowed to break, and I know I’ll build back stronger. I will come back stronger every time. There’s a strength to letting ourselves be wherever we are. I think it’s in the holding everything together, and the unwillingness to break, that we risk shattering,” said Garland.

Like with a boxing match, as Garland describes Muhammed Ali and his own perseverance in the ring, using his quote, “Inside of the ring or out, there’s nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”

It’s important to get up and keep fighting and persevering through any stage in life, it is how we grow and learn, with Garland saying, “Every successful martial artist, fighter and boxer has gotten knocked down at some point, and those are the times we learn the most. It’s in our resilience, our ability to get back up – our rising – that we become that much stronger, able and wiser,” said Garland.

“Life, I think it’s like training because that’s what training is. At the gym when you train and break down muscles, your muscle tissue, your muscle fiber; that’s uncomfortable and it hurts. And it hurts for a while afterwards, but then the muscle builds back stronger,” said Garland.

“You’re purposely choosing discomfort and getting used to being uncomfortable. And so, I think training, specifically martial arts, is the best training for life.”

Feature photo: Rebecca Garland poses on the Crescent Height stairs in Calgary on April 22, 2021. Garland regularly runs on the stairs every week, even in the cold weather. (Photo by Alejandro Melgar/SAIT)