By Julia Jonson
It’s hard to miss Paul Stonchus when he walks into a room. At Total Body Yoga, he’s the very tall blonde guy who rarely misses his regular classes. He gets out all of his props and finds a spot on the front row, then gives it his all. Paul says he was born this way and that his mom always encouraged him to just get out there and do it in spite of the fact that he has Cerebral Palsy. Paul was born in 1960. He suffered a collapsed lung during birth, which created a lack of oxygen to the brain which in turn caused CP. Paul grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood and could always be seen out playing determined to do what all the other kids were doing. Paul says this included sandlot baseball, hockey, football, and even some shenanigans. Pauls’s can-do attitude continued into adulthood when he entered DePaul as an accounting major then went on to the Control Data Institute where he finished an 8-month program in just 3 months! Paul landed his dream job at Microsoft last year. Paul’s current life mission is to live each day to its fullest and to create awareness about the disability he’s been living with his entire life.
J: I witness your fighting spirit in the way you practice in class. I also recognize that you show up to class, which is typically half the battle for most students. Where do your drive and determination come from?
PAUL: About six years ago I noticed I was doing fewer and fewer activities. At first, I rationalizing that I should accept that being over 50 with CP that it’s “normal” and should get used to it. Then my inner school-age self said fuck that I can do anything I put my mind to as was drilled into my head by my parents. I was just becoming sedentary like many people. While CP is not progressive, muscle tightness becomes more pronounced and debilitating. I made a personal commitment to at least one yoga session a week minimum but I really strive for 3 days a week for some exercise.
J: Describe what it’s like living with CP from a physical perspective. What are the challenges you face daily and how do you manage the additional challenges you are faced with living with a disability?
PAUL: First, there are no typical effects of CP it’s very much a spectrum under 4 major types. I have spastic CP. My spasms mostly affect the left side and neck but there are some spasms or tightness all over my body to varying degrees. As a kid, I would say it was not physically painful just frustrating that everyday activities weren’t as easy or fluid as I saw with other people. In my childhood, I wanted to play ball or ride bikes or motorcycles–so I did. I just had to figure out (and usually did) how to adapt those activities so I could participate even if not at the same level as others. As I’ve grown older those minor spasms, as well as compensatory movements in life have a cumulative effect on almost all joints resulting in arthritis, which I have in most of my joints. Soreness is a general state for me. Learning from doctors, articles, physical therapists and experience, I know the more I push through the discomfort the better I feel.
J: It seems to me that every single human being has relentless narration going on in our heads telling us we are “not enough.” I know you practice tirelessly to tame your own internal chatter. How do you do this and how has living with a disability made this both more and less challenging for you?
PAUL: I definitely do have the internal chatter, but I always knew I was different and that the people that loved and cared about me accepted me. I always realized I couldn’t change the way others saw me, but if I was doing what I wanted, I was happy so I’m not going to worry about someone thinking less of me for my physical self. I think that way is nature and nurture.
J: Describe your physical yoga practice and how it’s evolved.
PAUL: I tried yoga about 10 or 12 years ago but in a private setting which was not satisfying at all. I was putting myself in a bubble which isn’t me. When I started again at TBY my first class was a level 1 with Patricia who right from the start said do what I could, but at any point take a break in child’s pose or whatever was comfortable. I soon started to stay in basics classes not because it was easier, but I had time to find the pose and the adaption to make that pose more accessible without making it easy. My evolution is only finding the adaption I need for whatever is going on in myself. I’ve had 2 knee replacements and a torn quad tendon since I started practicing at TBY. So I meet myself where I am.
J: How do you apply what you learn through practicing poses, meditation, breathwork, and philosophy that has helped you to evolve as a person?
PAUL: I feel I have been pretty in tune with my body, but yoga continuously hones and gives me new tools to achieve more. One thing that always happens when I go to physical therapy (PT), to peel the so-called onion of my physical body, is that almost any exercise my therapist gives me is something I notice we are practicing in yoga. In general, inertia is something we can all leverage; the more we move, the easier it is to move. My practice is continuous confirmation of how I think, in general, that we all have stuff we’re dealing with and that acceptance of others and yourself brings peace.
J: You have decided to be a spokesperson for cerebral palsy and you’ve asked me and Andrew to help you get the word out. What do you want people to know about this disability that you’ve been living with since you were a child?
PAUL: I’m not sure yet. I’m mostly frustrated with the medical community and the fact that there is not enough awareness being shared by doctors about holistic ways to age easier with CP. It also extends to insurance from the standpoint that massages and PT are preventive and should be covered like flu shots are covered.
J: How do people who are not living with a disability help to create awareness?
PAUL: We all need to realize there are many disabilities and people with disabilities–many of which may not be visible. We all can strive to be more aware that we don’t know what someone else could be going through. Let’s continue to tear down biases and accept and embrace diversity.
J: You ride a motorcycle, travel and you’ve landed your dream job working for Microsoft. Congratulations! You’ve shared with me your admiration for Bill Gates. How does his wisdom inspire you?
PAUL: Bill Gates was known as an aggressive businessman who founded Microsoft and developed the technology that I love working with and that brings me great joy. I consider myself a tech nerd which is now “cool.” Bill Gates made a lot of money but has become a true philanthropist and humanitarian. He and his wife, Melinda, have founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to which they’ve pledged to donate 95% of their wealth. The foundation is pretty diverse in their intentions but much of the focus is to help improve health, sanitation, and poverty at a global level.
J: Share your thoughts on the importance of community and, more specifically, the yoga community at TBY and beyond.
PAUL: Again it comes back to acceptance. As I said before, the first time I walked into TBY I got a sense of acceptance and let’s figure out how to make this work. If we all take that approach life, in general, we could make things better and better is good. Are common theme I hear is meeting yourself where you are so why can’t we meet other people where they are? Not to sound like a broken record but let’s embrace diversity because it is diversity that makes us all better.
Paul has enjoyed a long and fruitful career path working his way up from a junior computer operator to lead programmer/analyst always leading the charge to bring new technology to the companies where he worked. Those companies include Mid-City National Bank, Mid-America Bank, Signode and now Microsoft. Paul has two daughters, Linsey and Jamie. He was married from 1990 to 2008 and now describes himself as enjoying a second bachelorhood. He says for years his life revolved around caring for his daughters. Now that his children are young adults, Paul’s hobbies include traveling and riding his Indian motorcycle.