"You are not your illness. You have a name, a history, a personality. Staying yourself is the battle."
I was recently asked how yoga had specifically helped me through my experience with cancer — and there are many ways. Some are more basic than others. Before cancer, yoga always felt like a spiritual adventure and practice. In the beginning, I was attracted to the meditative and gestural qualities. Those elements were already deeply embedded within my artistic practice, so there was a natural and easy connection for me. Both art and yoga have exhibited immense power in changing one's mood, outlook and spirit. There is also a practical side to all things art and in yoga that I believe to be quite special and beneficial.
Post diagnosis I was thrown into a 'put your money where your mouth is' moment regarding my yoga practice. What was it exactly? How encompassing was it, and what did it include? All of the things that I had been teaching my students were to be put to the test. At some point the authenticity of whether or not I actually believed what I had been teaching — or how deeply I practiced came up. Because I did not, and still do not physically practice yoga (asana) on a daily basis, I struggle at times with the idea of dedication. The truth is however, that there are many daily layers to the practice of yoga, which includes more than the physical practice of poses. My practice is mine and it looks different from anyone else's. There is no rigid law. Overall, this cancer vacation was an exercise in many things including integrity. I was unsure about how my little bit of knowledge and, the yoga practice that I had would work for me. I had no idea how I would get through the cancerous task that was placed in front of me. I was overwhelmed and could not then understand how I would be changed by just moving through the experience in the ways that I naturally employed.
I pulled on my belief in some basic spiritual ideologies and lessons of yoga philosophy. In 'The Bagavad Gita', I consider the story of Arjuna and Krishna to be most existential. Arjuna is at a crossroad having to decide what to do. He is torn between the difficult task that he is being called for, and the potential consequences of showing up for that or not. He is meant to grow into the powerful warrior that he already was. That is his calling and the road upon which he is to learn what he is made of. That road, like the many we all travel in a lifetime, is the bridge that links who we were, to whom we grow into being. Cancer was one of many for me. I didn't want that on my plate, nobody would. It took all of my emotional strength to show up for the endless amount of doctors appointments that were scheduled to get me through. The yoga lessons to which I had been previously connected were helpful towards my resolve. I now realize that I was becoming more of the person that I already was. And because this is life, there are always more bridges ahead.
My life was navigating a major change and I was preparing for the unknown that was to come. In each of the bite sized moments that I struggled to move through, I naturally looked for ways to be comforted within myself. It was the act of chanting that helped me to connect to a higher sense of what life is meant to be —calm and full of breath. And you can't get more personal than one's own voice and breath. Each are intrinsically part of the individual and, as I look back on my experience, both became important symbols of strength and support that I was able to offer myself. While chanting or singing employs the physical action of using the lungs and the voice, the practice of breathing (Pranayama) instinctively kicked in while I was laying in the MRI machine. And, when I was getting measured for the radiation treatment, (which I ultimately denied), the act of getting oxygen into my lungs and body through full breaths went a long way to sooth my nervous system and reduce anxiety.
If you've ever woken up in the hospital after a surgery, you know how disorienting and anxiety ridden that experience can be. 'Where am I? Am I still me? Did everything go okay?' Then, eventually what happens is that the anesthesia wears off and your organs begin to return to their natural functioning. You begin to relax and then it hits you...I have to pee! When I had that incredible revelation post double mastectomy, I was sure the nurses would help me up and escort me to the bathroom. Instead, one of them brought me a bed pan. Seriously? Then a new level of reality truly began to set in. And there was another surprising and rudimentary opportunity for my yoga practice to kick in and support me. See, although I was on pain killers, I felt a bit sore (to say the least). I knew that simply jumping onto a bed pan could cause me great physical pain. So what did I do? I automatically broke down bridge pose, (Setu Bhandasana), in my head! In retrospect, it was actually brilliant. My mind and body protected and served me. As I prepared to safeguard my chest by keeping it as still and as steady as I could, I bent my knees and planted my feet firmly on my hospital bed. I then pressed into my shoulders and the back of my head and lifted my hips to accommodate the bed pan. Weak from surgery, that endeavor was quite a lot. Who would have known or anticipated that? Once repeating that action in reverse, I realized how much effort that had taken for me. I was exhausted and spent! As someone who was strong and quite physical pre-surgery, I wondered what or how anyone who was less active or, not at all agile would handle that seemingly simple act of mounting a bed pan? This is as basic as it gets, people. Having some understanding of my body and anatomy, I was able to minimize the strain on my muscles by engaging others. In doing that, I also got a glimpse at and an understanding of how I would be able to use my body and my mind to care for myself!
Just one day later, when released from the hospital, we all thought I would struggle to get up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. However, considering all that my body had been through, I walked each flight with relative ease. That was cool! However, the nurses who would visit me for the next couple weeks, didn't seem to fair as well - lol. Within a couple days, at home sporting JP drains pinned to the inside of my baggy hoodie, I began to practice a sequence of standing poses —just because I could! I wanted to see what I was capable of doing. I was also determined to hold on to my sanity and what I was able to do made me feel good and more like myself. Because my chest was clearly vulnerable, I took care by holding my hands in prayer as I practiced Warrior I to High Lunge. From High Lunge to Warrior II. From Warrior II to Standing Upright in a Straddle. From Standing Upright in Straddle to Goddess pose. From Goddess pose to Warrior I. Once done with that, I repeated the sequence on the other leg and alternated for a few more rounds. It was significant, and more than enough in the moment to remind me that my legs and back— (my body) remained strong. More importantly, I then realized that my brain, my heart and my possibilities were not to be limited by cancer. I was determined that that, be so, but it took some work.
As a student, walking into my first Yoga for Cancer® class (y4c.com) less than three months later, I was bitter and feeling inconvenienced. It was all surreal and I felt broken, angry, and as though my life was severely compromised. I had began to doubt that I would ever regain my practice— or feel completely whole again. I was miserable. But in that first class which did not include one downward facing dog, I was re-connected to what was yet strong in my body in a way that minimized what I had considered to be weak, fragile, deteriorated, broken and dis-eased. That y4c class gave me hope, encouragement and joy. It was a home coming. I was at home —in my own body. In that very moment, my body had begun to feel like mine again. I was re-connected to it. For the first time in the long 6-months since my cancer diagnosis, while breathing and moving in a room with others again, in that class was the first time I truly FELT like I was going to be alright. Suffice to say that it was not too long, after that I returned to my regular practice for which I continue to feel lucky and grateful.
I've never had a substantial injury to bounce back from, so navigating post cancer and surgeries was an experience for which I had no reference point to help inform me. I just rolled with what felt right. As a result, the spiritual and life changing power that yoga has offered me much. By the steadiness of the breath and using my body a little bit at a time, I become encouraged enough to do a little more when I felt stronger— which allowed me to become stronger. In the end, I was stimulated and eager to do more! Engaging the elements of my yoga practice along the road to recovery, was the bridge that lead me back to me.