What Yoga Can Do For Breast Cancer Survivors…

October 9, 2009

[I decided to include this one in its entirety, as it was published on the Huffington Post:]

When I first came to yoga, it was as a breast cancer survivor.

Technically speaking, it was as a breast cancer patient, since I had already had my double mastectomy with reconstruction and was then smack in the middle of six months of chemotherapy and hadn’t even started my six weeks of radiation or the year of Herceptin (the targeted therapy specifically approved for my particular disease) that was scheduled into the next year or so of my life (assuming there would be a next year or so of my life, which crazily enough, I always assumed).

Why call myself a survivor when I had so much more left of “being a patient”? Because I knew that I was going to have to survive in order to get to the end of that ambitious treatment plan. Ha. That was supposed to be funny. But I sense it fell flat. Well, no worries, cancer jokes often do fall flat. Just like my reconstruction. Badumpbum. Sorry.

Anyway, in those first few months of practicing yoga in between infusions in the chemo room and not being able to drag myself off the couch due to bone pain (caused by the drugs) and exhaustion (caused by the anemia caused by the drugs) and depression (caused by the fact that I had cancer) and projectile vomiting the one Fresca that I thought I could keep down, I felt pure joy whenever I stepped on the mat. And this was despite the fact that the yoga I practiced involved staring at yourself in a mirror as you attempted to do the poses. What stared back at me was a bald, bloated, blown-up, facsimile of me. But I liked her moxy. I liked the fact that that hideous doppleganger in the mirror stared straight back at me and dared me to move my body in ways that I hadn’t thought possible since I was a cheerleader in high school. And when I sneered at her and looked away in disgust, she still caught my eye and dared me to look back at her.

Only for yoga would I drag my anemic, depressive, bloated ass off the couch and make the journey from east side to west side via crosstown bus. Not even for my kids would I do that. For them, I would just send the nanny. But for the yoga, it was me or no one. So, I went. Because I knew that if I could just get through the many confrontations I would surely have with that bloated, bald bitch in the mirror, I would roll up my mat feeling strong and powerful, as if every ounce of chemical toxin had been wrung from my body while I was too busy fighting with my image in the mirror to pay attention.

After I finished with all the treatments, the love for yoga continued. As it often happens with yoga, the love for it is so intense that it transforms into a desire to spend as much time as possible doing it, learning about it, meeting others who do it, and ultimately…bringing others into it. Like a missionary. Or a Shake-lee representative. The logical next step then is to attend a “teacher training” where you can spend hours practicing yoga each day and learning about the history of yoga, the future of yoga, and “find your voice as a yoga teacher”, as is often said. By yoga teachers.

And that is what I did. And although I taught at mainstream yoga studios and gyms, my primary focus, at least at the outset, was teaching breast cancer patients/survivors. I found most of my students through theYoung Survival Coalition, which is a reflection of the fact that my particular interest was breast cancer patients who were like myself at the time of my own diagnosis: under 40, dealing with a life-threatening, life-altering illness at a time in our lives when we were supposed to be getting married, having babies, raising children, going great-guns in our careers. With breast cancer taking center stage in our lives, none of that could take center stage. It was all about hoping to survive, dealing with the way surgery made us feel bad about our bodies, the way chemo took away our beloved hair (I don’t care who you are or what your hair looked like before chemo; if you lose your hair to chemo, it’s the loss of your “beloved hair”) or made us gain weight when we should have been thin, or took away our ability to have children, perhaps, or to have children without high tech interventions, or to take care of your children the way you want to because you’re took sick and too tired and too depressed to do anything but hand them off to your nanny, your husband, your friends.

We started out as a small group and remained a cohesive group for nearly three years. During that time, we would meet once a week and do pretty much what I did with all of my students who were not dealing with breast cancer. We made shapes with our bodies and used our hands and our arms to lift our bodies and our core strength to stay balanced. We bent pretzel-like and not-so-pretzel-like. We complained about backbends and struggled to do them anyway. We burned a lot of calories, we sweat buckets. We laughed at ourselves and we began to make peace with our bodies. Maybe they weren’t pristine and teflon-like, able to shrug off illness with nary a mark upon us. But they still worked. They still did pretty much of what we asked them to do, and usually more. Maybe we couldn’t totally trust them anymore, now that we had experienced the betrayal that was breast cancer. But we found that we could, nevertheless, enjoy some good times with them.

Technically, our group disbanded because I left New York City for a life in the country. But in truth, I sensed that my girls were ready to move on, that they had already graduated out of our little club. None of us were really “living with breast cancer” anymore. All of us, in all other ways, had gone back to our regularly scheduled lives, our husbands, our lovers, our friends, our kids or our dreams of kids. All of us had thick, beautiful hair once again. None of us were fat and bloated anymore. All of us had made some level of peace with our bodies – with the changes that breast cancer brought and with the notion that never again would we feel entirely safe against a possible upheaval wrought by a rogue cell. Sometimes it is a more uneasy peace than others. But that puts us all at about the same level of peace with our bodies as, well, most women of our age. What made our group lucky, in the end, was that we were now experts at the negotiation. And we knew it.

Although every single one of my students is alive and well today, yoga cannot guarantee breast cancer survival. But what I learned, and what I believe my students learned, from our “Yoga For Breast Cancer” class is that yoga can reacquaint and reconnect you with your body, no matter what that body has been through.

YC


What yoga can do for breast cancer survivors

October 8, 2009

What Yoga Can Do For Breast Cancer Survivors as featured on The Huffington Post.

YC


Dropbacks are back!

October 5, 2009

It’s not “important” that I am able to do drop-backs. But NOT being able to do them as a result of breaking my hand, and thinking that I was never going to be able to do them again because of a combination of factors (age plus too many months of NOT doing drop-backs plus arthritic wrists plus fear plus pessimism and an aversion to all things painful) was a weight on my shoulders, so to speak. I thought about it often, I have to admit. Not a LOT of thought, but a little thought a lot of times over the past few months.

Today, I had a very nice practice and just WANTED to drop back and really had this feeling that it would be okay. And it was. I landed softly. No pain. It felt peaceful. Much more peaceful than pushing up into a backbend.

When will I ever learn that the practice is going to be there for me? Will I ever?

YC


Why won’t my leg stay behind my head?

October 1, 2009

Kind of a rhetorical question.  I mean, if my hips were flexy enough, I would put my leg behind my head and it would just be happy to stay there.  As it is, it feels like my leg muscles are made of really really strong rubber bands…I can get the leg there just fine.  But then….sproing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At least there is some possibility, I suppose, whereas with Kapotasana, I just don’t see it ever happening. My body just doesn’t want to bend that way. Even Ustrasana is getting painful these days, when I try to keep my legs at right angles to the floor. Wonder what that’s about. Perhaps having been forced to take the summer off from backbends? Or perhaps I’m just starting to really feel my age. I want to say that without shuddering. But it’s painful. Yes, it is. Better than the alternative. But painful, nevertheless.

YC


I’ll sleep when I’m…in bed.

September 26, 2009

A few weeks ago, I made plans to meet a friend at the CT Shala.  I made the plans in good faith, thinking how nice it would be to meet up with him (we went to college together although we only know each other through the cyber-shala world) and to see some real life friends who practice with Val regularly.  Ah, good intentions.  Apparently, they are exactly where the rubber meets the road: I woke up on the appointed morning and couldn’t get myself out of bed.  I tried, at first, to blame it on being tired.  I wasn’t used to waking up early to practice within someone else’s time frame.

It bothered me to think that I didn’t have the discipline to wake up and get out of bed for practice.  It bothered me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about it…until I realized that not being able to get out of bed for shala practice was the symptom, not the problem.  The truth?  I just didn’t WANT to anymore.

I sent my apologies and noted, “My practice is just not shala-ready.”

But even as I wrote it, I knew that it wasn’t exactly true.  I mean, when I started my Mysore-style practice at Guy’s shala (actually, my very first practice ever was at Eddie’ Stern’s, but Guy’s shala was my first habitual place of practice), I was very much an Ashtanga beginner.  I could barely bind Marichyasna A or B and couldn’t bind C or D without help.  Supta Kurmasana was impossible without a towel between my hands.  I couldn’t really even get to Supta Kurmasana without getting winded.  I had no almost no backbend practice at all, and my Upward Facing Dog was nearly flat.  Yet every day, I went to practice.  Every day, I relished the experience, looked forward to it.  On the rare occasion when I couldn’t get to practice for the late morning session, I went early.  Or I came in the evening.  It didn’t matter that I was humbled by the practice.  I went anyway.  It didn’t matter that it was difficult for me, and that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to complete the Primary Series.  I went anyway.

So, not shala ready?  What did that even mean?

What it means is that I am no longer willing to put myself in the hands of a Mysore-style teacher.  Not that there is anything wrong with Val or Guy or Kimberly or any of them.  It’s me.  It’s my unwillingness to have my practice interrupted with assists I don’t want or need.  It’s my unwillingness to NOT add in a set or two of Jivamukti-style sun salutations between Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B, if I want to.  Or to add a set of Gomukhasana arms in before Parvotanasana.  Or to add in a set of pigeon poses and a Hanumanasana before the Warrior poses.  Or to do Pasasana after Marichyasana D instead of waiting until MILES later, after my body has long since forgotten twists.  Or to add in all the leg-behind-head poses either before OR after Supta Kurmasana, just because I feel noodley and want to explore.  Or to save all of the backbend poses for dead last so that I can warm up my back and my arms before having to press up into full wheel.

It’s my utter lack of receptivity to hearing that my breath should be louder.  Or that I might want to consider bending my elbows in Upward Dog.  Or to being treated to a midpractice jump-through workshop.

I just want to do what my body wants to do.

But truth be told, there is more than that.  There are things that make me cringe about shala practice, things that I never thought would make me cringe.  Things like American teachers pretending to speak like Indians (“you take”, “you do”).  Things like practicing before an altar with a photo of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Things like students bowing before the altar, putting their hands in prayer over their head.  Why?  Why the bowing, sure, but WHY the prayer over the head?  What does that even MEAN?  Things like that requisite “Namaste” and bowing to the teacher upon leaving the shala.  Things like being required to take Savasana.  I NEVER take Savasana.  I’ll sleep when I’m in BED.

And the worst thing of all: the impetus to perform.  I.  Just.  Can’t.  Anymore.  I just can’t.  I don’t wanna.  People who comment here sometimes ask me, what happened to me?  Who hurt me in the Ashtanga world?  Who insulted me?  Who made me feel  small?  Honestly?  Nothing and no one.  It’s all me.  I just started waking up to the fact that I don’t want my workout (and YES, I have never been anything but honest about the fact that this is my workout) to be under someone else’s scrutiny.  I want it to be for ME.  I don’t want to do it for YOU, or for YOU or for YOU or for Teacher.  I want to do it for me.

Yet…there I am on my mat, at home, but still imagining the audience.  I still imagine what Teacher would think, what Teacher might say.  When I practice Pasasana after Marichyasana D, I imagine the Hypothetical Teacher saying, “Yes, but it is EASY to do Pasasana when you’ve JUST done two deep twists before it.  Try doing it COLD.  Then you’ll REALLY be an Ashtangi.”   When I do all the backbends in a row, same thing.  And sometimes I become present enough on my mat to remember that there is no reason why it has to be done THAT way, instead of THIS way, except that someone said it.  One person said it.  And that person changed his mind quite often.

Until I can get to that place where I know I am doing this practice for me, until I get to the place where that Hypothetical Teacher is accepting of my body exactly as it is each day, and doesn’t mind when I give that body exactly what I know it needs, I won’t be comfortable doing my practice in a shala anymore.

In truth, I hope that someday I WILL be able to practice in a shala again.  I’d even like for that day to be tomorrow.  I just know that it isn’t.  For now, I’m in recovery.  Shala recovery.

YC


For yogis only

September 6, 2009

I don’t keep up with many of the yoga blogs anymore, but among those that I do peruse regularly, I have noticed a dropoff in posting.  One, in particular, has had virtually no yoga posts at all in the past week or so.  Whenever someone posts like a lunatic about this pose, that pose, this strategy, that strategy, yoga yoga yoga, blah blah blah and then screeches to a halt, I gotta wonder: what’s going on?  Are they injured?  Disgruntled?  Oh, wait, that would be me.  But maybe I am not the only one who simply gets tired of writing about the same poses on and on and on and over and over and over.

I haven’t written about asana at all lately, so, I figure it’s time to set the record straight, in case anyone is wondering:  Yes, I am still practicing.  I was supposed to meet a Facebook friend at the CT Shala last week, but I couldn’t wake up, and I ultimately attributed it to the fact that I cannot stomach showing up at any Shala right now, where I would have to explain that I want no assists due to my still healing hand/wrist/thumb, that my jump throughs are kind of inconsistent for the same reason, that I have NO Urdhva Dhanurasana at all, for the same reason.  But it was more than that too:  I like to do my practice exactly as I need it on any given day.  Today, for example, I needed to do about 20 Surya Namaskar A’s to start out.  I just kept doing them until I felt as loose and sweaty as I wanted to be.  There always seem to be some variations thrown in to reflect what I feel that I need on any given day.  And I hate to give those up just to practice in a shala.

Is that rigid of me? Attached?  Maybe.  Or maybe, I just like the joy I get out of something that is incredibly harmless: moving my body the way I want to.  So, maybe rigid, maybe attached, but still, I had to be true to myself.

Where is my practice these days?  I have decided to put all of my focus on leg-behind-head poses.  Since I still can’t push up into a backbend without the wall for support due to my bum right hand, I have decided to give backbends a rest.  SO, what I do is, I frame my practice around Primary, and when I get to Mari D, I often add in a Pasasana for added shoulder flexibility.  Then I move straight onto Kurmasana, hold it for a loooong time, until I feel soft.  Then I work on Supta Kurmasana, which is quite painful to my hand unless I have someone to rotate my hands into the exact right position for me.  Lately, I have had someone.  Either the husband or one of the boys.  When I don’t have someone, I usually take Yoga Nidrasana and then go back to Supta K, hoping to have softened things up some more.  Then, no matter how things go in Supta K, I always do Eka Pada Sirsasana on both sides, along with some softening-up stretches beforehand.  I think I am making some progress in these, which is nice and contrasts with the backbend hell, where there never is any progress and each day holds its own (usually not good) surprises for me there.

After I am holding Eka Pada Sirsasana satisfactorily, I will get back to attending to backbends.

After the LBH sequence, I just finish up Primary, and I sometimes add some of Second Series’ backbends, or not.  Then a quick finishing.  It’s been good this week.  Practiced five times in total.

I would like to practice four or five times next week, and make sure to run at least once.

So, that’s where things are.  Yes, I’m still practicing.  But I am getting further and further away from anything resembling Ashtanga, and from anything you might consider “shala ready”.

YC


The truth that is sweet

August 30, 2009

is boring.

The truth that you don’t want to acknowledge is soooo much more interesting.

Lisa, aka Bindi, or Bindifry has suggested, quite wisely, I might add, that I practice Second Series but execute a soft Kapotasana and not feel bad about it. I am intrigued by this idea. But it scares me. Is it an acknowledgement of defeat? Or worse, if I wave the white flag for one pose, is it just a matter of time before I begin applying that rule to another pose? And then another? Until I have lost all semblance of discipline? Until I have spun totally out of control? Until I am just a lazy blob sitting on the sofa eating bonbons? Until I’ve gone catatonic and the kids no longer know me. And the kids become derelicts. And they end up in jail. And so on.

Silliness, I know. But the notion of really committing to letting go of fruitless effort (notice, how I qualify “effort”; it would be too much to ask of me to let go of fruitFULL effort, and why would I want to anyway?) scares me. There’s comfort in repeatedly slamming my head into a brick wall. Really. There is. It’s a form of denial. Running full steam into that wall, time after time, allows me to forget that I am failing to conquer this particular challenge. Allowing myself to “go soft” would require fully accepting that it’s never going to happen. Imagining endless horribles arising from simply letting go of effort in Kapotasana and moving onto the next pose as if Kapotasana either weren’t there at all, or simply didn’t matter, distracts me. It keeps me busy and keeps me engaged in the effort.

Well, enough already.

This summer, after a stalled effort, I finally tapered fully off of my SSRI. I spent the entire summer slowly, slowly calibrating smaller and smaller doses until the level of drug in my system was below 1/100th of a milligram. On the whole, I feel fantastic. But I am still getting used to being able to cry again, something I have barely been able to do in the past seven years of SSRI-gobbling. And I am still getting used to feeling my feelings, in general. But it’s good. It’s worth it, I think. Even if it’s not forever, even if someday I decide to go back on something because I now know how peaceful life can be when you’re just a little numb, I’m liking feeling my feelings again. Maybe letting go of Kapotasana can be like that.

Maybe without the veil of effort, I will actually be comfortable saying, “No, I can’t.” Maybe I’ll find that it’s okay, and the parade of horribles never arrives. Maybe I’ll be able to take the lessons learned there and apply them to my life in general:

– No, I can’t stop myself from getting older.
– No, I can’t stop my kids from growing independent of me.
– No, I can’t love what I’m doing 100 percent of the time.
– No, I can’t burn the candle at both ends.
– No, I can’t make one choice and still have the other choices available to me.

Maybe.

And speaking of maybe, I MAY BE, scratch that, am SUPPOSED TO BE, going to the CT Shala tomorrow morning, bright and early, 8:30 a.m. Will I be able to do it? I want this one to be “Yes, I can.” Hold me accountable to this. Please. Make fun of me mercilessly, if it turns out that I sleep through.

YC