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.


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.


Kapotasana = death

August 29, 2009

In any physical endeavor, there will be a point at which linear progress is no longer possible.

When I ran marathons, I came to a point where I understood that I had already run the fastest I was ever going to run, at least at that distance. I also came to a point where I understood that I had already bested myself at every other distance in which I was interested in attempting. Progress was no longer possible, at least not with the level of work I was willing to put in (50 mile weeks seemed like plenty good enough, and running less didn’t seem like an option at the time, although looking back now, I wonder if I might have been able to beat my fastest time if I had tried “easier” instead of trying “harder”…hmmmm).

So it is with the shape of my body. I will never be tall. I will never be lanky. I will always be muscular and sturdy (reflecting my lineage of Russian peasant stock!). Even at my absolute skinniest, I have always been a mesomorph. I suppose that I could test the theory by simply dieting down to 90 pounds and seeing if I was tall and lanky yet. OK, well, at least short and lanky, assuming that is possible. But why would I do that? I like my weight. If I were any smaller, I would not be able to buy adult clothing.

When I began practicing yoga, I never really thought about the logical ending point for linear progress. I assumed, simply, that I would keep getting stronger, keep getting more flexible. Until what? I don’t know. Until I was able to spontaneously levitate? I don’t know. As I said, I never really thought about it. I just kept at it.

When I discovered the wacky-cool poses of the Ashtanga Primary Series, I knew that I wanted to “conquer” them. And I knew that the only way I was going to do that was to go to a Mysore-style yoga shala and get individualized assistance on each pose that posed a challenge. My goal was to complete the Primary Series, unassisted.

I checked that one off the list of Things To Do Before I Die about two years ago. Not too long afterward, some new poses were taught to me. These poses are part of the Intermediate Series.

(As an aside, I would like to add that the names “Primary” and “Intermediate” are serious misnomers, given that the Primary Series includes at least six poses which are anything but elementary in nature, which the name “Primary” would seem to imply, and given that one of the most difficult backbends of which the body is capable is included smack in the middle of “Intermediate” Series.)

These new poses were fairly easy for me to learn, and much easier than many of the poses in Primary Series, several of which took me 12 to 15 months to learn. And then I got to Kapotasana, the ninth pose in the Intermediate Series (Stand on your shins, bend backwards and touch your feet with your hands: Ninth Circle of Hell, anyone?) Suddenly, I was completely incapable of progress. Sure, I could get into the pose if someone assisted me into it. And by assisted, I mean practically ripping my arms out of their sockets. Or having two assistants, one at my legs and one at my arms, simultaneously pulling my legs in the opposite direction from my torso and arms. But all of that was so traumatic for me that I began requesting that my teacher to NOT help me into the pose anymore. And I began not showing up in class at all. And after more than a year of backing off, I still shudder to think about the ripping feeling in my triceps.

At home, in my self-practice, I began to stop before Kapotasana. I would practice right up to it, and then stop right there. Or kind of go into the pose, but limply, with no effort.

Not long ago, I realized that, to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, what I’ve got here is a “dead shark”. For me, my yoga practice has always seemed to be a “shark” – needing to move forward. And when it stops moving forward, that’s death. A marathon runner would call it “hitting the wall”, except that most marathon runners can muster up the energy to “push through” the wall (if that were not true, the Willis Avenue Bridge would be known by runners as “the saddest place in Manhattan”).

As anyone who has been reading me can guess, this is a very very bitter pill for me to swallow. It is sad and painful and disturbing and disheartening to know that I have gone as far as I am ever going to go in backbends. Ever. Finito. OK, so fine. I’ve also gone as far as I am ever going to go in lawyering, in baby-making, in French cooking. So then why is hitting THIS wall so painful for me? Why is it making me cranky and bitter and sad?

The answer occurred to me yesterday as I wound up my self-practice, alone in the peaceful yoga room I installed in my house this summer, with lilac walls and French doors looking out onto the garden. In my stretched-out, sweated-out, blissed-out, post-yoga head zone, the answer smacked me in the face so hard that it literally brought tears to my eyes:

Fear of death.

Fear of death!

I had a teacher a long time ago, really a teacher’s assistant, but still a teacher to me, who would say “Fear of death” matter of factly, whenever I would express my fear of getting assisted into one particularly scary pose (Prasarita Padotanasana C, the forward bend with legs straddled and hands clasped behind the back, where the height of the pose occurs when the hands end up on the floor behind the head). And I got it. But somehow I forgot it in the four plus years since I last saw him.

Having hit the point where I can make no further physical progress in backbends, I come face-to-face with my mortality. Like, this is as good as it’s ever going to get, it’s all downhill from here, and after that, I die.

Strange really, given that I came to yoga as an affirmation of life after facing a life-threatening illness, the treatment of which was essentially cell-murder, good cells, bad cells, indiscriminately. Perhaps I feel betrayed by a system that seemed so life affirming, but is now insistently (nay, cruelly!) reminding me of my limitations as a mortal, reminding me that you start out young and innocent and full of hope, and then at a certain point you realize that you have achieved everything that you are ever going to achieve.

Then what?

I suppose that I can find a new physical endeavor that will challenge me and fill me with the false sense of hope of endless self-improvement (read: immortality). Or I suppose I can face my limitations (read: aging) with grace.

If only there were an injectable for this.