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.


When all else fails, believe harder, recruit bigger

September 8, 2009

If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.” – Leon Festinger

A prediction had been made that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.   A group of believers in this prophecy took strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief, which included that believers would be “saved”  by a flying saucer (!) that would rescue “true believers”.   They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer.

Leon Festinger, a psychologist, theorized that the inevitable disconfirmation of the prediction would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing.

In order to study his theory, Festinger and some colleagues infiltrated the group (cult).  They observed the following:

  1. Prior to December 2o, the group shunned publicity. 
  2. By the afternoon of December 21 (at which time, it is clear that the prophecized event has failed occur), the group began to actively and aggressively seek to spread its message and entice others to join. 

Interesting on so many levels.   Religion, yoga, human behavior in general.


Why I failed as an Atheist….or, how I tried nothing and failed epically

August 30, 2009

I tried to believe in nothing. And I failed. It was simply too difficult for me to let go of a belief in God that is as innate to me as the English language.

I was born into a secular Jewish family. We observed the holidays as cultural events. The existence of God was implicit, even as I went to public school and studied science and learned about evolution. No one forced me to believe in God. No one even told me to believe in God. No one told me to pray or taught me to pray.

I don’t remember the first time I talked to God, but I think that it was around the time that I read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?“, which puts my age then at around 10. A pre-adolescent with lots of confusing thoughts going round in my head, I liked how the main character seemed to get something emotionally satisfying out of talking to God. And so I did the same. I liken it to when having read “The Diary of Anne Frank“, and taking note of how Anne framed her diary entries as letters to her imaginary friend, Kitty, I decided that I too would frame my diary entries as letters to a friend.

Essentially, I gave myself a friend to talk to, when I was, in essence, talking to myself. It was totally unrelated to any real belief in God’s existence. But it felt good.

My first and possibly only brush with the “dogma” of my religion was when I asked my parents about Jesus Christ. They told me there was no such thing. I asked them to clarify. Did they mean that there was no such deity, or no such man? They answered that Jews were “supposed to” not believe that Jesus Christ had ever existed. This didn’t make sense to me. Why would it matter if Jesus Christ was a man? And why should anyone be telling me what I should and shouldn’t believe?

I put that aside though. It seemed like a minor flaw in an otherwise satisfactory religion. Not that I participated much in my religion. My family never went to synagogue, didn’t even belong to one. It was more that being “a Jew” defined me culturally. It gave me brisket and bagels and some holidays to celebrate around the dinner table.

As an adult, I did not join a congregation until my firstborn son was ready to enroll in preschool, and then, it was only because we were required to do so by his preschool, which was part of Park Avenue Synagogue. For years, we drifted along as barely-participating members of this congregation, drifting anemically into enrolling our sons in the Hebrew School, then leaving Park Avenue Synagogue for a less rigorous Hebrew School, then leaving the city and joining a synagogue with a Hebrew School that was so lacking in rigor that it doesn’t even call itself “Hebrew School”, but rather “Jewish Identity Education”. Finally, this past year, we have found ourselves drifting rather lacksidasically towards my older son’s Bar Mitzvah.

It wasn’t until we attended a training session for parents of Bar Mitzvah age children that I was jarred out of my trance. It was at this training session that our rabbi basically summarized the Torah (the first six books of the Bible) in an hour’s time. He started with the Garden of Eden and he ended with the death of Moses. As a lover of literature, I expected to be delighted with by the stories that are told over and over again throughout literature, drama and music, whether directly or as metaphor. Instead, all I heard was this:

“God built, God destroyed what he built, God rebuilt, God destroyed it again. God was angry, God was proud, plague of this, plague of that, flood, fire, destruction, war, slaves, more death, my way or the highway. The end.”

I walked out of that lecture traumatized. This God that the rabbi spoke of, that the Bible spoke of, could not be benevolent. He certainly couldn’t be my imaginary friend. This God was vindictive, arbitrary and capricious, like a child, building towers out of Legos and then smashing them to bits. And if God were not really anything like that, the Bible was still glorifying a God that could kill entire races because they displeased him.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that using the Bible as a reference, one might suppose that the Holocaust was evidence that the Jews had displeased God, and that God was simply cleaning house. My mind reeled: Hurricane Katrina as God’s will? Children with cancer? Orphans? Plane crashes? Of course, intellectually, I understood that the Bible was written by people who witnessed, or were told of, terrible events, and were simply trying to make sense of it. So, either, I couldn’t believe in this God, or I couldn’t tolerate the Bible as anything more than the rantings of scared, primitive people who needed to believe that there was a reason for all of the things that frightened and displeased them.

I decided to reject the Bible. And that was no small feat given that the Jewish religion is based on the Torah, on celebrating the Torah, on revering the Torah (for God‘s sake, we KISS the Torah, as if it were a living being). But I decided that no one could tell me how to be a Jew. And I decided that I could tolerate my son having a Bar Mitzvah, so long as I told him that he doesn’t have to “believe” in the Torah to participate in the ritual (he had already expressed his own doubts in the existence of God, which makes him vaguely agnostic, but still a Jew).

Not long after this, I was talking to my brother-in-law, who I like to refer to as an “Extremist Atheist” because of his efforts to convert the entire world to atheism, and his epic intolerance for anyone who believes in God, about my decision to reject the bible. I told him that my feeling was that the Bible is the problem, as opposed to God, that I could believe in God but not believe that he was single-handedly responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.

My brother-in-law’s reply was to ask me this: “What evidence to you have that God exists?

I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. But I had no answer beyond, “How could this world exist without intelligent design?” And even I knew that that was not “evidence”. You might call it “faith” of sorts, because “faith” cannot exist except in the face of a LACK of evidence. But still, it wasn’t evidence, and I knew that.

And for lack of a better answer, I decided, “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

Except I couldn’t stop talking to my imaginary friend, God. And I felt weird trying to not use the word “God” in sentences like, “God knows…” and “God help us” and “Oh my God!” But mostly, I couldn’t stand the idea that there is no greater power out there, and I couldn’t tolerate my own hubris at denying the existence of something that might be beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand a word of what Stephen Hawking writes, but that doesn’t mean he’s a raving lunatic. I don’t know if there is life on other planets, and I certainly have no evidence of it, but wouldn’t it be a bit short-sighted to refuse to believe that there could be?

And so, as quickly as I made the decision to reject God, I made the decision to stop rejecting God. I know that isn’t saying a lot. But it’s enough for me. Sure, I’m still not a fan of the way God is presented in the Bible. Sure, I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people or otherwise. Sure, I don’t like how religion has been and continues to be the root of so much violence. But having that “imaginary friend” is a comfort to me in my life. And I don’t presume to know anything more than that. Which is kind of the point, I think. Isn’t it?