Cancer and Yoga

I’ve wanted to write a post about yoga for a long time. I keep running it around in my head, trying to find something compelling to say about it. The trouble is that I can remember what my attitude used to be to people that tried to convince me to try yoga. They often seemed evangelical. I wondered how anyone could get that excited about an exercise class.

Now I laugh at my own ignorance. Yoga is so much more than an exercise class but I don’t expect you to take my word for it.

I suppose the best thing to do is to just tell my story.

I really do hope that, after reading this, you go and try out a few yoga classes and that you go for long enough to get over the perfectly natural embarrassment you feel when trying something new. I honestly believe it will be worth it. And if you don’t, that’s okay too.

I started yoga about five years ago, before I’d been diagnosed with cancer. My friend, Trish, says that everyone in a yoga class has a back story, many of them involving chronic illness or mental health issues, but my reasons for starting were much simpler; I couldn’t stand on one leg.

I’d joined the gym and one of the staff was studying to be a personal trainer. She asked if I’d like a free fitness assessment. When she tried to check my balance I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t keep one foot off the ground for longer than a few seconds. She told me that loss of balance is common as we age and one of the reasons elderly people have so many falls. I was in my late 40’s and hardly geriatric. She recommended yoga.

I’d been diagnosed with fibromyalgia many years before. It’s a chronic pain condition that feels a lot like that ache you get when the flu is about to hit you, or, ironically, like the ache you get if you overdo it at the gym. When I explained this to Emma, the resident yoga teacher, she told me to find my ‘intelligent edge’, not to hurt myself, to practice non-violence towards myself. I spent about half the class in a position called ‘pose of a child’.

But I kept going.

Thoughts of broken hips and walking frames motivated me. For the first month or so I felt like this:

funny-cartoon-fist-time-yoga

I love this cartoon. I think it sums up beautifully the reasons why a lot of people give up on yoga. It can be intimidating to be in a room full of people that seem to be able to bend themselves like pretzels. Then there’s the weird Indian names for positions and the weird Indian music. Although I did very quickly come to find the music surprisingly relaxing. My friend, Dayasaga Saraswati (yes, she teaches yoga) tells me that the Indian view of music is spiritual and that they believe it can resonate with us at a subconscious level to promote good health. I’ve come to believe they are definitely onto something.

After about two months I finally made it through a class without having to rest or stop and look at the teacher every fifteen seconds. I felt a small sense of triumph and then remembered that a yoga class is no place for ego. Emma often says ‘Honour the body that you’re in today. It’s a different body to yesterday. You’ll have a different body tomorrow.”

After about three months I found myself really looking forward to Thursday morning yoga classes. I had my own favourite spot on the floor. I was on smiling and nodding terms with a lot of the other regulars. Best of all, I could now stand on one leg. I could also stand on one leg, hold the foot of the other leg with my hand, make a mudra with my other hand and bow forwards in a dancer pose. My body felt energised after classes. Without thinking about it, I naturally started to eat better and to appreciate my body. I could now bend and balance in ways that I didn’t think would ever be possible.

I also noticed that I’d stopped worrying about how I looked or what anyone else in the room was doing. My mat had become a kind of magic carpet. When I stepped onto it I was fully present. When my mind started to drift I would gently pull it back onto the mat. I felt as if I had moved back into my own body. I started noticing that this state of mindfulness stayed with me after class. I would find myself fascinated by mundane tasks and deeply appreciative of special moments. I spent a lot more time in the present and a lot less reflecting on the past or planning for the future. Yoga had done this:

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One day in class, Emma made a comment about incorporating something into home practice. Home practice? You mean one class a week wasn’t all the yoga I needed? Emma and Dayasagar both told me that even five or ten minutes of yoga a day could be life changing. At the time I thought it was highly unlikely that such a small investment of time could have such impressive returns, but I figured it would probably help me to manage my fibromyalgia pain and to stay fit and flexible.

Starting home practice was just like starting class. I was back to feeling awkward and self conscious all over again. I’d do half a dozen cat stretches and then wonder what to do next. I decided to build my home practice a bit like the way we used to learn dances at school. Start at the beginning and just keep adding bits on. I eventually settled into a steady practice that included plenty of different poses. I tended to stick with this basic pattern, occasionally adding in something from that week’s class.

Over time my morning yoga became as essential to my day as my morning shower. I figured out how to pack an old yoga mat into luggage when I travelled. Friends booked a weekend away and kindly made sure there would be somewhere for me to practice.

I realised that yoga had become an essential part of my life. I was feeling fitter, stronger and happier than I could ever remember feeling. My fibromyalgia didn’t vanish, but I was in less pain less often and I could modify class according to how I was feeling. On one occasion when I’d had a serious relapse I turned up at class and burst into tears. “I’m right back where I started!” I told Emma. “It’s okay,” she told me. “You’ve been here before and overcome it. Just honour the body you have today.” To our mutual surprise I managed a whole class. Yoga had conquered fibromyalgia.

Then I was diagnosed with cancer.

My first class after diagnosis was difficult. I knew I’d cry when I saw Emma. I knew I’d be in that uncomfortable position where some people in the room knew something incredibly personal about me while most had no idea. I wondered if I’d be better off giving up class. By the end of that class I knew I had to keep coming. I still had cancer but the fear and horror of my diagnosis had settled. I felt calm. Ready. This is the body I have today and it has cancer. But I’m still here. I also knew that I had to practice non violence towards my own body. I would not bully myself or beat myself up over my cancer diagnosis. I accepted the reality. I resolved to breathe into my diagnosis, to make room for it and to accept it.

When my hair fell out the whole room could see what was going on. People that had smiled and nodded all those years started to talk to me, to ask how I was going, to tell me they thought I was brave or inspirational. As chemotherapy progressed I considered giving up class, concerned that I might pick up a cold. Most people don’t know that a head cold can kill you when you’re going through chemotherapy. Instead I chose to bring a can of disinfectant spray and to use that to create my own little decontamination zone. Friends knew not to kiss or hug me. Class went on. I went back to spending half of it in pose of a child because of the fatigue but I always came away calmer, stronger and feeling at peace. Yoga was a weekly reminder that my chemo ravaged body wasn’t permanent. I would come through this.

Home practice was one of the most beneficial things for dealing with chemotherapy. I would roll out my mat and start with cat stretches. I would immediately feel my energy start to rise and my distress start to dissipate. Some days I would feel to sick or tired and my husband would remind me, “The days you least feel like yoga are the days you most need yoga.” So true.

In the middle of chemotherapy I developed a fever and nearly wound up in hospital with neutropenia. I dodged that bullet but had to miss two weeks of classes. Emma kept in touch via Facebook. Home practice became more important than ever.

Following my first surgery the Breastcare Nurses commented on my extraordinary range of arm movement. I’d had a slice taken out of my breast and a string of lymph nodes removed and I could put my hands into reverse prayer position behind my back. When they showed me the physiotherapy exercises and advised that I work up to them slowly I demonstrated my ability to do all of them and asked when I could get back to class. Three weeks later with the wound carefully taped I was back doing a modified version with Emma’s support and advice. Five weeks later I was back doing a full class. That’s what yoga can do for you.

When the radiation clinic asked me what time would suit me for my six weeks of daily zaps I made sure they didn’t clash with yoga class. My husband was so impressed with what yoga had done for me that he started going to a Monday night class and I went with him as often as possible. After radiation I missed two weeks while my skin became raw but as soon as possible I was back on my mat.

When I got the news in July this year that the cancer had come back and I would need a mastectomy it was yoga that helped me more than anything else. Practice non-violence with my own body and accept what is. This is not the body I will have a month from now because that body won’t have breasts. But it will still be my body.

When I was offered reconstruction one of the critical factors for me was my return to yoga. With reconstruction, my surgeon thought I would probably need to stop all yoga for at least three months and as long as six months, depending on how well I healed. Without reconstruction I could probably be back at class in about six weeks. This is the point at which I really understood how essential my yoga practice had become to me. The thought of not being able to do yoga for six months was distressing.

I realised that yoga, for me, had become so much more than standing on one leg. I had become calmer, kinder, less judgemental. I had noticed improvements in my balance, flexibility and posture, which you would expect but there were also subtle and unexpected consequences. I realised that part of the legacy of my policing career was a tendency to hold my breath, or to breathe in a very shallow way. If you’re doing a warehouse search for an armed offender this is a good skill to have but to do it on a regular basis starves your body of oxygen. There’s a reason yoga instructors include advice about inhaling and exhaling. My sleep improved. My mood improved. I was healthier and happier, even while I had cancer.

Following the double mastectomy in August this year I was still able to put my hands into reverse prayer to the amazement of the nursing staff. One of the old, wise nurses said, “We get two kinds of mastectomy patients. Those that do yoga and those that don’t.” While other patients lay in their beds and watched television I started walking laps of the ward. Forbidden yoga for a couple of weeks I still felt the need for some kind of exercise.

I returned to a modified daily practice as soon as I was released from hospital, nine days after surgery. My doctor cleared me for class after three weeks. I’ve been back ever since.

I am certain that yoga, and Emma’s class in particular, has made an enormous contribution to my acceptance of life without breasts. This is my body and I love it. I am strong, flexible and grounded. Thanks to yoga I also have pretty good legs for a woman in her 50s! I haven’t felt the need for prosthetics and part of that is the complete acceptance of my new body.

One of my yoga friends, Jan, is naturally flat chested. Before my surgery she told me we’d be flat mates. What a wonderful thing to say. Funny that I’d never even noticed she was flat chested until she pointed it out, and that was a reassuring thought too.

There are no words to fully describe what yoga has done for me. Some of it is beyond language. It is deeper. It’s like trying to describe great music, or love, or the colour blue. Sometimes you just have to experience something for yourself. When it comes to explaining yoga, words are like a documentary about Australia. The documentary can show you images of the country but that’s nothing like travelling here, meeting the people and seeing the land. Yoga is the same. If you do it, and keep doing it for long enough, then you understand.

Yesterday I managed a yoga move I’d never done before. It’s difficult. It’s a side plank, which requires me to support my body weight with one arm, followed by a move where I put the top leg behind me and arch my back. I was momentarily pleased with myself and then I remembered that yoga class is no place for my ego. That was yesterday’s body. Cancer has taught me that anything could happen. My body might be very different next week. Even so, I can now say that for the moment, I am officially fitter than I was before the mastectomy. I am also able to support my body weight on either arm. Please think about that for a minute.

I keep trying to thank Emma. She pushes back. “It’s not me. It’s the yoga.” Yes, it is the yoga and it’s also having a teacher that creates a safe space, where I can be weak and ill and full of pain and still welcome. It’s about weaving the philosophy of yoga into each class so that it gently shifts my own thinking. It’s about being a living example of everything she teaches, including humility, which I suppose is why she doesn’t accept any credit.

So this post is for you, Emma. It’s my way of attempting to express the profound impact your classes have had on my life. Thank you. My cancer treatment would have been so much harder without yoga. My life would be so much poorer without yoga and all it has given me. Namaste. You have my deep gratitude and sincere love.

And for everyone else, please consider trying yoga. Not just one class, which I promise will leave you feeling awkward and embarrassed, but try it for a few months. You might just find that it opens up a treasure chest of benefits and even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll be able to stand on one leg.

 

 

 

 

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