I was a casual at-home yogi. A little hatha here, some attempts at vinyasa. Lots of restorative practice to buffer my busy and stressful adult life. A full time job, part time graduate school, friends, family, marriage, and some unexplained health issues. It all added up to too much on most days. I had a basic commitment to yoga, but only as a means to an end.
And then at 26, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IIa Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and quickly underwent 3 months of intensive chemotherapy. Now, I’ve been in remission for almost 6 months. One of the most profound changes in my life was how I showed up to my yoga practice during the most difficult time in my life. Cancer transformed my relationship to yoga, and here I’d love to share my revelations with you in the hopes that they can be of service during any kind of hardship. Here’s what I learned about yoga through cancer:
1.) You will need a daily practice. Of some kind. In some form. And no, I’m not talking about the idea that “you should do yoga every day”. I’m saying that your soul will need it. The deepest part of yourself will need it. That part of you will absolutely need a daily practice, if only to affirm that you are still alive and that you are still here. During hardship, but especially that of serious illness, there’s a part of your safety that is forever compromised. A professor counseled me that a life threatening illness would feel a bit like a death, because the person I was before would not exist any more. There is something so sacred about showing up to a daily yoga practice to affirm to your soul, “Hey, I got this. Despite everything, here I am on my mat. Everything has changed and yet, nothing has.” It provided me a profound sense of safety knowing that no matter what happened to me, I always had my mat.
2.) But that daily practice can (and should be) simple, and it may change each day. The pressure to do a specific type or duration of yoga practice will prevent you from getting on your mat entirely. When I returned to my yoga practice, about 1 month into chemotherapy, I only had the stamina for about 5 minutes of gentle asana on most days. Some days, especially around infusions, I could not access asana at all. #yogaeverydamnday does not mean asana every damn day (as the incredible yoga teacher and author Rachel Brathen has taught me), on those days it meant finding stillness in meditation. It meant sitting in silence in easy pose and watching the sun come up from my living room. Some days my asana was 5 minutes of child’s pose. All of that is OK. And it is enough. If you’re on your mat, you’re doing just fine.
3.) Expect that emotions will surface, and be gentle with them and with yourself. Some days my practice brought me overwhelming joy and gratitude, others brought intense sadness and grief to the surface. I once erupted into sobs during sphinx pose, and I have laughed and smiled ear to ear in the very same position. Now in remission, most days I revel in the strength of my physical body as I access asana in a new fashion, with a deep knowing that my body has been through more than most and yet it still shows up for me. But it wasn’t always that way. I avoided yoga for weeks after my surgical biopsy and diagnosis because I knew exactly what would come up. My life had been blown to pieces, and I felt at the time that I was going to lose everything that I had ever loved. Before I got my official diagnosis, I thought I might die and leave my husband a widow before we were 30, or be unable to have children. And I didn’t want the space to explore that grief right away. When I finally returned to my mat, a few days before the start of chemotherapy, I was thrilled to find a bit of peace in supine poses. Only to find tears when I tried to roll up to sitting, discovering that the damage to my chest from surgical biopsy left me unable to do so. My husband was asleep upstairs and couldn’t help me right away; I felt the overwhelming and heavy weight of helplessness. My whole life felt helpless. And there were plenty of days that I felt that on the mat during treatment. But we re-affirm our commitment to life, the good the bad and of course the ugly, when we continue to step on our mat through it all.
4.) Your soul is your home, but your mat is the doorway in. A beautiful and wise friend told me early on in my cancer diagnosis to work on getting in touch with the part of myself that despite the nightmare around me, was safe and untouchable. And I wondered deeply how to do that, it seemed completely impossible in that moment. But before long, what started as a simple commitment to doing five minutes of yoga each day during chemotherapy became my sacred time to travel back to myself. To the part of me that didn’t care that I was bald, and unhappy, and absolutely terrified of dying. It consistently reminded me that there was a part of me untouched by this trauma and gave me hope that I hadn’t lost (and could never lose) every piece of myself. My yoga mat was my very own magic carpet, traveling back to the parts of me I truly believed I had lost indefinitely the moment a doctor told me I had cancer.
Whatever life throws at you, get back on your mat. For five minutes, for asana, for meditation, to watch the sun rise or fall. I can’t promise you an easy life or one without hardship, but I can promise that each time you get on your mat, you will find pieces of yourself. And with time, you will always find ways to put them back together.