Seize your space...between here and there

I often think about death. Not in a negative or fearful or creepy way, but instead I think about death in a way that I believe helps me to live more fully in the present tense.

We all know that life is precious and life is short. We sometimes need a reminder, however, to reawaken us to the fragility and wonder of being alive.

Acquiring the wisdom to slow down, pause, and wait out the storm of a negative experience can change one’s perspective.  

Last Thursday, my beloved Golden Retriever Ziggy died without intervention, in my arms, after struggling for just a few hours that day. He lived until the day he died.  A good life. A good death. 

He did not have to learn how to live moment to moment, and he was a teacher to me.  Living day to day can sometimes be difficult, but staying present with our experiences will always enrich us.  May we savor the in-between, the preciousness of living fully. 

This quote from Margaret Atwood provides a beautiful summary:

“Sooner or later, you are going to die…how do you fill in the space between here and there? It’s yours. Seize your space.”

Resilience

Some people seem to have won the genetic lottery when it comes to both physical and mental resilience. Tales of survival in the wake of horrible events are as old as time. In the book and subsequent movie, Unbroken, the main character, Louis Zamperini ’s World War II plane is shot down and he survives on a floundering life raft for well over a month. He had been a champion Olympic runner. Did his past physical training augment his survival? 

In the decades-famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes beautifully about surviving the horrors of Auschwitz in what would become his practice of logotherapy. Young Viktor loses everything, including his entire family. The book is about maintaining a life-affirming outlook in spite of the most extreme adversity.

Were these two people gifted by genetics or was there something in their physical and mental behavior that helped them achieve happiness and longevity? 

Can the practice of yoga bring us to physical and mental strength in similar ways? My view is that yoga can help with what science calls psychoneuroimmunology. Perhaps we can influence our physical and mental health through certain practices.  In traditional yoga, we are suspended between the twin pillars of abiyasa, or practice, and vairagya, which is surrender. We navigate the balance between these two opposing elements our entire lives.

My teacher, BKS Iyengar, survived poverty, tuberculosis, and the typhoid epidemic of 1918. He claimed that the practice of yoga restored him to health. Was he genetically tougher? Did discipline change both his physical and mental health? Perhaps. 

We all participate in the sweepstakes of human life, held in the balance of what we can and cannot control. Iyengar wrote again and again, that yoga was his path to whole health. Did the rigors of his physical practice, combined with the deeply calming effect of pranayama and meditation, transform him?

BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, Abijata, told a large group us last week that his only visit to any hospital occurred just before his death at age 96.

Scientists are beginning understand that we do, indeed, participate in a kind of brain remodeling (another term is neuroplasticity) throughout our lives. We already know that physical exercise has a positive effect on our physical and mental health, and that stress has a negative effect on our heart and brain health. The mind and body connection is obvious.

Science has even identified certain neuroprotective growth factors that affect the central executive network of our brain. We all must navigate the balance of what we can and what we cannot control, abhyasa and vairagya.

Human connection, a positive attitude, and physical activity nourish us. For more reading on scientific theory of brain connectivity and resilience, look to the work of Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Weil Medical College, and the work of Gregory Miller, a psychologist at Northwestern University.

Leaping off of the Devil's Spade: Stories of Survival

A couple of years ago, I met a German woman who survived a plane crash in which most passengers perished. I listened in awe as her tale unfolded. We spent the rest of the evening recounting personal stories of survival. We conversed in German, and when it was time to say goodbye, she shared a familiar German expression: “Du bist dem Teufel von der Schippe ausgesprungen.” Roughly, “You have leapt off of the devil’s spade.” Or putting it simply, “You almost died, but you made it!”

I have had several near misses with death, and they feel oddly synonymous with my experiences with raw fear. Fear is one’s natural response to real danger. Our minds, unfortunately, also conjure fear as a reaction to what only feels life-threatening. One early experience with fear occurred when I was about three or four, and discovered I had been following the wrong woman, not my mother, in a red coat in a crowded store. As the stranger turned around, I froze in terror at the thought of having lost any sense of security and safety.

At the age of 18, without intending to spark fear, I foolishly jumped out of an airplane after completing a one-day, extremely unprofessional sky diving course. I can still smell the acrid exhaust from the old twin engine plane, and remember the tears I felt as I was about to let go of the side bar right outside the open plane door. Only a few minutes later, but a world apart, I recall my own uncontrolled laughter that erupted once I hit the ground, my large parachute billowing over me. It was a joy to be safely on earth again, having escaped injury. My mind must have found it hysterical to have tricked death.

I had a brush with death in Guatemala at age 23 when I was in an accident after the front tire of our speeding bus exploded. We veered out of control as passengers screamed…se dio dos vueltas…. the bus took two complete turns down an embankment, and then came to rest on its side. I heard moans, but otherwise things appeared breathtakingly still. I was first to climb out the backside emergency door, one of the survivors of this crash. Some chickens secured atop the roof were crushed, while others fluttered in every direction. In an already slow-moving society, time stood still.

In New York City, several years later, a mugger literally grabbed my bike out from under me, punching me squarely in the face with full force. I was stitched up at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and had to answer questions from two police investigators as I lay on a gurney. I celebrated my 30th birthday a week later at a nice restaurant where my aunt asked the waiter if my food could be pureed.

As I drove home from a doctor’s office in late December 2015, I remember the CD and 3-page written report that said I had metastatic disease. I saw the image of the woman in the red coat; I smelled exhaust fumes from a plane; I heard the flapping wings of injured chickens; and I tasted the warm blood in my mouth that night I was hit in the mouth in New York City. Fear gripped me tightly by the throat, just as it had done before in my 53 years. Moving through rush hour traffic, time again stood still. I felt frozen in the driver’s seat, and remember nothing about coming home except I felt utterly alone and afraid.

I am now two years in remission from what was once a terminal blood cancer. Modern medicine allowed me to survive. I did come close to death just hours after what was to become my final chemotherapy treatment when I developed a high fever, rigors (uncontrolled shaking), and deadly sepsis. I was afraid, but also oddly calm. After several days in the ICU, I recovered, thanks to the miracle of antibiotics and a brilliant team of hospital specialists. Imade direct eye contact with death, and at the same time, collided head on with raw fear.

I do not take my survival for granted, and am determined to live every day in gratitude, even the not-so-great days. I appreciate my good health. I remind myself that cancer changed me in countless positive ways. I probably appreciate being alive more than I ever have. Death is a one per person, one time event over which none of us have any real control. The fear of death is unbearable, but if we live every day with appreciation and wonder, and if we learn to live in the moment, perhaps we can keep fear at bay.

An Inside Job: Yoga and Cancer

“What Do People Plan?” Daisy, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby

Human beings like to plan for our lives. Even without a defined set of expectations, we quickly learn that we will get stuck without some advanced preparation.

Wash your hands, pack a raincoat.

As students of Iyengar yoga, our life plan includes behavior that promotes good health and well-being. Yoga helps us cultivate a healthy body and mind. We eat well, we use natural body and cleaning products, and have myriad healthy habits. The framework of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra provides a lovely framework for discipline and good living. As a rule, we are a group who feel empowered by taking control of our health. Even before I took my first Iyengar yoga class over 29 years ago, I followed a path of healthy living.

I now recognize that these practices gave me the illusion of control, and that need for control was an illusion. Discipline had long been a helpful coping mechanism for me, and I lived by the principals of abhyasa—practice and persistent effort—even before I understood what it was. Events in my recent past offered me a front row seat before the principles of detachment and letting go, which now gives me a much clearer perspective of vairagya—letting go of fear and accepting what is .

I live fully suspended between the twin pillars of yoga…vairagya and abhyasa.

Abyhasa—practice—matters to me, but I now have a much keener view of vairagya and being fully present with the way things are.

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

-Susan Sontag

Two years ago, I finished 6 months of high dose chemotherapy for Stage 3-B Hodgkin Lymphoma, an aggressive blood cancer which just a generation ago was a certain death sentence.

I am still in remission, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. Treatment has included well over 100 blood draws which test 45 items, ranging from blood cell counts to liver and kidney function, and I have endured well over a dozen CT and PET scans, two surgeries, three hospital stays, and a week in the ICU from a bout with deadly sepsis . I received a very strong but very effective combination chemotherapy called ABVD: Adriamyacin/doxorubicin, bleomycin, viniblastine and dacarbazine. Each of these drugs has horrible side-effects and doxorubicin and viniblastine are known to cause latent heart and lung damage. I am statistically at risk for secondary cancers and a list of latent effects from the treatment. On the positive side, however, these chemicals have so far eradicated my Hodgkin lymphoma. Fast growing or aggressive cancers respond very well to chemotherapy because the rapid rate of cell turnover enables doctors to better target these cancer cells.

My maintenance, referred to as a survivorship plan, includes regular visits with my oncologist/hematologist for blood tests and for lump and bump checks. Since lymphomas are typically not diagnosed through blood markers, I still have to undergo routine PET and CT/PET scans. I am exposed to high levels of radiation from these scans, but I accept them as being medically necessary at his point.

You are never really finished with cancer. Post-treatment, you’re in the middle of your story. If you survive, you remain in the middle of your story, and it becomes a very joyful place to be. The specter of recurrence looms over me, but it helps me to shift into the present moment like never before. Life is richer, fewer things are taken for granted, and little things that used to bother me no longer tend to bother me as much. Cancer treatment aged me physically. Cancer diagnosis also aged me mentally, and I believe I am, in many ways, wise beyond my 56 years.

“There’s nothing more debauched than thinking. This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne weed on a plot laid out for daisies.”

Wislawa Szymborska

I spent months with blood counts so low (called neutropenia) that I virtually had to stay away from everyone and everywhere except the hospital and the offices of the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute. The beauty of being confined and isolated was that I had time to read constantly.

Since I had virtually no control over my life, I was determined to take control of what I could learn. When not at medical appointments, I read voraciously about cancer and science.

I learned that the more you know, the more you don’t know.

“What if this mixture do not work at all? What if it be a poison?”

Juliet, in Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet

Cancer is an exceedingly complex disease that humans have lived with and died from for over five thousand years. Cancer was once a clandestine and shameful illness. Cancer treatment is a very new science, and chemotherapy has only been in use since the 1950’s. Clinical drug trials are still an enormous part of cancer treatment, because the medical community is still in the research stages of treatment. Immunotherapy is the latest breakthrough, but it remains in its infancy in terms of truly curing cancer.

Broadly speaking, 90% of all cancers are carcinomas or tumor cancers, 9% are blood cancers and 1% are sarcomas. There are countless sub-types within each of these categories. For example, there are five sub-types of Hodgkin lymphoma, and roughly 100 sub-types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some non-Hodgkin lymphomas are indolent, slow-growing and are called marginal zone cancers that do not require treatment. Others, such a mantle cell lymphoma are aggressive and deadly. In the book, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi said, “There is cancer, and then there is cancer. “ Every single cancer is unique and every individual manifesting the disease is unique.

Though there have been phenomenal breakthroughs, the average life expectancy of all patients, when averaged together, from the time of diagnosis to the time of death, is just 6 years. There is still much to be done in what President Richard Nixon once described as the United States’ “War on Cancer.”

“Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person.

Understanding is love’s other name.”

Thich Nhat Hahn

Since cancer patients are now living years instead of just months with certain types of cancer, it is increasingly likely that we will meet cancer survivors in our yoga classes. I feel strongly that yoga teachers should learn more about cancer so that we can be better prepared to help cancer patients and survivors.

If a student with cancer or a cancer survivor comes to class, do not make assumptions.

Find out as much as you can, depending on the comfort level of the person sharing. I am astounded to learn how differentiated people’s individual responses are to their cancer. I have met people who want to talk about it, who want to learn about, and then I have met people who seem to know nothing about their disease, and who prefer to remain ignorant. For some, it is too frightening to have a closer look. We must respect their way of being. Teachers, tap into you everything you ever learned in teacher training about the skill of observation.

I wish that I could say that there are general guidelines as to how to treat an individual who comes to class as either a patient or as a survivor. I believe that our first role is to take care of this person emotionally. It is essential to observe how they might be feeling. How is their anxiety level? Honor any trauma they may still be experiencing. If you can help them to relax, you are giving them a tremendous gift. This is a good starting point for how to proceed.

Advice as to what cancer patients/survivors should do to promote better health varies widely.

There is no hard and fast rule as to how active or how inactive a person should be, especially when they first complete treatment. Encourage the student to pay attention to his or her body. Very generally speaking, the Western model is that patients should try to be active, as long as they feel up to it, or do not have medical complications.

My oncologists all encouraged me to be active when I felt up to it. The stem cell/ bone marrow transplant floor at the hospital where I was treated in Denver, Colorado, has stationary bicycles that the doctors and nurses encourage patients to use. When I was at this inpatient facility, we were encouraged to get out of bed and walk the halls, even though we looked like bald clowns, connected to IV poles, donning yellow paper gowns.

To be active or not to be active. There are no hard and fast rules. There is so much we still do not understand. Again, every cancer is different, and every individual is different.

“Sweet are the Uses of Adversity” William Shakespeare

Post Traumatic Growth is a phrase I now use to describe my situation over the past two years. Initially, I experienced tremendous fear and had to learn to accept how helpless I was. I was stripped of the identity I once held, and showing up for treatment became a full time job.

I felt a very strong desire to live, though I did not ascribe to the concept of fighting cancer. I felt great relief that there was medicine to do the fighting for me, and it was up to me to befriend my body. I made direct eye contact with death for several days in the ICU with an uncontrolled infection. I was calm as I stared down death. Abhinivesa, clinging to life, is complex, as the will to live is a powerful thing. I believe this will of ours comes and goes. We are alone when we walk the razor thin line between life and death, and cannot predict what we will experience when facing our own mortality. May our mini-death experiences we have each time we practice savasana help us find peace.

Technicolor Vision

Technicolor was a brand new high resolution color technology first introduced by MGM when they produced The Wizard of Oz, 80 years ago, in 1939. Heightened, brightened color came to life on the big screen. When I completed chemotherapy and began to feel better, I felt that I saw the world through Technicolor vision. I hoped that I would never forget how light and bright things appeared. I try to remind myself every day to notice how precious life is, and I tap into that initial hypersensitivity and appreciation of life’s beauty.

Each time you stay present with fear and uncertainty, you are letting go of a habitual way of finding security and comfort or hiding from feelings. This is one of the positive side effects of a cancer diagnosis.

First-hand suffering and illness can turn into something incredibly beautiful.

No one can truly comprehend what it is like to have cancer unless they have been diagnosed. Cancer survivors have a front row seat to our own mortality. This new awareness changes one in many positive ways.

When I feel gripped by the fear of recurrence or begrudge the possible side effects from the harsh chemotherapy I received, I try to shake the fears off. I still try to take charge of my health, though I am somewhat cynical about the anti-cancer diet and the naiveté in thinking that one can actually prevent cancer, by eating right or following certain guidelines. Acceptance and practice are two ends of the spectrum. Most survivors I have met describe the nagging element of fear as a new state of normal. We are changed. Many I have met have also shared that they have learned to focus much more on the present and also have learned to not let small things get in the way of living life to the fullest. I remember being stuck in traffic one day just a few months after my treatment and I laughed at the realization that I was fortunate to be stuck in traffic because it meant that I was not dead!

Early this winter, my sister called me in a state of upset because her furnace had failed. No big deal! Make a plan. Put on a coat, grab a blanket. This does not mean that I see the world with rose-colored spectacles, and I try not to judge when people get upset over very small matters. I still have bad days, just like everyone. I live with the fear of recurrence on a regular basis. When I go to the doctor, I get white coat syndrome and my typically very low blood pressure is always high.

Cancer is not a gift, but has presented me with a treasure trove of growth. It has given me a new perspective, and has enhanced life’s richness. When you see clouds from above the earth as in riding in an airplane or hiking at high altitude, the clouds have an intensely different beauty because your perspective has changed.

Laws of Physics as Metaphor

 

Newton’s first law of motion predicts the behavior for which all existing forces are balanced:

“The presence of an unbalanced force will accelerate an object, changing its speed, its direction, or both its speed and direction.”

As I ready myself for a PET CT scan tomorrow, I see my mind as a physical object, an entity that has been met with the presence of an unbalanced force. My thoughts are unruly, my mind in a state of motion. I have tried to prepare for this day, have been disciplined about practicing meditation, but those efforts feel somewhat futile right now .

With the aim of taming my fear, I have not allowed myself to recall the exact date of the scan which would mark the 6-month period since my cancer treatment began. Only last week did I open my pocket calendar to the final week of June, keeping myself one step ahead of the hospital’s appointment reminder call.

Galileo’s concept of inertia:
“Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion.” Newton’s first law of motion:
“A body in motion stays in motion unless an external force is applied to it.”

Today my mind is overactive, thoughts are moving too quickly. I recognize this response to fear. My work is to slow my thoughts without pushing them away. Running from fear is reactive,

sitting with fear allows the motion in my head to eventually slow down.
Newton also taught us that “increase in the mass of an object increases its acceleration.“

My head feels large, heavy with thought. Can thoughts have mass? Can their mass, and, therefore, their speed, increase?

I have no control over the results of my test tomorrow.
I can choose to be optimistic, though, and try behave in positive ways.

I lessen the burden of my thoughts by experiencing the delightful weight of my body held safely on earth at this very moment.

If I befriend gravity, I can even learn to embrace the potential gravity of illness. 

Shampoo August 24th

Life often provides us with opportunities for newfound appreciation of what we had previously taken for granted. Joni Mitchell said it beautifully when she reminded us, “you don’t know what you've got till its gone.” Forgetting this refrain is part of our shared human frailty.
When we are sick, we remember how good it felt to be well.

The absence of pain can go unrecognized. We recall what had been a blissful state when we are suffering in discomfort.
Some instances of no longer taking things for granted are starkly etched in my consciousness....the final scratch from chicken pox, finding my mother after losing her in a department store for what seemed, for a 6-yearold girl, an eternity, taking a hot shower after over two years of cold showers as a Peace Corps volunteer in the cool highlands of Guatemala.

I am currently three weeks into a bottle of shampoo, an item I did not use in 2016. The feel of thick, fragrant lather on my scalp is an indescribable joy. Losing my hair was not all that bad, and the privilege of noticing how much I love shampoo almost made it worth it.

Please stay tuned for an invitation to an appreciation party for all of you who, through your support and care, made my survival possible. Chemotherapy killed my cancer, but you helped me to live. 

May 2 Blog

May 2 blog

 

 Aristotle hypothesized that there is something beyond the chain of cause and effect, beyond the immovable force that started it all.  The first cause in any matter is beyond my understanding, and it requires great effort for me to accept this.

 When I was first diagnosed with lymphoma, I wanted to know how and why I got cancer.  I wondered what chain of events caused it, contemplated when it began. After learning that lymphoma is a cancer that is likely the result of toxic exposure heightened my desire to answer these questions.  In my quest for answers, I recalledthe copious amounts of DEET that I had used when I worked in Central and South America, obsessed over a lifetime of pesticides, poisons or viruses to which I had been exposed. 

Only recently has it occurred to me that such contemplation is not helpful. I will never have the privilege of fully knowing the answers, and such thinking robs me of being fully present. The cause of my cancer matters very little right now, as it is in the past. Rather than ruminate and becoming lost in thought,  I am embracing not knowing, hoping I will find peace and acceptance of the way things are.

April 20th Blog

April 20th Blog

 

“Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience.

Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise,

because of impatience, we can’t return.

                 

                                    -Franz Kafka

 

Patience n. 1. the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain without complaint, loss of temper, or anger.  2. an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.  3. quiet, steady, perseverance; even-tempered care, diligence.

 

  Acceptance of the way things are has become a necessity for me.  The past five and a half months have presented countless and unforeseen challenges for both my body and my mind. Though I would prefer a life in which I did not have sickness and suffering, I know that all of us suffer. All of our experiences are temporary, the good and the bad. I long for the wisdom to confront the things over which I have no control, and to then not label events as good or bad, but as opportunities for growth and change. I recognize that illness and hardship present us with unique learning opportunities. I shun the notion that cancer is a gift, but I understand the gift it has given me: I am learning to welcome uncertainty and live in the present like never before.  Mastery is a lifelong endeavor.

March 23 Blog

March 23 Blog
Shoveling Snow as Warm Up for Chemotherapy

Though I slept poorly in anticipation of the day ahead, I was awake for the start of a majestic spring blizzard. As the light of dawn emerged, the snow came in force. Dogs at my heels, shovel in hand, I readily stepped out to tackle this enormously heavy cover.

Past resentments of dealing with this task came to mind, and they melted. I felt joy at being strong enough to push, scoop, and toss the great weight of this late season snow. May I have the good fortune to shovel snow many seasons, countless times.

Two or three days each week, I get blood tests for 48 different items, ranging from white blood cell counts to liver function. My numbers make me look like a human body in severe distress, but I do not feel that way pre-chemo, and I am so grateful for the days in which I almost feel the way I did before my diagnosis.

This morning I revel at the beauty of the snow. It even smells lovely.

There is no preparing for the discomfort that chemotherapy delivers. It obliterates my state of well-being. Willfully showing up for something that nearly knocks me out sometimes reminds me of what a boxer must endure every time they get into the ring.
I consider myself far more fortunate than a boxer, however, as
my showing up has the purpose of allowing me to eventually regain wellness. Science tells me that my body can recover from chemotherapy, no matter how disturbing the lab reports. Everything is temporary. 

2/23/16

Blog February 23, 2016

 

Position Emission Tomography

 

 The hospital corridors and Nuclear Medicine signs seemed no more familiar this week than last time. This time, however, the tastefully decorated waiting room seemed less surreal. I was less taken aback by the posh, overly comfortable La-Z-boy recliners and brightly upholstered pillows. Just over two months ago, when I underwent my first PET scan, I shed my first real tears about my cancer. I was uncomfortable at how nice this waiting room was. The nurse attendant was so nice, so friendly. He brought me a heated flannel blanket. The dazzling array of magazines were all up to date. They were nice, not picked over, no old copies of Westword. Last December, I was unable to take refuge in all this overt hospitaIity because I felt frozen with fear. 

 

They know I am sick. They feel sorry for me. I had wished this place was more ordinary.

 

A more resilient me arrived for my current Pet scan appointment. I was surprised to note that I did not feel intense anticipation about the results of this test, even though I now knew so much more about the test.  A PET, or position emission tomography scan, examines chemical activity in the body. Radioactive sugar is injected into the veins, and organs and tissues absorb this tracer. Cancer cells show up as bright spots, due to their accelerated metabolic rates. 

 

This is tremendously scary stuff, but I know that letting my mind think about what might be is unhelpful.  I will know the results soon enough. Ruminating in anticipation robs me of living fully in the present moment.  I am not unafraid. Getting the diagnosis of cancer is likely the most frightening thing that ever happened to me. I recently read a quote by Elton John, who is currently on tour. He said, “If you don’t have any fear anymore, then you have to give up.”  I am not fearless, I am just learning to have less fear. 

The Illusion of Control

A copy of Cure magazine, another glossy, seemingly informative publication, greeted me in the waiting room at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute today. Cure is a more favorable name for a cancer education magazine than is Conquer, the magazine I encountered there last week. I confess, my mind is overactive; it sifts through nouns and verbs, seeking more appropriate titles for each of these journals. Obviously, I am not writing letters to the editor asking them to read my list.

Conquer implies that I am engaged in a battle over which I have no control. This is problematic, because cancer radically exposes us to the concept of randomness — like what is happening to me at a cellular level. I can’t control what is happening to my body and am banking on modern medicine to work its uniquely aggressive magic. I refuse to throw blind punches at this cancer.

The metaphor of having no control of my body right now shifts me towards an acceptance of randomness in so many aspects life. The illusion of control has been a coping mechanism I developed and subsequently relied on for many years.

For now, I am choosing surrender, believing that my body’s defenses are better served by embracing the fact that I cannot control what will happen.

The magazine title Cure at least suggests something very optimistic and positive, even if it is absurdly resolute about a certain outcome. To the magazine’s credit, its cover story, written in bold letters, is named The Vulnerable Zone. 

Fight Cancer?

 My most recent struggle with the verbiage around cancer treatment occurred today in the 

 

waiting room at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute, where I go three days every week for 

 

blood work, and every two weeks for chemotherapy. The featured magazine there is called 

 

Conquer, a glossy, upbeat publication with articles about nutrition and health, hopeful accounts 

 

of remission, and advertisements for head covering. It is not the kind of magazine you would 

 

wish to find in the seat pocket on an airplane. Sky Mall is much more fun to read.

 

I take issue with the title, Conquer, as in “conquer this horrible disease.”

 

Is that what I am supposed to do here?  Why the emphasis on aggression? Am Isupposed to 

 

feel empowered by a patient featured in a recent Sloan-Kettering ad, who

 

 “kicked cancer’s ass?” This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured a radical new cancer 

 

treatment called Cyberknife. Even in childhood, I remember the discomfort and confusion I felt 

 

when president Nixon declared a “War on Cancer.”

 

Today, I have no energy to fight.  My body is already in a struggle, and I am exhausted. I am not 

 

looking for euphemisms, i just see little value in applying such negative terms to a treatment 

 

system whose ultimate goal is to bring my system back to wellness and equilibrium.

If love could cure cancer, I would already be in remission.

It is impossible to describe the depth and sincerity of my gratitude right now.

I wish that I had the energy to write thank you notes to every one of you. 

My life took a somewhat radical turn less than two months ago, and in spite of all the difficulty I have experienced, I am okay.

The immense support that I have received is helping me heal in immeasurable ways. 

Western medicine is literally saving my life, but the kindness and generosity I have received is what will ultimately help restore me to wellness again. 

If love could cure cancer, I would already be in remission.

As I have said, I have B-negative blood, but I can feel be positive also pulsing through my veins, thanks in part to all of you.

 

Love,

Deborah

January 28 Hair and Cancer

I was blessed with an incredibly think head of hair, which has most recently postponed chemotherapy’s inevitable effect of total hair loss.
From the onset of chemotherapy, I have heard a litany of supportive comments regarding my future life without hair. Women insist that the scarves, the hats, and the wigs are so good these days, that I need not fear my imminent hair loss.
Bald men have told me that baldness is not bad, and have even assured me I’ll grow accustomed to it quickly. Some people have even reminded me of all the beautiful people sans cheveux: Yul Brenner, Sinead O’Conner, Bruce Willis, Michael Jordan and Demi Moore as GI Jane.

But to me, the scarves and hats advertised in the waiting room catalogs at my oncologist’s office shout, “the lady wearing this headwear has cancer!” That said, nothing shouts cancer louder than a fully bald head on a woman, and I want to make no such announcement to the world.

I did shave my little remaining hair when I returned from chemo today. It was easier than I thought. I was even told that I have a nicely shaped head. Instead of, “Hey, nice haircut,” I was told, “nice head.”

I do think that my hair was far more lovely that the seemingly ideal shape of my head. I mostly accept the way I look, even if i do not know what I should put on my head tomorrow.

As time goes on, chemotherapy has become less surreal.
This is a relief, since I have 5 more months of it!
Baldness, which will have an even longer duration, does not feel as bad as I had anticipated, and it must become the new normal.

January 11, 2015 Cancer is My Agent of Change

January 11, 2015

In the month since I was diagnosed with lymphoma, I have witnessed so many changes in such a short period of time, that Isometimes feel unable to look forward or back at my life. Though I have always embraced the concept of living in the present, I have only recently begun to comprehend the depth of this ideal. Being fully in the present is currently an effortless, and fundamental part of my life.  My life is not easier, not more joyful, but I feel more rooted in taking an honest look at the way things are. What I hope will follow, is an attitude of acceptance, and ability to embrace whatever comes, whether or not it is what I had wanted or anticipated.

The changes that have happened in my yoga practice are a metaphor for the changes happening in my life.

I am not able to do any sort of an active yoga practice at all, and even passive asanas pull on my “port” (chemo delivery device/line). 

I have been forced to live very quietly in the present, and am exploring the most fundamental foundation principles of yoga: abhyasa and vairagya.  

Abhyasa means practice, as in cultivating persistent effort to consistently choose actions, speech, and thoughts that lead in the direction of a stable and tranquil mind.  Vairagya is non-attachment, as in learning to encounter and let go of fears, aversions, and false identities that cloud us from our true self.

This is enormously difficult work, but it is really the heart of all yoga practice.  I feel like a raw beginner right now, especially when fear and sadness take hold.  I know that with enough patience, courage and discipline, however, I can actively apply these principles to my life every single day. 

Cancer has renewed my motivation to practice them, and I hope that I can abide in these ideas for the rest of my life.

Wisdom

I found this amazing piece on my computer this morning. I do not know who sent it, but cannot believe how well timed it is.  It fell right into my heart.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

"We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we will have a lot more joy in living..."

"If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace..."

 

Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma

My study of yoga began well over 25 years ago, and I have been a dedicated pupil of BKS Iyengar since 1991. 

Since my recent diagnosis, however, I believe that only now am I truly moving into this practice, and I feel riveted to the present moment like never before.  

I am unable to do any asanas at all, as I had thoracic surgery in early December and then had a port surgically placed last week. I miss being able to move, but know that asana is just one limb of yoga practice. I want to move, I miss feeling hunger and wish this horrid nausea would subside. 

An aversion to negative feelings, which include fear, and grief and loss will not prevent them from exposing themselves. I have to train my mind to accept what is happening. It may be the most difficult chapter of my yoga practice yet.

 

I am learning that there is room for fear, grief, loss, and even nausea, and that there is also room for joy and gratitude and perhaps even relief. 

 

I have a very treatable kind of cancer, and have an amazing team of doctors and nurses to support me.  I have received immeasurable amounts oflove and support . 

 

Avoiding what comes up is not an option.  Good thoughts and negative thoughts appear.  I am not evolved enough to fully embrace negative emotions, but I do understand that learning radical acceptance will provide better consequences.

I would trade blindness, numbness, and denial for cancer, but accepting things as they are is the path I must take.  I cannot control anything right now, but I can accept the task of looking at things as they are.     

 

The miracle of Western medicine has already gone to war on my cancer.  It is up to me to wage peace within myself.

 

Deborah Baker 

Park Hill Yoga

parkhillyoga.com

The essence of Iyengar Yoga, the balance of effortless effort.

Effortless Effort (& How Much Effort is Required to Actually Get There)

 

A concept that BKS Iyengar often referred to when discussing practice is ‘effortless effort’. I remember the first time I heard that phrase. It really struck me. I immediately understood it to mean a deliberate, well-intentioned practice, but without strain or aggressiveness. I love how the phrase captures the ease with which our practice should ultimately occur, but without suggesting that it should be ‘easy’.

In my own practice I’ve had glimpses of effortless effortbut more often than not, there’s a healthy degree of what I guess I would call effortful effort.

Especially in the early days of my yoga practice, I would wonder how much effort was okay. I often had teachers tell me, ‘Stephanie, don’t be so intense’. ‘You are working too hard’. I never really understood what to make of those comments. At the time, my reality was that I was suffering from debilitating and chronic back pain and yoga was the only thing that gave me slight relief. So yeah, I was intense about it. In fact, I clung to it like a lifeline!

However, despite my intensity, in my own mind I had established a very clear line between being committed to my practice and being aggressive in my practice. It basically came down to the distinction between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’. Good pain was, for the most part, muscle pain. It was the pain that came from developing strength and stability. Bad pain was that pain that screamed, ‘Stephanie, don’t you dare do that for one second longer!’. It was sharp, intense, and felt inherently wrong.

 

Over the years, even as my spinal condition improved, this principle of distinguishing between good pain and bad pain has served me well. Teachers no longer tell me that I am ‘intense’ in my practice. I have found the Yoga in my yoga practice, not just the struggle. It’s a beautiful thing – that feeling of intention in practice, a sharpness and clarity in mind and body that expresses itself through asana. However, could I have found that clarity, that rhythm, that ‘effortless effort’ without first putting forth a committed, intentioned, & occasionally intense effort? Personally, I don’t think so. I feel it’s partly because of the struggle that I have been able to ultimately get beyond it.

I remember too, during my visits to RIMYI, being struck by how BKS Iyengar would train the younger teachers of the Institute. He would encourage them to feel, to question, to push new boundaries, to explore their potential. And they all worked hard, with shaky limbs, sweat, and some moans and groans as proof. Yet, when BKS Iyengar practiced, he was as serene as could be. Every asana I had the privilege of witnessing him in seemed to just ‘agree’ with him. He embodied effortless effort to the fullest. Yoga is a journey, and a life long one at that. Witnessing the progression from junior practitioners to the master himself really highlighted this for me.

BKS Iyengar in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.

There are still many asanas where my body just does not want to cooperate, and in these asanas, my struggle continues. Virabhadrasana 1 for example, will probably forever be a challenge but does that mean I should stop demanding that my back leg straighten…of course not. Does it mean I should practice only Virabhadrasana I regardless of how much it hurts until one day it’s ‘available’…of course not, it just doesn’t work that way.

 

Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh helping me with my Virabhadrasana 1 from a workshop in 2013. I’m still working at it ;)

When I go to my mat, I ask myself, what is the intention of today’s practice? Do I wish to chip away at a pose or an action that is challenging for me? Or is today’s practice about consolidating the lessons my body, my mind, my whole self has accumulated thus far? In today’s day and age, we are so goal oriented that I think we forget and often undervalue what ‘consolidation’ has to offer. Consolidation, integration, penetration…these are the principles that in my mind make yoga, Yoga, and not just exercise.

A Soft Day

Saturday and Sunday I had the good fortune of attending the spring concert for Sine Nomine, an a cappella group my son, Ben, sings in.
I was especially moved by a song called "A Soft Day", based on a poem by an Irish poet, Winifred Mary Letts.
I learned that the phrase, 'a soft day' is phrase you often hear in Ireland, often followed by a salutation of gratitude. This kind of day, with a prevailing south to south-west wind brings wet but warm weather to the lush green countryside. The air feels still and calm. The rain is so soft that one does not feel annoyed by the rain, instead, one feels grateful for its calm, gentle, nourishing effect.

The very phrase, ' a soft day'  had me immediately thinking of my yoga practice, which also led me to ponder future lessons I would teach. Iyengar has always taught me that one cannot practice yoga without attention to softness. He stated that there must always be attention to effort and non-effort in equal measure.
In yoga practice, we are asked to penetrate our consciousness from the periphery to the core of our being. At the same time, Iyengar  has taught  us in asana practice to extend from the core of our being to the periphery of our body.
Tapping deeply inside is the soft dimension that we seek every time we practice yoga. Though we are asked to extend out dynamically to the periphery of our body in an asana, we must continually tap from our inner being.

Such a practice brings both the mind and body to a quiet, peaceful state, helping us create a soft day for ourselves.